Classics Club Challenge #4: Jo’s Boys

Jo's BoysJo’s Boys
by Louisa May Alcott
as a sequel to Little Women, Good Wives and Little Men
first published in 1886

Sich zu lieben, heißt, dass man manchmal auch streng mit sich selbst sein muss…
(No, it’s not a quote.)

Jo’s “boys” and “girls” are grown up, and we follow them as they manage to navigate in the big, somewhat scary world of being “adults”. Curious about how Nat, Demi, Daisy, Josie, Bess, Tommy Bangs, Franz, Emil, Rob, Teddy, Dan, Nan, Stuffy and Dolly turned out? Then look no further. Although it is really a lot of kids, Louisa May Alcott manages to keep tabs on everyone. Let’s see – Nat is studying music in Germany, Demi tries his hand at journalism, Daisy is faithfully waiting for Nat, Josie and Bess are invested in their artistic careers/hobbies/lives, Tommy still pines after Nan and goes even to the detested med school with her, Nan meanwhile is flourishing in her studies, Franz is a merchant in Hamburg, Emil a sailor, Rob still the “little professor”. Teddy is restless and full of mischief, Dan sets out to the wide world, Stuffy and Dolly are studying law, of all things. Oh, and there is a love bug in the air, too.
Now, the older generation is quite a bore (as it has been since Little Men) because they are the responsible, wise grown-ups doling out wisdom to the kids whenever they need it. Despite the sarcasm you hear in that previous sentence, I didn’t mind this as much. It’s just that I’m terribly fond of the Marches (who isn’t?) and wish that they had been portrayed more realistically – with problems and struggles of their own.

The terrific thing about Jo’s Boys is that it manages to reach across the continent, culture, language and time – its words, written more than a hundred years ago, find their way to this Korean girl in the twenty-first century as she struggles to juggle her studies, hobbies and taking care of herself. It addresses issues that are still relevant today – Nat’s careless spending of other people’s money, Dan’s temper, Teddy’s restless spirit, feminism (and lots of that, too!), Stuffy’s laziness, Dolly’s fastidious obsession with the surface. Almost unrealistic in its simplicity (do good, and you’ll end up well; do bad and you’ll end up bad), Jo’s Boys gave me the push to resolve to be a better person. Because trying to be a better version of yourself is a timeless challenge. It doesn’t matter that instead of theater, opera and afternoon teas, my distractions are my smartphone, the internet and my fear of being alone. This book, coupled with Ashley’s video (seriously, where would I be without her insightful words?), has made me realize where the focus of my concentration should be: with my studies. I should be trying to absorb as much as I can from the many opportunities that my university offers. My time and energy shouldn’t be wasted trying to read as many “quick” books as possible and staying up till 3 AM playing games on my phone.
If you strip all of this away, an unpleasant truth emerges. I’ve been staying up as late as possible to exhaust myself so I’ll fall asleep right away, so that I won’t have to spend the few minutes in the dark because I’m afraid to be left alone with my thoughts without anything to distract me from them. My fear to be myself. Although “being oneself” is such an abstract concept I think you know when you are faking your personality. I was taking the easy way out. Telling myself, oh, wouldn’t it be nice to finally read the classics you wanted? To write a review about that book that is still haunting my thoughts? To go over my exam to see what I did wrong? To prepare for the upcoming semester? To write that twenty-page paper? I thought about all the things I could do to improve myself, to feel better about myself. Thinking isn’t doing. And at the end of the day, I “consoled” myself by saying that I hadn’t given a 100%, so I could have been better. That I still had that potential. Fuck the potential. You could have the potential to bring world peace about, but if you don’t do anything with that potential, it’s more wasted than a rotten apple. Stop thinking about all the glorifying potential you might or might not have. Just do it. That’s what I needed to hear (from myself, as there is no Mother Bhaer or Father Bhaer in my vicinity), so that’s what I eventually did. It gave me courage to see all the young people from Jo’s Boys fall into the pits of temptation, and to see them crawl out of them again.

Lastly, feminism. There are different sorts of girls represented in this novel. Daisy has her heart set on being with Nat and becoming an excellent house wife. Nan is determined to become a doctor and help people, and doesn’t really want to have to take care of a family, too. Josie and Bess are absorbed in acting and sculpting, respectively, but they assume they will marry sometime. Of course, there are also Mary and Dora who embody the “virtues” that girls at that time were praised for having – you know, being delicate and humble and looking up to the males nearest to them. But there is that scene in which Bess quietly disses Dolly when he tries to “teach” her and Josie how “young ladies in good society” ought to behave. And there’s another in which young girls realize that marriage isn’t everything and that they could “become noble, useful, and independent women, and earn for themselves some sweet title the grateful lips of the poor, better than any a queen could bestow.” (p. 258, end of Chapter 17)

There’s one criticism linked to the last paragraph, and that’s the 18th century’s equivalent of slut-shaming. Mrs Jo differentiates between “frivolous girls” and girls who love studies and wish to be treated like reasonable human beings, not “dolls to be flirted with”. There are other instances in which she vilifies other women for being greedy creatures and temptresses. Well, that takes the humanity right out of them, doesn’t it? So it’s okay not to treat those other women as reasonable human beings? If a person succumbs to a temptation, only the person who poses the temptation is at fault? That’s some wacky logic there, Mrs Jo.

The book actually ends on a slightly fed-up tone of the narrator, who half-jokingly says that “[i]t is a strong temptation to the weary historian to close the present tale with an earthquake which should engulf Plumfield and its environs so deeply in the bowels of the earth that no youthful Schliemann could ever find a vestige of it.” But to spare the gentle readers’ feelings, the historian flippantly ticks off what has become of all the characters. The last line says it all, really: “And now, having endeavoured to suit everyone by many weddings, few deaths, and as much prosperity as the eternal fitness of things will permit, let the music stop, the lights die out, and the curtain fall for ever on the March family.” Well, someone seems to have had it enough.

P.S.: The chapter about the three plays – the middle play was dedicated to Marmee, it seems.

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