Louisa May Alcott´s Favorite Novel

Niina Pekantytär

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Wilhelm Meister´s Apprenticeship is one of Goethe´s most well-known novels. Louisa received her own copy of the novel from her friend, philosopher Waldo Emerson and she filled it with scribbles and notes. In the novel, there is a female character called Marina, who likes to dress up as a boy. In Little Women Jo likes to dress up as a boy. There is also an important character called Friedrich. Louisa transformed this infatuation with Goethe by incorporating Goethean themes in her own work. The first thing Jo hears from Friedrich is his singing “Kennst du das land” (Do you know the land) himself, this is the opening line of Mignon´s love song in Wilhelm Meister´s Apprenticeship. When Friedrich comes to court Jo, they sing this song together.

​By having Friedrich sing Mignon´s song to himself, Louisa not only draws a direct connection between Fritz and Goethe but also an emotional connection between herself and Goethe (Armknecht)

Another Goethe´s novel that affected Louisa was “The Sorrows of Young Werther”. “Werther” is a semi-biographical novel, loosely based on Goethe´s life. Same way as Laurie, Werther grows up wealthy but he doesn´t know a lot from life. He falls in love with Charlotta who is marrying another worthy man, Albert. Werther makes Charlotta the only reason for his happiness. He dwells in his misery, enjoys it and is comforted by it. He embraces the part of the romantic hero so much that he eventually drowns himself. What kills Werther is toxic self-centeredness. Goethe meant “Werther” as criticism towards destructive self-absorption but the book was greatly misunderstood and it caused a wave of suicides in Germany, where young readers romanticized Werther´s character.

When Laurie proposes to Jo, the proposal is all about him, not about Jo. Same way as Werther Laurie even threatens to take his own life. Unlike Goethe´s Werther, Laurie gets a chance to redeem himself. Laurie´s redemption arc through Amy is similar to Wilhelm Meister, who after the heartbreak, decided to turn his life upside down and as a result, grows to be a better person.

Once Amy and Laurie are married, Laurie is grateful to Jo for refusing and the two of them go on to have a close friendship even in the later books and Laurie becomes one of the most involved people in Jo’s school, constantly sending and sponsoring kids he thinks Jo would like, and actively shipping Jo and Bhaer which he could have done if he had ever really been in love with Jo. Also, it is very telling when he tries to vent his over his pain about Jo and his mind keeps wandering to write happy and fluffy things about Amy… I just don’t think he is ready then to admit that his feelings for Jo weren’t real, that’s why he justifies his attraction to Amy by claiming it is only because she is Jo’s sister (@szonklin)

Connections to German literature continue in Little Men with references to Brother´s Grimm fairytales. In Jo´s Boys, Wilhelm Meister is present once again, this time in Nat´s character arc. Nat travels to Germany to study music. He moves to Leipzig, which is the city where Goethe lived as a young man. Nat is almost a liminal character who often has his head in the clouds. Nat begins to see life in its great variety but becomes distracted by all the new temptations, and like Wilhelm of the story, he begins to see the emptiness of that world.

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Wilhelm travels with a theatre company and spends most of his time in the group of actors, he also reveals that he originally became enamoured of acting when his mother arranged for some Christmas theatricals. Alcott’s own copy of Wilhelm Meister at the Houghton Library contains extensive textual markings on the pages wherein Wilhelm’s troupe prepares and presents a production of Hamlet. At one point, she even writes a comment in the margin about a bit of the staging referred to: “Was it a trap door?” (Doyle) It seems that the theatricals in Little Women, Little Men and Jo´s boys were inspired by Goethe´s novels and reaffirm Alcott’s connection to her idol. Adaptations often nod to this. For example, in 2018 film Jo and Fritz are watching a play and debate about Shakespeare.

“The cultural level suggested by Friedrich’s profession and more specifically by his knowledge of Goethe also helps to validate the connection between Friedrich and Jo. Louisa had scribbled a quote from her copy of Margaret Fuller´s Woman in the Nineteenth Century regarding Wilhelm Meister’s female connections.

As Meister grows in life & advances in wisdom, he becomes acquainted with women of more & more character, rising from Mariana to Natalia who expresses the Minerva side of things, Mignon, the electrical, inspired lyrical nature . . .

“Passage represents Jo´s transference of affection from Laurie to Friedrich through her own growth and advancement in terms of character. Laurie is the fascination of her youth who will always be regarded with affection, but Friedrich has more character. Laurie is always a “boy” to Jo, but Friedrich is a man. Laurie possesses charm and culture; Friedrich, as we see, is cultured but also steady and well-grounded. He speaks both to her down-to-earth practicality and to her imagination (Doyle)

Louisa was a teenager when “Meister” made Goethe her “chief-idol. In Goethe´s novels, there is a heavy emphasis on spiritual transformation. At the end of Little, Women Jo has not one but several castles in the air.

“The life I wanted then seems selfish, lonely, and cold to me now. I haven’t given up the hope that I may write a good book yet, but I can wait, and I’m sure it will be all the better for such experiences and illustrations as these [family and Plumfield]” It is between “Little Men” and “Jo’s Boys” that Jo writes her own version of Little Women and like her creator, it brings her wealth with the cost of losing her privacy.

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Folklorist and historian. Alcott essayist. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

Finland, MN
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