Jo Marries Goethe

Niina Pekantytär

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In Little Women Louisa hints that Friedrich´s father might have abandoned his family. This explains why Friedrich loves his sons and his nephews and wants to be an exceptionally good father. He kissed his sleeping sons head remembering a father who left and never returned.

Goethe had a complicated relationship with his father. He didn´t approve of his son's artistic endeavours, and this is a topic Goethe often handles in his novels. Young men often act out against the bourgeois lives of their parents. It is part of their rebellion.

Marriage based on love

Both Goethe and Louisa lived during a time period when marriages were based on economic factors and not matters of the heart. Both writers encourage their readers to reject the economical factors and only to marry for love. This was a very radical idea of the time.

One of the books that Louisa found from her father´s library was Goethe´s Wilhelm Meister´s apprenticeship. Like Little Women, Wilhelm Meister is a Bildung´s roman. It was the world´s first coming of age novel. Little Women and perhaps its most famous storyline, Jo rejecting Laurie for Friedrich, can be traced to Wilhelm Meister. Wilhelm starts out as a naive, and idealistic young man who has a passionate affair with the actress Marianne. Wilhelm loves theatre and he struggles to balance his passion for the arts and the expectations his family has for him taking on the family business. He runs out with the theatre company only to see how the theatre world slowly consumes his soul with its ruthlessness. Then he meets Natalia, a woman very different to Marianne who helps him to gain back his self-worth.

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For her 18th birthday, Emerson gave Louisa a copy of Goethe´s Wilhelm Meister´s apprenticeship. This copy now in Houghton Library at Harvard, is well-worn and marked with Alcott´s marginal comments, showing the care and attention with which she read Goethe´s novel” (Armknecht). In Little Women when Jo is staying in New York, Friedrich gives her a copy of Shakespeare´s novels as a Christmas gift and encourages her to study character. Louisa praised Emerson calling him “her Goethe”. Goethe was a literal inspiration for her and Emerson offered support and encouraged her to read and study character. Friedrich embodies them both and it makes sense that Louisa would give Jo a partner who not only supports Jo´s creative journey but is an essential part of it.

Louisa called both Goethe and Waldo Emerson as “god of my idolatry” Goethe became a way for Louisa and Emerson to deepen their friendship through intellectual conversation, enriching both of their lives”.

Many of the annotations in Louisa´s copy of Wilhelm Meister are associated with romance. For example, she underlined the heading of chapter nine of volume one, marking the passage where Wilhelm feels as though he is infused with “new life” as he falls deeply in love with his first love Mariane. Furthermore in volume three, chapter four, Louisa annotated a scene where Wilhelm and Natalia talk in the garden about love. She penned in the word “beautiful” after their private conversation.

This sounds very similar to what happens between Amy and Laurie when they are in the garden at Vevey and Jo and Friedrich under the umbrella.

Quote from Christine Doyle´s Mignon´s song.

“The cultural level suggested by Friedrich´s profession and more specifically by his knowledge of Goethe also helps to validate the connection between him and Jo. Alcott had penned a quote from Margaret Fuller´s Woman in the 19th Century regarding Wilhelm Meister´s female's connections, the note in Alcott´s handwriting on the back of flyleaf reads, “M Fuller says, As Meister grows in life and advances in wisdom, he becomes acquainted with women of more character moving from Mariana to Natalia, who expresses the Minerva side of things, Mignong the electrical lyrical in nature. In this light, it is possible to read Jo March´s transference of affection from Laurie to Friedrich as a form of “rising” due to her own growth and advancement in terms of 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 down-to-earth imagination. When he and Jo together reprise Mignon´s song after Friedrich´s surprise arrival at the March home later in the novel, it is a clear statement of the fitness of their union, a union of America with some of the best European culture, and for Friedrich, fulfilment of the American dream, he is much more than a “funny match” for Jo”.

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

Finland, MN
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