Little Women Books and Literature

Niina Pekantytär
little women 1949

Wilhelm Meister´s Apprenticeship

Wilhelm Meister´s Apprenticeship is one of Goethe´s most well-known novels. Louisa received her own copy of the novel from 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.

Laurie is not too different from Tom from 500 days of summer. He is so desperate for love he doesn´t stop and think about what loving another person actually means.

He guilt trips Jo, again and again, and only gets fueled when Jo says no. Laurie sees it all as a game. On my last read, it was interesting to discover that Laurie always behaves better around Amy than he ever did with Meg or Jo, and more than once he offended their privacy.

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 pinning Jo and Fritz which he could have done if he had ever really been in love with Jo. It is also very telling when he tries to vent over his pain about Jo, his mind keeps wandering to write happy and fluffy things about Amy. He is quite shocked and a bit ashamed that his supposed love for Jo has disappeared so fast.
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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.

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 the 2018 film Jo and Fritz are watching a play and debating 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]”.

One of the narrative patterns in Louisa´s work is that her romantic heroes tend to have a high interest in social justice. Friedrich has elements of romantic radicalism that Louisa connects to Europe and at the same, she is fascinated by Friedrich´s domestic side. She is attracted to the idea of a transnational family. Foreign becomes something protective. All the main couples in Little Women are multi-cultural. Amy is American, Laurie American-Italian, Meg is American, John is from England, Jo is American and Friedrich is German.

If the German immigrants represented a generally stable, hardworking, religious addition to America, and the German writers suggested a glorious, independent, imaginative, if the somewhat dangerous element, the combination of the two strains in her work allows her to blend the practical and the romantic — to create characters who embody some of the best of both aspects of what “German” represented to her (Doyle)

“I gained the blessing of my life​”

Louisa inserts positive reminders of the values of Friedrich’s German heritage throughout the March saga. In Little Men, Sunday breakfast does not begin until Rob, “standing next to his father at the head of the table, folded his hands, reverently bent his curly head, and softly repeated a short grace in the devout German fashion, which Mr Bhaer loved and taught his little son to honour”.

Friedrich´s love for Thanksgiving festivities is also explained with his German background “Being a German, he loved these simple domestic festivals, and encouraged them with all his heart, for they made home so pleasant that the boys did not care to go elsewhere for fun”

Alcott Scholar Elaine Showalter points out that Louisa inserted habits of European men to Friedrich´s character that she wished that American men would possess.

When Friedrich´s nephew Emil returns from his sea voyage he;

“kissed all the women and shook hands with all the men except his uncle; him he embraced in the good old German-style”

In the fourth book, Jo´s boys Jo´s and Friedrich´s sons Rob and Ted have an escapade with Dan´s dog (Ted had teased the dog until he attacked, and Rob, trying to protect Ted, had been bitten),

“The good Professor opened his arms and embraced his boys like a true German, not ashamed to express by a gesture or by word the fatherly emotions an American would have compressed into a slap on the shoulder and a brief ‘All right. Mrs Jo sat and enjoyed the prospect like a romantic soul as she was’”.

Friedrich´s nephews are the two least troublesome of Jo´s boys. Jo´s favourite, Franz is a lot like his uncle. Bit nerdy, a bookworm with a mild temper. Emil, the exuberant though restless younger brother, eventually becomes a sailor. Neither the boys nor Friedrich himself never denies his heritage even as he embraces his new country:

“If I had not come to America for the poor lads, I never should have found my Jo. The hard times are very sweet now, and I bless Gott for all I seemed to lose because I gained the blessing of my life”.

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

Finland, MN

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