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Jo March – The Universal Woman

I’ve been having something of a Little Women-fest on this blog for the past week and a half, but before I allow the book to rest, there is one more thing that has been teasing me that I wanted to explore. As I canvassed the internet and read the differing opinions of fans, I was struck by the intensity and implacability of opinion regarding who Jo March should have married and I began to wonder why that was. I am always intrigued when opinion is evenly split. It can mean that both sides have a good case, but neither has an overwhelming one. Does that mean there is a fault in how Louisa May Alcott set up her story? It could be, but I wonder if there is another reason, too.

When we read novels, we find characters we feel inherently in sympathy with, characters we understand or want to be like or especially feel invested in. When that happens, we say that we “identify” with that character and nowhere have I found a character more identified with than Josephine March (though with heady competition from Elizabeth Bennett). I have read it, heard it, and met many people who have told me that they grew up reading the book feeling a special kinship with Jo.

When I first read Little Women, though, I did not identify with her. I was a child and couldn’t see past some of Jo’s more glaring personality traits, like her temper, her impetuosity, her quirky and stubborn moods; traits I did not share. But when I read it again, I could see the common ground. Her childhood dreams of writing, the childhood dream that anything is possible and that money and fame are just waiting for you, her love of life and disinclination for and awkwardness in society, her desire to travel, her reading habits, her tom-boyishness, her warm love of her sisters, her fear of losing her sisters, her discovery that childhood dreams are not always to be, or even what we want as we grow and change – I could understand these things. She’s a dreamer and a bit of a social misfit and a writer. And she’s not considered conventionally attractive (we women can be insecure about our own appearance and I have not heard nearly as many women identifying with overtly beautiful female characters). Jo’s very modern, then, in her personality, but she has been loved in every generation since her creation in 1868.

In Jo March, Louisa May Alcott seems to have created the universal woman; we can all see something of ourselves in her. She’s complex and doesn’t stay the same, which also means we can see ourselves in different stages of her life. Perhaps we are more like she was when she was fifteen, or perhaps more like her when she is twenty-five.

My theory is that because we can project ourselves on Jo, it makes it very personal who Jo marries. It is no longer a question of who we think Jo should marry, but who we would rather marry. If you can’t imagine marrying a stuffy old professor, then you would hate it if Jo married him. But if, instead, you cannot imagine marrying an immature boy, then you would be appalled if Jo were to have accepted Laurie (I am, admittedly, being unfair in my descriptions of both Laurie and Professor Bhaer for dramatic affect). Her journey, her dreams, are the journey and dreams of so many women; it’s difficult not to take her ultimate destination personally.

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2015 in Fiction, Literary Thoughts

 

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Reserve vs. Shyness in Jane Austen

JaneAustenCassandraWatercolourIn the 2005 movie version of Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Darcy proposes and is rejected (in the rain – my theory is that in this movie Elizabeth Bennett rejects him because he is so ungentlemanly as to propose instead of doing something constructive like getting the lady an umbrella or a carriage or even offering his coat), and among other things Elizabeth mentions his interference in the romance between Mr. Bingley and Jane Bennett as a reason for not liking him. She then proceeds to explain why Jane did not appear to Mr. Darcy to be in love with Mr. Bingley: “That’s because she’s shy…my sister hardly shows her true feelings to me.”

Shy? Around Elizabeth? Does she mean that her own sister Jane is shy around her? That would be awkward since the two sisters share a bed in this movie.

Perhaps I’m being a little ticky-tack here in my objections, but what Elizabeth really means here, I assume, is that Jane is reserved. The difference being whether one is silent because one is uncomfortable and afraid or because one is generally disinclined to speak of one’s feelings and deep thoughts.

The two words can often be confused. I had the meaning of both conflated in my mind, but Jane Austen actually possess great clarity on this point in all her books, especially in Persuasion, where she draws a distinction between the two. A shy person might be perfectly open and flamboyant around those they know, though completely quiet in company. It is only the reserved who do not often share their feelings, even with those they know and love.

In Persuasion, Anne Elliott is attempting to draw out Captain Benwick, partially as a kindness for a man who is suffering from the loss of his fiancé and partially so that she does not have to speak to her own ex-fiancé, Captain Wentworth:

He [Captain Benwick] was shy, and disposed to abstraction; but the engaging mildness of her countenance, and gentleness of her manners, soon had their effect…For though shy, he did not seem reserved; it had rather the appearance of feelings glad to burst their usual restraints.

Pers-brock-13Anne Elliott later thinks Mr. Elliott, her cousin, is reserved. “Mr. Elliot was rational, discreet, polished, but he was not open. There was never any burst of feeling, any warmth of indignation or delight, at the evil or good of others.” and later she observes that “he is not a man, I think, to be known intimately soon.”

Jane Austen often seems to use reserve in regard to people who hold something back; they are reserved because they must be or else their secret will be out. This is true with Mr. Elliott, but also true for Jane Fairfax in Emma. Emma frequently complains about Jane Fairfax’s reserve and uses it as an excuse for her own dislike of her. It seems that Jane was always a trifle reserved, as a natural part of her temperment, but when she returns during the time of the book she is more reserved than ever and even Mr. Knightly notes it. “She is reserved; more reserved, I think, that she used to be.

Jane Fairfax is, of course, hiding the fact of her engagement with Frank Churchill and it has made her more guarded than she was before. It is only when the secret is out that she is able to speak openly with Emma.

Reserve, however, does not have to be the result of having a secret. Many people are naturally reserved. This simply means, like Jane Bennett, that they are undemonstrative, even-tempered and less likely to share or discuss their intimate feelings. I think it could be argued that Jane Bennett, in the book, is reserved and it definitely could be argued that she is reserved in the 2005 movie. In fact, in the book, Elizabeth and Charlotte discuss how calm Jane appears, even though she’s in love and Charlotte is concerned that her calmness will not be sufficient encouragement for Mr. Bingley.

Fanny Price, on the other hand, in Mansfield Park, is timid and shy. She rarely has the courage to speak exactly what she thinks. It’s not because she wishes to hold something of herself back, but because she has been taught that she must hold herself back as a person of less importance. It makes her artificially reserved, and partially because she is hiding the fact that she loves Edmund Bertram from him and everyone else. I always felt great sympathy and understanding for Fanny. She is often considered one of Austen’s most mousy heroines, but I always had a strong feeling of protectiveness for her. I think it’s because I can see myself in her, the shyness and timidity, the tendency to make everything seem a bigger deal that it actually is and inclination towards reading and reverie.

Emma_CE_Brock_1909_Vol_I_chapter_IMy sister and I, when we go out, are both quiet. However, the cause is different. She is reserved; I am shy. Shyness has to do with fear or discomfort. It’s like stage-fright and like stage-fright for certain people, it never quite goes away. It’s something you manage. I quite simply blank out around people I don’t know or am not comfortable with and the moment I get into a group larger than three or four, I clam up. My sister, on the other hand, is just not going to express her feelings in certain contexts. There is absolutely no fear involved at all.

Reserved people, I might add, are absolutely the best listeners in the world. Reserve is also not synonymous with rudeness or an inability to interact socially. They might not expose their heart, but they can interact. It is the shy people who have more trouble with interaction.

My theory is that a reserved person feels that excessive sharing of emotions and thoughts is like exposing themselves in public. They are really and truly content to listen and hear. A shy person might like to participate, but doesn’t know how and can feel more awkward in their silence than a reserved person. However, if, like Anne Elliott, someone takes a little time to break through that shyness, shyness can be dispelled, in regards to that particular person, anyway. A reserved person, however, you have to catch in the act of sharing. It will come in a little confidence here, or a statement there. If you ask them a point blank question, they might not tell you; it has to come naturally in conversation.

I always defend shyness and reserve. I know such tendencies must often be overcome or overruled, but when extreme extroversion and frankness is often celebrated – even when frankness is supposedly being censured, it’s still half admired – and I read things about how not to be shy, as if there were something wrong with me, I can get a little defensive. After all, shyness and reserve can have its benefits – such people can be observant, tranquil, more likely to be comfortable with their own company, good listeners. And it’s hard for me to imagine myself not shy or even a little bit reserved. If I were the life of the party, I wouldn’t be me.

Shy and reserved people of the world, unite! Except we wouldn’t have much to say to each other once united…but that’s okay.

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2014 in Literary Thoughts

 

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