The real tragedy of Beth March | Daily News

The real tragedy of Beth March

Illustration from Little Women, 1869.
Illustration from Little Women, 1869.

In the first chapter of Little Women, when Louisa May Alcott is doling out archetypes to the siblings, Beth asks, “If Jo is a tomboy and Amy a goose, what am I, please?”

“You’re a dear,” Meg answers, “and nothing else.”

People who have studied anything about Little Women know that the novel is based, roughly, on Louisa’s family, a clan of thinkers, artists, and transcendentalists who rubbed elbows with some of the premier minds of their time: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller.

Beth is no exception; she is based on Alcott’s second-youngest sister, Lizzie. Lizzie, like Beth, was stricken with scarlet fever. (During this initial illness, her family—vegans and believers in alternative medicine—did not send for a doctor.) Like Beth, she recovered from the illness but, her heart weakened, never regained full health. Like Beth, she died tragically young, though not quite as young as her literary counterpart.

* Dignified death

But while Beth bore her suffering gladly, with unconscionable cheer and resolution, Lizzie was enraged at the fact of her own mortality. “In Little Women,” writes Alcott biographer Susan Cheever, “Beth has a quiet, dignified death, a fictional death. Although young Lizzie Alcott was a graceful, quiet woman, she was not so lucky.

A twenty-two-year-old whose disease had wasted her body so that she looked like a middle-aged woman, she lashed out at her family and her fate with an anger that she had never before expressed.” Louisa and the others caring for Lizzie plied her with morphine, ether, and opium, though eventually the drugs lost any effect they once had on her. “[The] pain,” writes Cheever in American Bloomsbury, “seemed to drive her mad … even on large doses of opium, Lizzie attacked her sisters and asked to be left in peace.”

By the end, the fight had gone out of her body. The final words her family could understand were, “Well now, mother, I go, I go. How beautiful everything is tonight,” though she “kept up a little inaudible monologue” for a short while after that. When she passed, both Louisa and Abba, their mother, reported seeing a “light mist rise from the body and float up and vanish in the air.”

* Positively lousy

Lizzie was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, on a patch of land she’d chosen before her death. Thoreau and Emerson served as pallbearers. “Emerson told the officiating minister, who did not know the family well, that Lizzie was a good, unselfish, patient child, who made friends even in death,” John Matteson wrote in Eden’s Outcasts. “Everyone seemed to forget that they were not burying a child but a woman of twenty-two.”

Little Women is positively lousy with premonitions of Beth’s death. Beth is, in turn, forced to stare down her beloved dead canary, Pip—“who lay dead in the cage with his little claws pathetically extended, as if imploring the food for want of which he had died”—and bury him in a domino box, and to cradle a baby dead from the same scarlet fever that would, years later, kill her.

Little cruelties and ironies abound throughout the entire book—everything from strawberries in winter to castles in the sky to animal metaphors seem like odd jokes or else Alcott’s subconscious planting her grief on every page. But the grief is, otherwise, a strange and flattening thing; beneath its weight, Beth becomes faultless, angelic, positively uncomplicated. Her ambitions are not squashed by her infirmity, because she has none. Her only imperfection—shyness—seems like a humble-brag, like a job candidate telling an interviewer that her primary flaw is “working too hard.”

* Discerning siblings

There is also the extended sequence in which we learn that Beth cares for a group of invalid dolls abandoned by her more discerning siblings. She cares for them the way she will be cared for one day.

Within minutes of Lizzie’s birth, Bronson Alcott, her father, began writing what would eventually be a five-hundred-page unpublished manuscript: Psyche, or the Breath of Childhood. (Bronson gave the manuscript to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson for feedback; Emerson reluctantly informed him that the majority of the project was unpublishable, and Bronson eventually abandoned it.) The book was a combination of Bronson’s meditations on the growth of the spirit and his observations about childhood development. As Lizzie was an infant, she became the focus of the project, so much so the family called her “Psyche” for a time.

In its pages, Bronson Alcott sought to understand the mysterious alchemy occurring in his youngest daughter’s mind. “I took [her] in my arms today that I might perchance tempt forth the indwelling vision and fix it for a moment on my own face,” he wrote. “She fixed her eye on me with a deep intensity of vision. Yet a moment of endeavor, and the free will was disenthralled from the instinctive, and the vision was given her of living, individual being.

Then came the smile—the sense—the upfilling joy—from the Spirit’s life, from the fount whence cometh all love, all bliss, all peace, and repose that bloweth into the ample heart of man.” He was also quite relieved at Lizzie’s relative agreeableness, a trait that had apparently not manifested in his other children.

She “cries but seldom; often smiles,” he wrote, and “the prevailing temper of her spirit seems that of repose—deep, still, sustained peace. She is quiet, self-satisfied, self-subsistent. On the ocean of the Infinite doth her spirit calmly lie as a simple wavelet, unagitated by distant storms.”

Bronson did not write this way about his other children. He recorded Anna calling for him after a terrifying and vivid dream; he noted his desire to take Louisa into the country so that he might access the “true history of [her spirit] … [her] range of thought, [her] vocabulary, [her] prevailing tendencies, whether good or evil.”

May—the daughter after whom Amy would be modeled in Little Women—had yet to be born when Psyche was written.

- Paris Review


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