Lifting The Bell Jar

Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise involved with properly reading Sylvia Plath’s novel,1 The Bell Jar, is discovering how a coming-of-age story set in the summer of 1953 manages to seem contemporary even as it remains so firmly rooted in its own period.2 Undoubtedly, there are timeless aspects to story arcs that move characters from innocence to experience, just as we find that the issues women grapple with in this book (the double standard, for one) are all too familiar. But what makes The Bell Jar so relatable is its captivating protagonist, Esther Greenwood. Esther is witty, sensitive, occasionally angry, often funny—and not at all what a reader expects to discover in a novel renowned for its suicidal heroine.3 But as The Bell Jar often proves, our assumptions don’t always match our expectations.

“There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.”

The Grim and the Glamorous

From the outset, the sharply observant Esther is aware of how appearances might mislead. Plath’s narrator, an older Esther, describes the morbid thoughts she had about executions and cadavers when she spent part of her summer in New York City at age 19. But from the outside, Esther’s life seems to have all the hallmarks of an American success story: Hailing from an impoverished middle-class background, she’s a “scholarship girl” who wins a position as a summer intern at women’s magazine—an incredible opportunity for someone with writing aspirations—where she attends parties and receives gifts. As she explains, anyone would assume she was “having the time of [her] life” when she instead struggles to get “[her]self to react”. Just as Esther wryly undercuts the image of the glamorous party the interns attend by pointing out the male guests were hired for the photo shoot, Plath exposes the invisible illness haunting a smart young woman’s New York adventure. Plath’s handling here is sure: stereotypical portrayals of mental illness4 are eschewed by showing Esther as nearly indistinguishable from the other smiling interns (significantly, they’re dressed alike) in the magazine spread. In doing so, Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.

“So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.”

Psyche Under Pressure

Having stripped away Esther’s smiling veneer, Plath better acquaints the reader with Esther’s background and aspirations. Esther, as magazine editor Jay Cee quips, “wants to be everything”: writer, academic, editor, traveler, lover, wife and mother. And while they are the most socially acceptable choices, Esther feels most ambivalent towards marriage and motherhood. Raised by a widowed working mother, Esther sees the pitfalls of marriage (financial vulnerability, drudgery) more clearly than fellow intern, Betsy, a naïve Midwesterner who wants a traditional marriage. Doreen, in contrast, rebels against deadlines and social mores alike in her quest for adventure in New York. While Esther shares Doreen’s cynicism and humor, she finds Doreen’s seemingly violent sexual encounters repellent and untenable given her limited means. Esther is left with uncertainty, as neither model suits her.

This pattern holds true when Esther examines her options for the future, since her unconventional ambitions don’t mesh well with social expectations for women in the sexist 1950s. Evoking the image of a fig tree with diverging branches, Esther sees her choices as being mutually exclusive. Certainly, the various people attempting to influence her future path imply as much: instructors indicate family must be sacrificed for career, her mother pressures her to learn a marketable skill (dictation) instead of gambling on a writing career, society and family insists her proper role is that of wife, and chauvinist Buddy Willard, the boy she’s dating, insinuates a few kids might cure that urge to write poems.5 Coupled with her ongoing pressure to excel academically,6 Esther appears to experience herself almost as two fragments: the outwardly cheerful achiever and the angry hidden self who chafes against her limitations. Approaching her final year of school, she finds herself filled with crippling indecision and feels that her successes thus far are meaningless outside college.7 While there’s no definitive explanation as to what precipitates depression, Plath could be arguing that society is what ails Esther.

“I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason.”

The Bell Jar Descends and Lifts

It is, however, apparent that an attempted rape rapidly followed by a serious academic disappointment serve as the triggering events for Esther’s mental health crisis. Although Esther’s breakdown is foreshadowed, the change it brings in her startles: she stops bathing, sleeps poorly, and, alarmingly, cannot write. Plath spends the latter half of the novel exploring misconceptions and stigmas surrounding mental health issues as well as critiquing how this illness is treated. Mrs. Greenwood, for example, fails to understand that Esther’s condition is not a choice and believes Esther could get better if she just tried or instead helped out others suffering greater misfortunes. As a layperson, her erroneous views are understandable, whereas Dr. Gordon (her first psychiatrist) disinterest in discussing her issues almost seems negligent, particularly after her prescribed shock therapy is administered incorrectly. Esther, desperate to avoid another traumatic shock session and convinced that her case is impossible, attempts suicide. Still alive and agitated, Esther is placed in a series of asylums. As it becomes clear to Esther once her scholarship sponsor pays for her to move to a better institution, money determines the quality of the patient’s care.

Not long after Esther settles into the new asylum, Esther meets Joan Gilling. Not only do they share the same hometown, church, and acquaintances, but they’ve both dated Buddy (neither are fans) and attempted suicide. While foils Betsy and Doreen represent extremes of sexual values, Joan serves as a near double to Esther since her journey through mental illness darkly mirrors Esther’s own until Joan succeeds in killing herself. While it’s never clear why one lives and the other does not, Joan’s death reminds readers and Esther’s alike that might also have been Esther’s fate. Esther, however, continues improving. And though some remain wary of her or wish to move on as though nothing happened (her mother in particular), Esther accepts that her illness is an important part of her history that she cannot ignore as there’s no guarantee that the bell jar wont’ descend again. It’s with this sobering, but clear-eyed acceptance that Esther moves toward whatever her future holds.

NOTES:


  1. Unlike the first time I picked it up and partially skimmed it during a busy term (I was studying abroad), which really didn’t do it justice. 
  2. And that includes the period’s casual racism and homophobia. Significantly, Esther kicks the only non-white character, a black worker at a mental institute, with little provocation. While her disturbed mindset plays a role in her aggression, she nonetheless appears to have at least some latent prejudices regarding race and sexual orientation. 
  3. While The Bell Jar is Plath’s roman à clef, I won’t be discussing making any comparisons with Plath’s life (something which has been done extensively anyway) as it tends to divert attention from discussing the book. 
  4. Plath makes this point repeatedly, particularly after Esther is institutionalized, that the mentally ill do not appear different from saner individuals. 
  5. So much is wrong with Buddy. Presented to Esther as a desirable marital prospect, he acts like the spiritual heir to the physician doctor from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” when Buddy tells Esther that her stuffed nose is psychosomatic and claims she’s neurotic. More reprehensibly, this “fine and clean” young man who focuses so much on Esther’s minimal sexual experience happens to be a hypocrite since he’s actually had a sexual affair. Although Buddy’s hypocrisy incenses Esther, it’s his paramour who is described as “some slutty waitress”, a detail suggesting Esther’s internalized misogyny. 
  6. Fearing that she will fail a chemistry course, Esther manipulates her image as a good student to escape taking this course and earns accolades for her intellectual maturity, something which she later feels crushing guilt for doing. 
  7. Esther potentially suffers from impostor syndrome: she describes an incident in which Jay Cee questions her focus and career plans as unmasking her. 

Why I’m Reading Women Writers for Women’s History Month and Beyond

For Women’s History Month, I originally planned to list works by women I want to read this month. I intended to point out that the reason I’ve been focusing on reading more women writers,1 as I discussed in my post about Reading Women Month, is that women writers lack representation.2 However, I thought this might be an opportunity to discuss how reading more women actually benefits us, given how women’s representation and issues have come to the forefront over the last year (#metoo and #TimesUp movements, to name two). Reading gives us the chance to self-educate, to learn more about issues that affect us as well as access experiences that aren’t ours. Reading a good book highlights problems women face, such as the wage gap by discussing its roots or revealing the true cost of all that unpaid labor women perform (Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marçal, trans. Saskia Vogel).3 Reading more written by women lets us discover the unsung women who made important contributions to this world, such as the black female mathematicians who helped NASA win the space race (Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly). And being informed about women’s contributions to society as well their issues often empowers action. Which takes me full circle to Women’s History Month. One book I intend to read, Woman in the Nineteenth Century,4 inspired the women who went off do something about suffrage in the United States. While another nonfiction work focuses on a funny woman (Bossypants by Tina Fey) succeeding in a field notoriously hostile to women, others are works of fiction I’ve heard good things about and wanted to read—books that in their own way that will expose to me women’s voices. In addition, my daily reading involves targeted online zines (eg, Everyday Feminism) that keeps me current with the latest issues women face, certainly something I’ll continue to do this month.5 Regardless of the format, I intend to keep reading women throughout the year, because we deserve to be heard and celebrated.

NOTES:


  1. We also should work on reading inclusively, because more belongs on our shelves than works written by white, straight cisgendered individuals. 
  2. Moreover, even women characters lack representation
  3. IFL Science, helmed by Elise Andrews, published Women Scientists You Need to Know on this International Women’s Day. Also in the “hidden history” category is Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Lives of Henrietta Lacks, which discusses the life of Henrietta Slack, the woman whose cancer cells taken without permission led to countless scientific breakthroughs and raised serious questions about medical ethics. 
  4. And yes, it is book that I said held the record for being on my to-be read list the longest. I promised to read it this year, and there’s no time like the present. 
  5. Recently, EF addressed women’s unpaid emotional labor with update on etiquette by Alice Williams: New Etiquette Rules for Women—Without the Sexism This Time

Lingering on the To-Read List: Why We Don’t Read Books We Say We Want to Read

But it begs the question: why do we commit to reading a book only to cast it aside?

Finding new books to read and authors to follow is half the reason why I participate in reading challenges I find on social media.1 But a recent challenge gave me pause when it pointed to some reading I’d been neglecting. As I was scanning through the 2018 Reading Women’s challenge, I discovered this:

23. The book that has been on your TBR list the longest

Immediately, I felt guilty when I thought of the dusty shelf or two that holds the books I plan to get to…eventually. While my to-read list might include books I need to buy or borrow, most that linger on my list are ones I already own. And my longest unread book has been on said shelf for quite some time. Clearly, I’m not the only bookworm with a stack(s) of books-not-yet-read. But it begs the question: why do we commit to reading a book only to cast it aside?

The Reading Runaround

Most of us, I’m sure, will point to an abundance of optimism when it comes to our reading time (so many books, so little time). On occasion, we forget some of the books on our reading queues merely because our lists are long. Naturally, we’re more likely to read books we own versus ones we don’t have.2 But time management, access, and poor memory aren’t the only contributing factors. For every book we truly wanted to read but couldn’t squeeze into our schedule, we also skipped several books in favor of reading something else. Whether it’s flagging attention or lacking commitment to the read, I took an honest look at the other reasons that keeps books on the to–be read list.

Difficult Times: Challenging Books and Environmental Hazards

Among the reasons why a book might become stranded on the to-read shelf is the quality of the time we have to read. Not every reading session occurs in a quiet space: many of us read at moments we snatch while we’re exercising at the gym, sitting in waiting rooms, or commuting, often with televisions blaring in the background. We might, therefore, forgo the books that we perceive as being difficult reads, ones with harrowing accounts, difficult syntax, or complex arguments. While my reading environment affects new book selection, I’m unlikely to abandon a book in progress. It’s not to say environment doesn’t matter: I might occasionally postpone my reading until I’m somewhere quieter. The critical factor here is that I know I won’t choose to begin reading a book that requires deep concentration when that’s not an option. In a busy life, however, that type of book might be placed on hold indefinitely.

Lingering on the To-Read List: Why We Don’t Read Books We Say We Want to Read. Text and photo by Rita E. Gould
Margaret Fuller’s Women in the Nineteenth Century likely holds the title for being on my to-read list the longest. While I’m interested in reading this work as it relates to the women’s rights movement in the United States, parsing Fuller’s sentences can be challenging.

Why It’s Difficult to Stay Committed: Waning Attention and Weak Interest

Picking up a book and reading well past bedtime is a common event for bookworms, but we’re also familiar with the reverse problem: when the book either fails to engage or hold our attention. When I’m not “hooked” into the book,3 I find myself skimming ahead to determine whether it improves. If I’m still plodding through it, I put it aside—the same applies for books that I feel don’t maintain my interest despite an intriguing opening.4 In other cases, some books don’t match our expectations for it. When this is problematic, I find my interest in the book declines and it gets shelved. And to be perfectly truthful, sometimes the more complex books out there require more effort to read than we want to make at that moment. Reading through extended passages of dialect, for example, can become tiresome. Even sufficient time and a quiet space for reading combined can’t make tedious reading fun. And if it’s not fun, both attention and commitment to reading have a way of waning.

What I’ve also observed about books that don’t initially capture my attention is that many belong to the “you ought to read this” category. These recommendations come from various lists (“Best Books”, reading assignments, literary classics, etc.) and suggestions (solicited or otherwise) from fellow readers. The difficulty here is that we seem to add “ought-to” books to our reading lists out of obligation more than excitement. There’s an almost medicinal quality to this approach: it’s good for us to expand our reading interests, but will it be to our taste? While people discover new favorites from stretching outside their preferred genres regularly, they also stumble over books that don’t intrigue them. I personally think we should expand our reading horizons, read diversely, and embrace challenging books. But vetting “ought-to” books—skimming a few pages or reading reviews—could be helpful for making more suitable selections.

Reading and Revising

Having promised myself to mostly read books that I owned this year, the Reading Women’s 2018 challenge is a helpful push toward meeting this goal. And taking an honest look at why some books remain on my own to-read list has inspired me to make time for those books I genuinely want to read, however much of a challenge they present. More importantly, it’s made me reconsider whether every book should remain on my list. If I’ve tried reading something on multiple occasions, it may well be time to pass it along to someone else who will enjoy it. After all, there’s so many books and so little time.

NOTES:


  1. The other half is because I like reading. But you knew that. 
  2. Having reviewed my 2017 reading resolution list halfway through the year, I discovered that I read very few of the books I pledged to read that January ( I read other books instead). Roughly half of the books I skipped were ones I didn’t own. 
  3. The term narrative hook describes the the technique by which the opening (typically, the first line but can be paragraphs or pages) of a story is designed to grab the reader’s attention. A good hook goes a long way towards securing the reader’s interest. 
  4. For the record, this doesn’t mean the book is boring by any means. I’ve returned to books, read them through, and rather enjoyed them, which is why some books linger long so long on my reading list. For the other books, they’re usually just not my cup of tea. 

An Alaskan Legend: Velma Wallis’s Two Old Women

“Let us die trying.”

Before I visited Alaska last year, I decided to read a few books beforehand to complement my travels. Although my trip occurred during summer,[*] reminders of the severe winters were everywhere, suggesting the snow and ice could return at any moment. Alaskan literature, as befitting a place that both borders and resides within the Arctic Circle, reflects the dominance of winter with its tales of frozen landscapes and  survival.[†]

alaska legend wallis plow posts
Traveling from Skagway, Alaska, to Frasier, Canada, the roads are marked with these poles to guide snowplows. They were level to windows on the coach bus. (Photo by Rita E. Gould.)

The Gwich’in and Life in the Boreal Forest

Both winter’s harshness and the human struggle to survive feature heavily in Velma Wallis’s retelling of a Gwich’in Athabaskan Native American legend about two unlikely heroes: the eponymous elderly women. Long before Western people came to Alaska, the People (as the Gwich’in called themselves) lived in the boreal forest. Much like other First Peoples whose survival depended on hunting and gathering berries and edible plants, they moved camp frequently to follow game. Working together harmoniously was important to their existence. Everyone who could contribute needed to do so to ensure their survival. Even so, the land did not always provide sufficient resources.

An Alaskan Legend

In Two Old Women, this very disaster occurs. By late fall, the People cannot find game and face starvation. Their leader makes a shocking decision: when they leave camp, they will go without the two old women, Sa’ and Ch’idzigyaak. Despite their fondness for these women, the brutal logic of survival dictates that they should not waste resources on those who will soon die. The stunned women silently accept their fate, and no one protests their abandonment—not even Chi’dzigyaak’s daughter and grandson. Questioning the ways of the People was not condoned and could lead to ostracism and exile.[‡] Boldly though, both leave useful gifts behind for the women: an ax and babiche (rawhide strips).[§]

The two women decide to “Let us die trying”, to attempt surviving despite the odds. Most of the novel is marked by this weary but increasingly determined spirit to endure despite their age-related infirmities, isolation, and desperate circumstances. Renowned more for their complaining natures than their contributions to the band,[**] the women’s transformation to independent, strong survivors is difficult yet amazing. They realize, as they brush off rusty skills, that they let themselves rely too much on younger people when they could still care for themselves. No less remarkable is their eventual reconciliation with their band and Chi’dziyaak with her family. From weakness to strength, this tale inspires.

An Alaskan Legend: Velma Wallis's Two Old Women. Text and Photo by Rita E. Gould
Sitka spruce (Alaskan Rainforest Sanctuary, Ketchikan, Alaska. Photo by Rita E. Gould).

Sharing an Oral Tradition

In the preface, Wallis explains that Gwich’in legends are shared as gifts. Her mother shared this tale because she (Wallis’s mother) felt proud that she could still perform the heavy chores necessary for caring for herself despite advancing age. And part of this story’s charms lies in the sense that, true to the oral tradition from which it came, it reads as though it were spoken aloud. Wallis’s telling also captures this sense of pride in one’s capability as well as the terrible beauty of the land: snow-laden spruce, the Northern lights, and ice rivers that may or may not be solid underfoot. Her sensitive yet honest approach show the harsh decisions her people sometimes made from desperation but still allows us to see how kindness and genuine affection prevail. Wallis’s gift to us is a window to her culture and an uplifting tale to warm our hearts on a cold winter’s eve.

NOTES:

[*] During my visit to the southeastern coast in July, temperatures ranged from 55°F to 70°F (12.7°C –21.1°C), depending on time of day, elevation, and weather. July weather near my home ranged from 83°F to 94°F (28.3°C – 34.4°C).

[†] This facet remained true even in novels set in more recent times (Eowyn Ivey’s Snow Child [1920s], and Seth Kantner’s Ordinary Wolves [1960s–1970s]). Despite access to technology the Gwi’chin did not have, small mistakes, accidents, and illness led to deaths in the frozen climes.

[‡] These themes are explored more in depth in Wallis’s follow-up novel, Bird Girl and the Man Who Followed the Sun.

[§] Mistreating or losing an ax could have severe consequences for Ch’idzigyaak’s grandson, just as leaving a valuable resource such as babiche could do the same for her daughter.

[**] Wallis makes it clear complaining wasn’t usually tolerated and was viewed as a weakness; the women were humored (presumably) due the People’s fondness for them. However, as Sa’ and Ch’idzigyaak decide, their complaints may have convinced their band and their chief that they were no longer competent enough to endure a harsh winter.

The Reading Review: Books Past and Future

The Reading Review: Books Past and Future Photo and Text by Rita E. Gould
Books: the best way to start a new year. (Photo credit: R. Gould.)

The last week of 2017 finally arrived with a wintry blast that felt particularly chilling given the previously balmy (if unseasonable) temperatures earlier in the month. While the year’s end always seems to be an appropriate moment to pause from the everyday hustle and contemplate where we’ve been and where we hope to go, it seems perhaps more necessary than ever this year. For my part, I look forward to discovering opportunities to do better and be better in the upcoming year. I also plan to continue reading books that challenge my thinking, comfort me on darker days, and outright amuse me.

Over this past year, I’ve read around 50 books, not counting the ones I’ve re-read both for a certain youngster’s bedtime or my own pleasure. I picked my top notable reads because they contained fascinating stories, some imagined and some true, that resonated with me long after I read them. Most (though not all) became blog posts (links to posts are provided). And although 2017 has been a troubling year (with December being a rather difficult month both generally and personally), it still has had its bright moments. Among them includes the remarkable bounty of books I received as gifts. In fact, the most books I’ve received as presents in a year…ever.[*] So many that I made myself promise to start my 2018 reading list with in-house books only,[†] excepting science-related nonfiction.[‡] Well, we’ll see how long that resolution lasts. I hope your new year is a good one filled with great books. Happy reading!

 

2017 Notable Reads (Links to Posts Are Provide Where Applicable)
The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Human Acts by Han Kang (Translated by Deborah Smith)

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto (Translated by Megan Backus)

Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

The Snow Child by Eowen Ivey

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondō

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

2018’s Already Ambitious Reading List
Beloved by Toni Morrison

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek (Translated by Joachim Neugroschel)

The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (Translated by Thomas Christensen and Carol Christensen)[§]

You Won’t Remember This: Travel with Babies (Edited by Sandy Bennett-Haber)

Dreams Before the Start of Time by Anne Charnock

My Drunk Kitchen: A Guide to Eating, Drinking, and Going with Your Gut by Hannah Hart

Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Bossypants by Tina Fey

The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector (Translated by Bejamin Moser)

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath§

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott§

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto (Translated by David Brookshaw)

 

NOTES:

[*] I had to restrain myself from yelling, “I have all the books!”

[†] That and my late fees at the library are getting ridiculous.

[‡] I didn’t get any of those, and I’m currently reading one…which is due to the library very soon!

[§] These books represents ones I intend to re-read.

The Right Time to Read: On Multitasking Readers

There’s moments when I long for more time to read, particularly as seasonal errands consume what used to be my leisure time. Because reading requires a certain amount of concentration, it’s difficult to perform alongside another activity.[*] It’s among the reasons why you don’t see many people mulling over books while paying their bills or partaking of novels at parties.[†] After all, attempting to carry on a conversation while reading a crime thriller only guarantees someone’s going to lose the plot.

While reading might not lend itself readily to multitasking, that’s never stopped anyone from trying.[‡]  With varying degrees of success and risk involved, some folks manage to combine reading with seemingly incompatible tasks. For the curious, here are three types of multitasking readers I’ve identified and how sensible or sketchy their choices are:

The Right Time to Read: On Multi-Tasking Readers. Text by Rita E. Gould
Unlike a Secret Reader, this young person doesn’t have another book hidden in her textbook.
  • Secret Readers. Reading at work or during class may be appropriate when required, but secret readers discreetly (they hope) read when their time should be allocated to something else, like listening to lectures or, well, actually working. It’s obvious why people read during lessons. Either they haven’t done the assigned reading and are catching up, or they’re sneaking a book because they’re bored. As I discovered in sixth grade, even reading ahead in your text book doesn’t go over particularly well, regardless of how well you understand the subject matter. And while I haven’t done much extracurricular reading at work, I understand the temptation to do so when stuck in long, irrelevant meetings or when there’s downtime with nothing to do. Many bosses, however, tend to be unsympathetic in such cases. As for readers whose work and school tasks languish whilst turning pages, this constitutes a read-at-your-own-risk scenario.
The Right Time to Read: On Multi-Tasking Readers. Text by Rita E. Gould
I suppose there’s worse ways to stretch both your legs and your mind.
Rhe Right Time to Read: On Multi-Tasking Readers. Text by Rita E. Gould
If you want to read on the road, make sure you’re a passenger.
  • The Driven Reader. Driving tops my list of “Times Not to Read”, whether the individual is steering a tricycle or a truck. Both reading and driving require roughly the same amount of focus, and I don’t think I need to explain the dangers of doing the latter poorly. Yet, I’ve seen people perch books (or their phones)[**] on the wheel whilst driving. Bizarrely, I once witnessed a woman put on her hazard lights, stop her car in the center lane of a busy highway, [††] and review a map with her companion. That she repeated this behavior every few miles…I digress. Friends, please don’t do this. It’s risky reading at its worst.

Did I miss any other great (or horrid) examples of multi-tasking readers? Let me know below!

NOTES:

[*] The primary reasons not to read involve timing (previously engaged in another activity) or the wrong environment (too loud, too dark, etc.)

[†] Some exceptions apply: book readings/signings, book groups, poetry readings, and the like.

[‡] Whether or not the attempt should have been made is entirely different story.
[§] My last gym was very noisy, with multiple televisions tuned to competing news stations. During last year’s election, I wasn’t sure whether the exercise or the news increased my heart rate.

[**] Texting adds writing to reading-while-driving, which increases the danger as far as I’m concerned.

[††] The road in question is the Garden State Parkway. At the time, the speed limit was around 55 mph (roughly 88 kph).

A Reader’s Road Trip to Orchard House

Touring Orchard House, however, was at once familiar and filled with contrasts. Stepping into the parlor felt like walking into the opening pages of Little Women, where the teenaged March girls prepare for a modest Christmas during the Civil War.

houghton_fhm_ms_am_2242_-_louisa_may_alcott
(Photo credit: Unknown. Printed in a collection published privately, 1915. Source: Frederick Hill Meserve’s Historical Portraits [MS Am 2242], Houghton Library, Harvard University, via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain in the U.S.)

A recent trip I took to Boston to visit with family and friends included a side trip to nearby Concord, Massachusetts. Concord is a charming rural town known widely for its role in the Revolutionary War.[*] It also possesses the quirky distinction of being the birthplace of the Concord grape. Specifically to my reading interests, though, several famous authors made their homes in Concord, among them Louisa May Alcott. Long before I learned of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, or Nathaniel Hawthorne (all Concord residents), I read Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women and loved it. She was one of the first authors whose works I sought out and binge read everything I could then find: the remaining novels about the March women (Little Men and Jo’s Boys), followed by Eight Cousins and its sequel Rose in Bloom. Discovering her connection to Concord guaranteed my visit there.

A Place to (Finally) Call Home

Orchard House wasn’t Alcott’s childhood home—or even the family’s first home in Concord—but it is, as I noted in a different post, the one she employed as the setting for Little Women and the place where she lived the longest. Unlike the genteelly poor Marches, the Alcotts suffered dire poverty. Although many of her father Bronson Alcott’s ideas to reform children’s education are common now, they were revolutionary then and soon left him unemployed, as did favoring his principles and dreams above self-interest. Abigail May Alcott, her mother and an early social worker, managed their household with very little—inspiring  Louisa to become the family breadwinner. The publication of Little Women, the book Louisa wrote reluctantly at her publisher’s suggestion, would achieve this goal.

Orchard House in Concord, MA
Orchard House served as the setting for Little Women but Alcotts only lived here as an adult. (Photograph by Rita E. Gould.)

Touring Orchard House, however, was at once familiar[†] and filled with contrasts. Stepping into the parlor felt like walking into the opening pages of Little Women, where the teenaged March girls prepare for a modest Christmas during the Civil War. Yet Lizzie Alcott (model for Beth March) never lived at Orchard House, and older sister Anna (Meg March) wed soon after the house was purchased; she would not truly reside there until after she became a widow and moved in with her two sons. Louisa’s youngest sister, May (Amy March), however, literally left her mark on Orchard House. May’s parents permitted her to draw directly on the walls of her bedroom and throughout the house.[‡] In Louisa’s room, her writing desk is exactly as described in the novel. Unlike her fictional counterpart, though, she served as a nurse in the Civil War until illness forced her to return home with her health irreparably damaged. Also unlike Jo, she preferred literary spinsterhood to matrimonial dependence.

Social Circles and Movements

Replica of Thoreau's cottage and statue of Thoreau near Walden Pond.
Someone thought Thoreau’s statue at Walden Pond needed a snack and fittingly chose an apple. (Photo by Rita E. Gould.)

In addition to Louisa’s own personal history and writing career, a visit to Orchard House illuminates the interconnected literary and social circle of the Transcendentalists. Emerson was both friend and financial supporter of the family. Thoreau, who tutored the Alcott children during a previous stint in Concord, remained an admired friend who helped Bronson make Orchard House habitable. Hawthorne, neither a Transcendentalist or friendly with the Alcott family (unlike his son, Julian), lived next door at The Wayside, a former Alcott homestead. Of interest, Hawthorne and Abigail May Alcott shared something in common besides real estate: both were descended from different judges who preside over the Salem witch trials.[§] Samuel Sewall, the Alcott ancestor whose portrait is displayed at Orchard House, was the repenting judge whose other mitigating claim to fame was being an early proponent for abolishing slavery, a stance his Alcott descendants shared. Abigail and Bronson, also firm abolitionists, hosted at least one fugitive slave during their time at The Wayside. The Alcotts were deeply involved with the significant social movements of their time, something which the guide was careful to note was part of the value in preserving this home.[**]

Pondering

After leaving Orchard House, I headed to Walden Pond. One could imagine a young Louisa and other students traipsing after Thoreau there, listening as he pointed to the small and often missed marvels of nature. Thinking on that younger Louisa, you could easily argue that Little Women seems to be a happy reimagination of her deeply impoverished youth, with hunger replaced with longing for “nice things” and constant uprooting for permanency. Yet, Alcott’s novel continues to inspire because of its inclusion of an ambitious, unconventional young women and its unpatronizing view of women’s lives. Having caught a glimpse of “the real Jo”, it seems like a fitting legacy.

NOTES:

[*] Minute Man National Park preserves several sites associated with the Battle of Concord.

[†] Orchard House contains around 80% of the Alcott’s original furnishings, undoubtedly aiding the sense of familiarity.

[‡] May left home in 1870 to study art in Paris and embarked on what appeared to be a very successful artistic career cut short by her early death.

[§] Nathaniel Hawthorne likely added the “w” in his surname to distance himself from the association with his infamous ancestor, William Hathorne.

[**] The credit for preserving Orchard House and The Wayside belongs to another woman writer, as it happens. Harriett Lothrop, better known by her pen name Margaret Sidney to fans of The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, saw the value of saving these old homes. And as it happens, I read her novel, too, as a child.