By Trix Wilkins
First things first – thank you so much to everyone who took the time to thoughtfully ask questions and give comments on The Courtship of Jo March giveaway 🙂 It has been incredibly interesting to wrestle with your questions. When I started writing answers they got rather long, and so I will be writing multiple posts – I’ll try to get them out quickly and not keep you waiting. Hopefully all out this week!
I’ll start with the question by the winner – congratulations to NovElla and Banannabelle!
I might start this reply by answering the question in reverse for one moment – why do many fans like Amy? Is it because we read the likable May Alcott into the character of Amy? Do we sympathize with her and like her because we have something in common? Do we like the fact that she is beautiful and charming?
On the flip side, I think both the reasons you mentioned play into the dislike of Amy, depending on the reader. My guess is that fans who dislike Amy do so for one or more of the following reasons:
The mirror effect: We see in her unlovable aspects we dislike in ourselves
Amy was vain as a child, burned Jo’s book (see below), complained about being sent away to be kept safe from scarlet fever, wanted to scrimp on her mother’s Christmas gift so she could get something for herself (and only changed her mind after comparing her gift to her sisters’), wanted to earn the favour of wealthy friends with a party she couldn’t afford, thought it was acceptable to treat people kindly or coldly based on their wealth or status, thought it was reasonable and respectable to marry for money (for a time), and tried to arouse jealousy and affection in Laurie in Europe even though, as she later lets on, she suspected that Jo loved him, “Why, I was sure she loved you!” (Then why play the coquette to gain his attention and bask in the fact that he filled your dance card with his name?!).
Can any of us honestly say that we have not done anything similar – never been selfish, whiny, disregarding of others? That doesn’t mean we like being reminded of it though…
She burned Jo’s book
This warrants a section of its own because out of all the things readers are annoyed about, this is the one that burns in the heart and mind (pun intended). To think of someone destroying one’s precious life work due to circumstances that were not in their control (Laurie was the one who didn’t invite Amy to the theatre, not Jo), a sister’s life work no less, over not being able to go to the theatre… If Amy had been a model character the rest of the book I suspect there would still be virulent dislike based on this one incident, particularly from book lovers and aspiring authors.
Value clashes: Perseverance vs Pragmatism
Amy gave up pursuing a career in art after a few years of study and observation abroad, deciding that she didn’t have genius. Well of course she didn’t have it, nobody has genius after two to three years (even five years)! The masters of anything take at least ten, if not multiple decades, to perfect their craft.
How would she have known that she didn’t have genius if she didn’t try for a long, sustained and disciplined period of time? And even if she wasn’t a Michelangelo in the end, so what? If only the Michelangelos of the world produced art, what a dull and lifeless place the world would be!
Then Laurie gives up music, the thing he loves most. Why? We’re told it’s because he follows Amy’s example. He tries his hand at music for a short while – can’t be longer than a year, maybe two – then thinks to himself, she’s right, talent isn’t genius, and since I’m not a genius, it’s not worth trying.
So part of the dislike is that not only did Amy give up too easily, she took someone else down with her – a man who we have been told throughout has not only a passion for music but an unusually brilliant talent for it.
As to whether this sort of perseverance is a modern value, I don’t think it’s exclusive to the modern age. I think that in any age, we respect people who keep trying, keep persevering, who push through disappointment and disillusionment and do not use comparisons to others as an excuse to stop trying. We respect people who keep their eyes and efforts on the thing that’s important to them, that’s stamped on their minds, engraved in their being. For Laurie this was music – and it is hard to move past the part that Amy plays in steering him away from it.
Laurie is said to admire the fact that Amy is able to switch to a new castle in the air when she feels the cherished one out of reach, and this value of pragmatism is as old as it is new. Sometimes it’s good to make a change when something isn’t working, and it isn’t worth sticking at something only for the sake of sticking at it – there’s got to be more in perseverance than mere stubbornness for it to be worthy of esteem.
Still, for readers who tend to admire perseverance over pragmatism, Amy evokes ire.
Support for the underdog: We want triumph against the odds
Amy was beautiful and charming in the sort of way men found alluring. Louisa writes of several instances in which some young man or other is pining for Amy or vying for her attention. She has a winsomeness that arouses jealousy because we just see that sort of person favored in real life all the time. She’s the sort of woman men want to win and women want to be (for who doesn’t want to be thought beautiful and admired?).
What is galling is when such a character shows up, the one guy in the story who claimed he’s not into “fuss and feathers” is in the end drawn by it. Part of the reason readers like the Jo-Laurie combination is the fact that Jo wasn’t beautiful or charming. Her beauty was entirely internal (except for her hair).
What usually happens when a woman like Jo and a woman like Amy stand side by side, the latter takes the cake and we can live with that. But in the world of fiction where we long to see something we don’t see every day, when “the usual” happens it bites. It really, really bites. (So yes, Amy’s being married off to Laurie definitely plays a part in the dislike!)
Narrative conventions: We need an antagonist to dislike
I don’t believe Louisa aimed to portray her sister May true-to-life in Amy (May Alcott was quite dissimilar to Amy, except perhaps in looks and charm). I suspect Amy as a character is more of a literary device than an attempt by Louisa to bring her sister to the fictional page. Little Women needed an antagonist, and Amy certainly fits this role well!
Someone needs to create waves, stir up trouble, and get into conflict with protagonist Jo. They need to be significant to the protagonist in some way. Think of stories such as those of the Marvel series or the Star Wars franchise – the antagonist is compelling precisely because of such a close personal connection. (“I am your father,” etc.)
Beth was Jo’s pet, and so could not be a believable “nemesis.” Meg was the equivalent of gentle Anna Alcott, and played the role of the eldest attempting to gently guide her sisters through life with wisdom. May was the sister most similar to Louisa in talent and ambition – thus Amy was the natural antagonist to Jo. And Little Women being “a book for girls,” somewhere along the way there had to be a boy involved in the tussle.
It isn’t easy to turn one’s sister into the “villain,” and Louisa had to do quite a bit of gymnastics with real history (and character) to have Amy move the story along the way that she did. Amy is extremely instrumental to the sense of conflict and tension in the novel. I only realized in recent years how imperative it was to the story that Amy be characterized as she was.
Out of sympathy for May Alcott, I wrote Amy into The Courtship of Jo March intending for her to be closer in character and temperament to her real-life counterpart, then realized: now who’s going to be the antagonist in this story? There had to be someone – and Aunt March could only do so much (similarly to Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, she could only cause so much trouble).
I better appreciated the challenge Louisa had in writing Amy as she was, as I attempted to write of Kate Vaughn. As I said, someone has to stir up trouble for Jo…