"Sweetness of Self-Denial and Self-Control"

By Mel Silvestri

One of the most apparent threads in the chapter "Jo Meets Apollyon" is that of revealing and convealing emotions. In this chapter the reader sees the struggles of Jo, Amy and even Mrs. March to curb their emotions, particularly their anger.

Alcott explicitly advocates self-control in this chapter, particularly in regard to Jo. She writes, "Jo had the least self-control, and had hard times trying to curb the fiery spirit . . ." (p. 90). She calls this spirit a few sentences later Jo's "bosom enemy" (p. 90), but hints at Jo's later success at self-control by saying it "took years of patient effort to subdue it" (p. 90). It is only a page later that the reader then sees one of the worst outbreaks of Jo's temper when she finds out Amy has burnt her manuscript.

Amy's tragic fall in the pond seems to be almost a direct result of the fury of Jo. Jo chooses not to warn Amy of the danger because she is still angry and resentful. Alcott seems to be saying that terrible things will happen if one possesses these emotions and traits. When Jo makes the decision to ignore Amy, Alcott writes of the "little demon" (p. 95) that told her to do this, again expressing the danger of letting the emotions be in control.

Jo is not the only one who fails in self-control in this chapter. Amy allows her anger to take over when she throws Jo's manuscript into the fire. This shows one of the biggest symbols Alcott uses in this chapter -- fire. Jo is said to have a "fiery spirit," and Amy's anger is culminated in fire. This symbol brings to mind the idea of hell and the devil, and makes the reader establish a connection between lack of self-control and hell.

After Amy's fall into the pond, Jo begins to feel remorse, and goes to Mother for the wisdom on self-control. Mrs. March is Alcott's shining example of self-control in Little Women. On page 97, Mrs. March says that she is angry every day, but worked for forty years to conceal her emotions. This shows that the feelings are still there, but one must learn to deny the expression of those emotions. Alcott again connects evil with anger when Mrs. March speaks of her emotions taking hold of her, and she calls herself at these times "weak and wicked" (p. 97). At this point, "she smoothed and fastened up Jo's disheveled hair" (p. 97), just as she is smoothing Jo's emotions. Jo has been wild and impulsive, like her disheveled hair, but Mrs. March is leading her toward the path of control.

The final example of self-control and denial is when Mrs. March speaks of Father going to war. She did not want him to go, yet said nothing because they "both had done their duty" (p. 99). Again the denial of emotions is advocated. It is this paragraph in particular where Alcott expresses the Christian ideal of duty and self-control when Mrs. March advises Jo on turning to God to curb her emotions and to give her strength and wisdom. The theme of the importance of self-control is clearly expressed in one sentence of this chapter. Alcott writes that Jo "learned not only the bitterness of remorse and despair, but the sweetness of self-denial and self-control" (p. 99).

Louis May Alcott. Little Women. New York: Dell Publishingl, 1987.

ENLT 214M, 17 September 1997