VITAL WORKS RECONSIDERED #18
We Reap What We Sow

May 1995By Mitchell Kalpakgian

Mitchell Kalpakgian is Professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa.

'Little Women' by Louisa May Alcott

One of the great works in the canon of children's literature whose timeless truths address a multitude of contemporary problems regarding the family is Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, a book that is rarely taught in college-level literature courses. While Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and Mary Wollstonecraft's The Vindication of the Rights of Women are often standard texts in women's studies courses, Alcott's classic is constantly overlooked, either deliberately or naïvely. Having taught this text in a Classics of Children's Literature course for many years, I am always impressed by the depth of response evoked by Alcott's novel in the hearts and souls of students who hunger for truth and feel overwhelmed by radical-feminist indoctrination.

Why is Little Women a timely book for our age, and why is it often consciously ignored by feminists and virtually never included in women's studies courses? The ending of Little Women offers one of the most moving, eloquent statements on behalf of the dignity and glory of motherhood in all of literature. The extended family of Mr. and Mrs. March — their grown daughters and sons-in-law, and their grandchildren — are gathered together in honor of Mrs. March's 60th birthday. The birthday is combined with the holiday of apple picking on a beautiful October day. The scene represents not only the harvest of the season in the fruitfulness of the orchard — "every tree stood ready to send down its shower of red or yellow apples at the first shake" — but also the harvest of love in the fruitfulness of the family. Mrs. March as mother and grandmother is surrounded by all the persons whose lives she has touched — the Marches, Laurences, Brookes, and Bhaers — and is showered with an abundance of birthday gifts from her grandchildren that melt her heart. Her cup overflowing, Mrs. March is touched again when all her grandsons lift their voices in chorus to sing a song especially written by Jo for her mother's birthday. Mrs. March experiences the fullness of joy that produces tears of happiness that overflow from the bounty of love. Moved again by Jo's words, "we never can thank you enough for the patient sowing and reaping you have done," Mrs. March turns to her daughters and offers her choicest wisdom: "Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this."

The truth that children and grandchildren are the abundance and "harvest" of life and that there is no "greater happiness than this," the fruits of love from marriage multiplying and producing more seeds of love, is denied and suppressed on many levels of modern culture. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that raising a child from birth to age 18 in an urban Midwestern center costs $92,228. The natural generosity of love is pervasively counteracted by grim warnings about the cost of children. Instead of the biblical understanding of children as the wealth and well-being of families, modern parents are intimidated by the threat of poverty and penalized for being generous with love and life. As Connie Marshner explains in Can Motherhood Survive? (Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1990), the tax exemption for dependent children has not corresponded with inflation or other cost-of-living expenses. Two-income families who utilize childcare receive deductible expenses and tax credits while mothers who raise their children at home with one family income are not eligible for this credit. Even tax credits for two-income families using daycare are limited to no more than two children. The economic message is clear: Children impoverish; they do not enrich. Children do not yield a harvest of love; they exhaust the financial resources of parents. Small families offer more benefits than large ones.


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