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MonkeyNotes-Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
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Chapter 4: Burdens

Summary

One of the girls’ favorite books is Pilgrim’s Progress, a story which was introduced to them by their father. Through the years they have sometimes used the house as a setting for Pilgrim’s journey and have acted out the story, beginning in the basement and ending in the upstairs. At the top of second floor staircase, they would release their "burdens" and let them go tumbling down the steps. Nor are the analogies to real life and modern burdens lost on them. In this chapter the particular burden that each girl has to bear is discussed.

The morning after the New Year’s Eve party begins with all the girls feeling cross. Even Mrs. March seems a little frustrated as she rushes to complete an important letter. Jo’s urging of everyone to "shoulder their burdens" and come home in better moods sets the scene for the author to provide a little insight into the girls’ motivations. Meg’s burden is that she remembers when the family was financially well off, and she misses having pretty things and nice clothes. She works as a governess for a number of children who, she feels, do not appreciate her or make it worth bothering to look pretty. However, at the King’s home, she daily sees all the things that she is having to do without, and, we are told, it sometimes makes her a little bitter.

Jo’s burden is the childless Aunt March with whom she spends her days. The elderly woman had offered to adopt one of the girls when trouble came to the family, and was for some time offended at being turned down. However, Jo suited her, and was thus taken on as a companion. One of the attractions to Aunt March’s house is the large library that had belonged to Uncle March. Aunt March, however, usually wants Jo to read books of historical and political essays that the teenage girl finds impossibly dull.

Beth’s burden is one of such extreme shyness that she is unable to attend school. She amuses herself with domestic chores, home-study and caring for her collection of dolls. She seems to be very fragile and utterly selfless, but she does cry in private over her longing for music lessons. She plays the ancient tuneless instrument they have, but loves music and hopes that some day she will have a fine piano.

Amy’s burden is primarily one of vanity, somewhat like Meg, but perhaps a little more self-centered. She thinks her nose is too flat, and has to wear her cousin’s hand-me-down clothes which-to her artistic sensibilities-are tasteless and in all the wrong colors for her.

That evening each girl recounts her day, airing all of her complaints. Jo accidentally gave herself an opportunity to read a more interesting book to Aunt March when she laughed aloud over a funny section in "Vicar Wakefield." The Kings seemed to have been engaged in domestic quarreling when Meg arrived. Amy bemoans a carnelian ring that a girl in school was showing off. Beth’s experience of the day is positive; she had gone to the fish market for her Hannah and had seen a poor woman who was offering to clean the store for food for her children. The store owner refused her, but Mr. Laurence was also there and he purchased a slab of fish for her.

Marmee finishes off the chapter and the day by giving the girls a little sermon about appreciating the blessings they have and by pointing out the lessons in each girl’s adventure.


Notes

Most of the burdens the girls name seem trivial although that is typical of teenagers. Beth’s observation of the kindness of Mr. Laurence introduces him into the story and foreshadows the kindness and generosity he will later bestow on the March family. It takes Marmee to help the girls realize that their problems are really not so terrible. This characterization of Mrs. March as a person who has been through nearly everything life could offer, who as suffered and endured much, and has learned infinite patience will continue throughout the book. The family is unusual in that while the girls have occasional bouts of sibling rivalry, none of them ever disagrees or has a cross or rebellious word for Marmee.

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