Character from Characters

Musing on a prompt from a friend: What are your memorable lessons from your favorite fictional author?

My reflections lately have pretty much all centered on thoughts inspired by the work of Susan Cain and Brené Brown: how it feels to be an Introvert in a world that reveres the Extrovert Ideal, the rewards of living authentically, the consequences of culture of Character vs Personality.  Not surprisingly, then, this prompt meets me in that same place.

As far back as I can remember, I have loved stories and spent much time with them, as it is in books I have most often found “bosom friends” and “kindred spirits” (if I may quote Anne Shirley) – Anne and Diana, Trixie Belden and Honey Wheeler, Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Barrett, Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Hamilton, Dr. & Mrs. Red Pepper Burns, and so many others – but above all, the March sisters.

Little WomenJo March said, “Some books are so familiar that reading them is like returning home again” – and that perfectly describes my relationship with three works by my favorite author, Louisa May Alcott: “Little Women,” “Little Men,” and “Jo’s Boys.”

Alcott was born in 1832 and grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, surrounded by transcendentalist writers such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Her father, Bronson Alcott, was also a philosopher and among the leading members of the transcendentalist movement.  Although they may not have used the word, the transcendentalists sought to live authentically.  They believed that every human has access to divine inspiration and should live intuitively, guided by that inner voice, in continuous pursuit of character building.

“Little Women” was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, when the “Culture of Character” was in full bloom in the United States.  Alcott perhaps summed it up most simply when she wrote that, through her friendship with Professor Bhaer, Jo “began to see that character is a better possession than money, rank, intellect, or beauty.”

As the March sisters learned lessons from their favorite story, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” so I learned from their trials and the developmental progress they made as a result of facing them.  The lessons are too numerous to cover in one posting, but a few of then, in their own words…

“You may try your experiment for a week and see how you like it. I think…you will find that all play and no work is as bad as all work and no play.” – Marmee
“I won’t have a sister who is a lazy ignoramous.” – Jo
You have grown abominably lazy, and you like gossip, and waste time on frivolous things, you are contented to be petted and admired by silly people, instead of being loved and respected by wise ones.” – Amy

 “…find a good use for your talents.” – Marmee
 “Jo, there is more to you than this. If you have the courage to write it.” – Professor Bhaer
“You must write from the depths of your soul.” – Professor Bhaer

“Money is a needful and precious thing,–and, when well used, a noble thing,–but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.” – Marmee

 “You don`t need scores of suitors. You need only one… if he`s the right one.” – Amy
“Your heart understood mine.” – Professor Bhaer

 “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. Forgive each other, begin again tomorrow”. – Marmee
“I feel stronger with you close by.” – Beth

“It is an excellent plan to have some place where we can go to be quiet, when things vex or grieve us.” – Marmee

The world had changed greatly between the time of Alcott’s writing and my childhood, but a long tradition of New England Congregationalism maintained the values of the Culture of Character in my family even as the world around us shifted to the Culture of Personality.   And today, of course, it is the Culture of Personality that we see in full bloom surrounding us. The types of “kindred spirits” that I found in virtually all the books of my childhood are more difficult to discover amidst the clutter and clatter produced in a world of 24/7 media barrage.  When I paid for my purchases at Target this weekend, the haircut sported by the very young cashier made it obvious that her current heroine is Miley Cyrus – a role model about as far removed from the March sisters as we could get!

For me, the results of this shift are most visibly exemplified by what I think of as “Plastic Hollywood.”  I don’t like to think or talk about it any more than I can avoid, because I find it so troubling, but it is impossible to completely escape.  Every time I see a Hollywood personality (and particularly one whose work I have enjoyed) who is now barely recognizable as the person they once were because they have been so altered by plastic surgery – or worse yet, have a face distorted or frozen by horrifyingly misguided efforts to remain young – I see a demonstration of how far the focus on how we LOOK (or want to appear), instead of who we ARE (or strive to become), has gone wrong, and I just want to cry.

Still, glimmers of an older way shine through the clatter.  I am not a fan of Alec Baldwin, but during his recent brief period of late evening interviews, he had a conversation with Debra Winger that I found most refreshing.  It can still be viewed on msnbc.com, and I love that the discussion came around to getting older and Winger’s decision not to do anything to try mask that process.  “If we don’t tell the story of that,” Winger said, “who are we? If we are telling another story in our face…. we are going to get less and less… I want us to not lose complete touch with the fact of where we are, because we stand for something… We don’t want to look older… act older… but it is beautiful … You get to that point, and you are telling the story… Now I have painted life on here.”

And I hear Kate Winslet is publicly embracing her wrinkles these days!  How about that? A bit of authenticity right in the heart of Plastic Hollywood!

There are still some wonderful childhood heroines to be found.  Perhaps it is no surprise that J.K. Rowling, who also claims to have been greatly influenced by Alcott, created the marvelous Hermione Granger!  And I was also recently delighted with sisters Anna and Elsa in “Frozen.” I hope my granddaughter will find inspiration in these types of characters.

And so, at this end of today’s path, my musings on the works of Susan Cain and Brené Brown and this little trip down literary memory lane leave me encouraged, along with Anne Shirley, that “Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world. “

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