Beth March and the Courage of the Gentle Giver by Cathleen Flynn


As someone who spent my prepubescent years watching director Gillian Armstrong’s “Little Women”, I was eager to see Greta Gerwig’s newly released version. Previously unexplored contours of each character, and of my changed perceptions, were made visible through this iteration. The most difficult and touching part of the film that lingers with me is the story of Beth, pianist and caretaker. Beth’s untimely death brings grief into the center of the March family narrative, and Gerwig’s portrayal brought up grief in me about my experiences with invisibility as a paced introvert in a culture that celebrates speed and extroversion.

I grew up wanting to be like Jo March, the outspoken, reactive protagonist. Jo was the rebel, the obvious feminist, and, mostly importantly to me, the brave one. Beth seemed to me to be boring, relegated to a life at home, bound by illness and a preoccupation with the needs of neighbors. Her steadiness looked to me like obedience; she could not fight away the disease that eventually killed her, and I wished to be everything besides her, the introvert who observed and cared and loved music and then died. As I grew into my own introverted, observant, caregiving tendencies, I began to wonder if I had been tricked by my culture, by my upbringing, to think I was Beth when I was really Jo! While social pressures certainly influenced my personality, as they do for us all, I didn’t want to believe that perhaps I was growing into my natural temperament, endowed by the Universe, expressed in my mind and body. As a woman in the 21st century, as a feminist, I was supposed to be like Jo, not the way I was (am). To have a deliberate or tender nature was, in my subconscious perception, to betray the spontaneous, assertive natures of those more worthwhile feminists who got things done.

Image of Claire Danes (left) as Beth in Armstrong's 2000 adaptation and Eliza Scanlen (right) as Beth in Gerwig's 2019 adaptation

Claire Danes (left) as Beth in Armstrong’s 2000 adaptation and Eliza Scanlen (right) as Beth in Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation

For author Louisa May Alcott, Beth’s death was based on the demise of her real sister (Lizzie) from scarlet fever, but for me it resonated symbolically. The death of the gentle giver was one I thought might be necessary in my own Psyche so I could be louder, tougher, quicker – less of myself and more of someone else and a more admirable aspiring young feminist. Interestingly, the literary depiction of Beth seems to gloss over Shadow elements of Lizzie’s inner and interpersonal life, elements that must have balanced her gentleness and generosity. That these elements did not receive literary or cinematic attention is unfortunate. However, this lack of attention motivated a deeper dive into my own exploration of gentleness and generosity in their most raw forms, without stabilizing or protective states like anger or humor. In their raw forms, gentleness and generosity within me are tinged with shame. I must remind myself these are not inherently shameful ways of being woman, or feminist, in America. They are aspects of humanity that have been marginalized by patriarchy, particularly in the United States, and (perhaps as a sort of backlash) within some feminist rhetoric. I recognized the impact of this marginalization by looking deeply at Beth.

Of course, the margins I speak of are those I experience as a White cisgender young adult and not the same margins experienced at intersections of feminisms not my own. I wonder how you feel about your own disenfranchised parts, and what stories surface them. While I sense a kindred connection to Beth, I relate to each March sister in some way, and suspect every person has within them a striving Jo, a perceiving Meg, a delighting Amy, a giving Beth. Ultimately it is my hope for myself and those I love that gentle, emergent instincts are experienced and seen as courageous just as are passionate, eruptive ones. To seal this hope, I wrote the following poem – for Beth, for myself, and for the other gentle givers I know whose courage is not always celebrate.

 

In praise of courage

—————

The soft are not always small.
I, too, have space to take up,
feel desire racing in my heart and
inspiration churning in my belly.
The soft are not always small.

The quiet are not empty.
I, too, have caverns in which trumpets sound
and laughter rolls,
where things that stop abruptly screech.
You must wait and listen;
sound needs space and air.

The ones who speak obliquely,
roundly,
do not lack knowing.
I, too, see things with biting clarity,
name inclusive essence.
Direct routes leave unexplored the wilderness.

The soft live largely, the quiet resonate intensely, and the circuitous have certainty.

The gentle, too, are brave.

 

Cathleen Flynn is a board-certified music therapist and grief counselor in western North Carolina. She has studied and worked with people moving through terminal illness, grief, and trauma recovery since 2014, and enjoys cooking as well as reading and dialoguing about all things queer, feminist, and psychospiritual. https://www.mtcarolinas.com/ 



Categories: Film, Gender and Power, Grief, Poetry, Popular Culture, Women's Power, Women's Voices

Tags: , , , , , , ,

18 replies

  1. Thanks for that Cathleen. As a quiet and serious young girl who was helping my mother raise my baby brother, I did not identify with Jo or with Amy. Whether I identified with Beth or Meg, I do not remember, but I do remember reading later how “everyone” who became a feminist identified with Jo, and wondering why I did not. So thanks for speaking out for one of the other sisters.

    To tell the truth, I identified more with Heidi than with any of the sisters.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Immense gratitude to you for this post, Cathleen. I wonder if you have given voice to a big swathe of what used to be labeled The Silent Majority. Certainly for my own experience. That beautiful poem speaks more profoundly to and of my core than any prose or poem I’ve ever come across. Radically so.

    I hope we will continue to hear your voice, and that blessings and grace always surround you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • This means so much, Laurie~ thank you for reading and receiving it. Finding connection through writing (and reading) is as rich for me as connection in spoken dialogue. “The Silent Majority” sounds about right; although I know I’m not alone in the experience of introversion, it’s good to be reminded. Best to you in your continued journey.

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      • C, I every so lightly challenge — no, wish to provoke — the wordsmith in you to put forth a more apt and unfreighted term for so many of us than the word, introvert ;)

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        • Certainly! Curious if there are words that have resonated with you more fully?

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          • Hmmm, nothing springs to mind but will pay attention.

            I think in images and always struggle to assemble a string of words to adequately correspond to a thought or insight. This is feeling like a seed of its own post, with images related to your poem…. subtle movement and articulation out of stillness…
            Actually, for me, to speak feels like a breaking of the spell of being able to see. I’ve never spent time sussing this out but will try.

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          • Laurie, I relate deeply to what you describe- thinking in images. Every good wish to you in the continued exploration. (Also, I just connected the dots that you wrote the “Cuisine Cards” post… one of my favorite recent offerings, such incredible work. Thank you for your sharing.)

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          • Thank you Cathleen.

            That new post is brewing. How would you be with me quoting your poem in it? I think it could be the backbone, and it’s worth printing again, it’s beautiful and so eloquent.

            I wonder if thinking in images is strongly correlated with what our culture labels introversion. For some people, words just pour out, and always such precise and well-chosen ones. Maybe that’s because they think in story. Quite a while ago there was a concept floating around that each person’s brain works either in images, language/story, or tactile sensation.

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          • Yes, go for it (using the poem as desired)! I heard this book referenced years ago and have been so curious about it since… Leonard Shlain’s
            “The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image“… and this conversation is making me want to read it sooner than later to see what else I can suss out from a broader perspective.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Thank you for this book alert! I’ve just ordered it too; read some of the Google Books Preview and it sounds essential.

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  3. Tiny correction: Armstrong’s Little Women came out in 1994.

    I can’t remember how many times I read Little Women and Little Men when I was young. I, too, always saw myself as Jo. I also loved the 1949 movie with June Allyson as Jo and Margaret O’Brien as Beth. I’m thinking that practically every little girl alive in the U.S. in the 20th century read the book, saw the movies, and imagined herself as one of the March sisters.

    There’s a terrific book by Susan Cheever (John’s daughter) about Alcott and her work: Louisa May Alcott, a Personal Biography (2010). Another very interesting book is Brook by Geraldine Brooks (2006). It’s about Papa March and his adventures in the South before the Civil War.

    I like the truth of your poem. Brava!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for catching that date error, Barbara! Not sure how I flubbed that, but appreciate the clarification:) I haven’t seen in the 1949 version, but would like to. Cheers!

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  4. Thank you for a beautiful and beautifully written post! I love your poem.

    I can still remember when I found Little Women in a drawer of the guest room. I think I was ten years old at the time. I don’t know why it was put away there. I immediately began reading it without even sitting down. I read it many times as a girl, teenager, and young woman and have never found any of the film adaptations particularly satisfying.

    As a Tomboy (so we were called then 1950s-early 60s) and an aspiring writer, of course I identified with Jo, who was a fictional version of the author. Apart from the opening lines of the novel (which all the film versions botch, in my opinion) the lines that always stay with me are from the poem Jo writes to Beth.

    O my sister passing from me/out of human care and strife

    Inspired by your post, I got out the book (the same copy I first read) and found the poem. It is Jo’s (Louisa’s) tribute to her sister’s gentleness and courage. Look past the sentimental piety of that era to the deep love and recognition the boisterous sister held for the quiet one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elizabeth, what an important truth, Jo’s “deep love and recognition” for her quiet sister. Part of my own journey, I think, is unraveling disbelief that deep love and recognition is there to take in (because I am lucky to have some “sisters”, and “brothers”, from whom this is available). I love that you still have the copy of the book you originally read. I can only speak to the way Beth was portrayed in film, having not read the book (feels risky to admit, but true!) I’d like to read it alongside an Alcott biography, like the one Barbara mentioned. I appreciate your sharing.

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  5. Such a beautiful poem… as a child I resonated with Beth and later understood a lot about myself by returning to this character and her demise.

    Liked by 1 person

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