Sunday, May 24, 2009

Transcendental Romeo and Juliet

23. Moods by Louisa May Alcott

Martha Saxton made such a big deal of this novel in her biography Louisa May, that I decided to try it for myself. I might have known, upon her recommendation, that I would be disappointed.

Moods is full of high flown language and characters that are themselves ideals. The "mood" that consistently pervades the novel is one of unnecessary melancholy and melodrama. The first chapter is a pretentious, unnatural dialogue hardly to be borne, when I reached the seemingly more normal second chapter, I hoped it was an anomaly, but was unfortunately wrong.

Alcott takes one of the oldest stories, as Henry James points out in his review, which was included in my edition, and fashions it anew, without altering or addressing any of the original problems. There is a young girl, and two potential lovers. Necessarily, there is a terrible muddle, and the girl marries the man she cares for less. Alcott tries to salvage the essential correctness of all three actors, and there fails. They cannot all possibly behave so admirably as she claims. The only respectable way out is an early death for the two young lovers, of course we've heard that one before. But where Alcott lectures, Shakespeare allowed astute viewers to understand the ridiculousness and immaturity of his characters. She turns Romeo and Juliet into a Transcendental moral tale it was never meant to be.

A few saving graces are a glimpse forward to Alcott's later, and in my opinion, far better works. Sylvia, the main character, is the most realistic of the characters, her actions and motivations are suitably complicated. It is easy to sympathize with her, as it is to feel for Jo March. After the first chapter, the next few chapters are taken up with a trip over the river, with Sylvia, her brother, and his two friends, later, her lovers. These scenes are charming, if a little too laboriously described, and my favorite part was an adventure where they must intrude upon a family gathering of strangers. Alcott makes the scene comic as well as enlightening (perhaps she dwelt too much on the benefits of domesticity), and it is much more the kind of scene one would expect to find in any of the books on the March family or the Rose books.

In his review, James suggested Alcott write more of what she knew. That is where I would judge she has best succeeded. I am not disputing that Louisa may have found Little Women boring, or that she preferred her Gothic works, but that need not have bearing on which works were her best, of which you know my opinion.

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