Well, here we are yet again, with me wondering which Gilmore Girls episode features Little Women. (If you can tell me, please do in the comments!)
I picked the novel for today because it’s just over a week until Christmas, and that’s the first word of the first chapter:
“Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
“It's so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don't think it's fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
“We've got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.
The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly, “We haven't got Father, and shall not have him for a long time.” She didn't say perhaps never, but each silently added it, thinking of Father far away, where the fighting was.
Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone, “You know the reason Mother proposed not having any presents this Christmas was because it is going to be a hard winter for everyone; and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army. We can't do much, but we can make our little sacrifices, and ought to do it gladly. But I am afraid I don’t.” And Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully of all the pretty things she wanted.
With these opening lines, we meet the four little women, sisters growing up in Concord, Massachusetts under the loving guidance of their mother, Marmee, while their father serves as a chaplain for the Union Army. Each sister’s snippet of dialogue compactly reveals her character flaws (check out those verbs and adverbs in the speech tags), and Meg’s response expresses the book’s ethos: It’s a didactic story about the little women’s struggles to come into their best selves.
The conspicuous didacticism may make the novel seem, to some, out-datedly prim. (Transcendentalism is so 1830s.) There’s stereotypical, Puritanical, stuffy New England, where the English “stiff upper lip” swells to larger than life proportions, and self-denial is elevated to an art form. (Everything is bigger in America, indeed.) Rereading the opening chapter provoked me to chuckle at the fastidiously executed opening.
Except … these girls can get nasty, and I don’t mean Election 2016 Nasty Women nasty. I mean burning your sister’s only copy of her book then almost being accidentally-on-purpose murdered by that sister. Sure, the tone may convey that everything will turn out all right in the end. But in the moment? It’s hardcore. Yes, Marmee can seem hyperbolically angelic. At times, I almost expected Alcott to spring a magical realist moment on me and cause wings to sprout from Marmee’s back.
But Marmee struggles too. “I am angry nearly every day of my life,” she tells Jo after the latter has a Category 1 meltdown. As a person all too well acquainted with anger - in particular, traffic jams, people who cut in line, and my presumptuous autocorrect provoke me on the daily - I willingly admit I try to channel Marmee … often. And really, what’s so wrong with literature providing inspiration for living?
Knowing which episode references Little Women might help me work out the particular relationship between the Gilmore girls’ characters and the novel’s characters. But not knowing has helped me see a bigger picture. Literary references are woven so intricately and profusely through the series that they show us how literature can become a way of understanding ourselves and our world. In stories, we find ourselves - our longings, our aspirations, our weaknesses, our gifts - and we may just come out a teeny bit wiser for it. Seeing this big picture feels a little like standing outside of myself and looking in. Oh, right, I think to myself. This is why I read.
And even without a specific episode reference, I can see how the Emersonian self-reliance that inhabits the pages of Little Women suffuses Loralai’s journey as well - in her desire to define her own codes rather rather than be governed by her parents’ ossified ones.