Sadness over Little Women, 12th Night

viola1

Twelfth Night (1996)

Although reading and grading student essays is the most demanding aspect of my job—I graded around 535 formal and informal essays this past semester, as well as reading another 100 essay proposals and early drafts—it can also be the most rewarding.  That’s because I will regularly see students working through major life issues at the same time that they strive for coherent literary interpretations. 

To be sure, many of the essays initially flail around.  Most, however, have something interesting at their core.  That’s where the revision option and student conferences come in.  The final revised result often looks nothing like early attempts.

Such was the case with a fascinating essay I just received on Twelfth Night.  The student (I’ll call her Casey) was wrestling with why she found the comedy’s “happy” marriages to be depressing. She had constructed an elaborate thematic argument but it didn’t hold together, nor did it sound convincing. 

In a paper conference she mentioned that she felt a similar sadness, as a girl, when reading Little Women.  We started bouncing the two works off of each other and…

Well, I’ll let Casey tell it in her own words, slightly edited.  (She granted me permission to use her essay but asked that I not reveal her name):

When I was a girl, I only read Little Women for Jo. I didn’t care for the stifling morals of the other March sisters. They seemed too polished and too preachy—frankly, I took their reprimands against Jo personally because she was the only character I could identify with. I thought that if any of the sisters could resist the boring domestic life which Meg eventually acquired, it would be Jo. (I specifically remember comparing Jo’s adventures with Meg’s homemade jam—and coming to the conclusion at the age of nine that I could never be content with homemade jam and doilies.) Therefore, I was quite appalled and sad when Jo gave up her writing and eventually married the German professor at the end of the novel. (I thought, “even Laurie would have been a better match!”)

That same odd feeling came back to me as I read Twelfth Night this semester. Feste’s song finishes the play with a sad tone that I initially couldn’t pinpoint.  [I’ve come to believe that] the sadness might stem from the realization that little girls must grow up—little girls can only become women once they’ve sacrificed their mobility for marriage. This may be less true now than it was when I first read Little Women fourteen years ago (and certainly less true now than it was in Alcott’s or Shakespeare’s time), but I believe that society’s projected path for little girls is still a source of anxiety.   

But how can I explain the anxiety? I can only suspect that my negative views of marriage stemmed from the experiences of my mother, who often (unwisely) confided in her young daughters that her own loss of mobility and independence was a source of resentment which ultimately ruined her marriage with my father. I suspect that she was only attempting to make us more independent in spirit by telling us of the possibilities which exist outside of marriage (for she often told us to never be in a position where we had to rely on the resources of a man), but we also received mixed messages. When my sister and I would object to being put into the middle of disputes between my parents, my mother would say, “You’ll understand one day when you’re married.” Or, for every act that was seen as a betrayal against her, my mother would say, “You’ll understand when you have children of your own.” Therefore, we came to believe that marriage and motherhood were inevitable facts of being a woman. On the other hand, my father’s line was “Someday, when you’re in college…”—and somehow we acquired the belief that a woman could not have it all. We believed that a woman could not attend college and have a career while being married with children.

I could, however (and still do) rejoice in literary female characters who fight the constraints of these expectations. While reading Twelfth Night, I was fascinated by Viola’s character as she made her own way in the world of Illyria. When we first meet Viola in Act 1, Scene 2, she demonstrates resolve within her first two lines. She asks, “What country, friends, is this?” (Iii). Furthermore she asks, “And what should I do in Illyria?” (Iii). Without giving herself over to grief (as Olivia has done), she immediately determines how she will make her way in the new land. Although determined, she is also flexible as her plans change to suit the circumstances—and once she decides to serve Orsino, she opens up a whole realm of possibilities which no other woman in Illyria could enter into.

Casey proceeds to describe these different possibilities: freedom to have a friendship with a man, freedom to go where she pleases, freedom to imagine herself wooing a lady. But while Casey shows Viola making a great deal of her opportunities, she also notes that the heroine feels conflicted: she feels that she must get married.  In fact, when Orsino, mistakenly thinking that Viola has betrayed him, is prepared to punish her/him, Viola shows herself more than willing to suffer at his hands.  And although all the misunderstandings are sorted out and she and Orsino get married instead, Casey talks about how Viola may have sacrificed herself after all—just in a different way.


Casey’s reading of the play is borne out by the jester’s song at the end, which is all about the tragedy of growing up.  Here it is:

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
    For the rain it raineth every day. 

But when I came to man’s estate,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut the gate,
    For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came, alas! to wive,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
    For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came unto my beds,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
    For the rain it raineth every day.

A great while ago the world begun,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
    And we’ll strive to please you every day. 

Everything is but a toy when one is child.  But when one comes to man’s (or woman’s) estate, then barriers go up, we are expected to marry, and unions turn sour.  Casey’s reading goes to the heart of Twelfth Night: somewhere along the line, it is as though we are cast by a strange storm on the shores of life and must henceforth act as either men or women—which in Casey’s family drama meant being either a professional or a mother.  (As I read the storm, the splitting of the twins is our being forced to deny the other gendered side of ourselves—but in Casey’s case the splitting may also bring to mind her parents’ separation.)  For a brief exhilarating moment, Casey sees Viola as reassurance that a woman can be anything she wants.  Then “happily ever after” takes over.

In her conclusion, Casey moves from interpretation back to talking about how her new understanding can guide her (and by implication others in her situation).  It is literary interpretation that has something at stake, analysis that is not just a jumping through academic hoops:

Therefore, the sadness of the final act might begin with Viola’s readiness to give up a part of herself (much like Jo’s willingness to give up her writing for her husband). The possibilities [that the play has opened up] seem to shut down in these final pages of the play as cases of mistaken identity are cleared up, and social roles are reenacted according to gender. The final song cements the sadness for me, as the song describes the stages of life with the unending weariness of “the wind and the rain.”

Personally, the “wind and the rain” get at one of my core anxieties of growing older. From my own experience with my parent’s marriage, I determined at a young age that I would never give myself over to a boring and constraining life of domesticity. Because I thought that marriage and motherhood were antagonistic to any thoughts of a career, travel, or a life of excitement, I grew up unable to imagine myself ever getting married and/or having children.

While a hypothetical married life caused me much anxiety, my fears were only compounded by the alternative—a life alone. So Feste’s song brings up two fears; I fear that my fear of marriage (which I falsely equate with the loss of independence) will force me to live a solitary life. I fear that I will have to endure the “wind and the rain” of Feste’s song alone. Furthermore, I fear that I won’t have anyone to share future happiness and success with.

Sometimes I tell myself that my fears are irrational—and at the age of 23, I’ve finally come to view marriage as a beautiful rite of passage for many. Still, though, as many of my friends are getting married and starting families, I experience an unsettling ambivalence. At their weddings, I’ve experienced a yearning to have a partner with whom I could share both the “wind and the rain” and the happiness of life with. Yet still, I sometimes feel relieved that I am not the bride.

I don’t know how to resolve these issues, but the first step is in recognizing them. Through my reading experiences, I’ve been able to hone in on deep-seated fears through an analysis of my reaction to the work. Once these fears have been brought to the surface, I can work on dispelling the myths that fuel my anxiety. Positive examples of married life might help dispel the myth, but I’ll always return to literature for guidance in locating and treating the fear. Now that Twelfth Night and Little Women have helped me locate the source of my fear, I hope that literature can help in dispelling the myth that fuels that fear. Hopefully I will one day be able to adopt Feste’s philosophy (“nothing that is so, is so”) to help dispel my own deep-seated myths regarding marriage and motherhood. Then maybe I won’t feel that I will have to endure the “wind and the rain” alone.

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One Comment

  1. Julia Bates
    Posted May 19, 2010 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

    I too identified with Jo. I don’t remember that she had to give up writing when she married. I felt happiness that she met a mature man who appreciated her for who she was and that she also got to have children. I was happy that I too found a husband and had children. But I am much older than Casey and the social pattern of marriage and children was much more pronounced when I was in college.


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