The Harvest of the Home

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Little Men depict the mystery of the home as a small place deserving to be called a garden or orchard wherein seeds and young plants multiply and produce an abundant harvest that is beyond measure. In the final chapter of Little Women (“Harvest Time”), the extended family gathers for a family reunion to celebrate Mrs. March’s sixtieth birthday during the festivities of the New England apple picking. Mr. and Mrs. March, beholding their happily married daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren, realize that there is not only the reaping of the fields and the fruitfulness of the apple orchard, but also the harvest of life and love. Touched to the deepest core of her being by the blessings of marriage and the family, Mrs. March says to her daughters, “O my girls, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this.” She marvels at the miracle of love begetting children and grandchildren and goodness reproducing itself to the third generation. That a marriage based on the mutual devotion and fidelity of husband and wife who are generous with love and life can produce such abundant fruits of happiness is the mystery of the home and the story of love: one can never foresee the extent of the harvest, but its plenty always surpasses all expectations. “My cup runneth over.”

Alcott concludes Little Men on a similar note, the bounty of the harvest in the fall. As all the children of Plumfield Academy gather for their annual fall celebration for the Thanksgiving holiday, Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer observe the progress of their pupils that live as a family at the school, a place which serves as a home as well as a place for education. They feel a sense of accomplishment in having civilized and educated these children, many of them orphans from troubled homes:

“As Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer glanced at each other down the long table, with those rows of happy faces on either side, they had a little thanksgiving, all to themselves, and without a word, for one heart said to the other, ‘Our work has prospered, let us be grateful and go on.’”

little-women-2All of the children have contributed to the Thanksgiving feast, either by growing the food in their gardens or by helping with the cooking. The potatoes, herbs, ducks, apples, and cranberries were all the handiwork of the children, putting their talents and knowledge to practical use. The banquet is followed by the performances and recitations of the children, some children performing skits, others singing and dancing, others dramatizing the story of Cinderella. Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer appreciate the happy faces, the civilized behavior, and the various talents of the children they have reared and taught. They stand amazed at the beauty of what they see and feel gratitude for the reward of their labor, the abundant harvest of seeing girls and boys mature into “little women” and “little men.”.The fruitfulness of their harvest exceeds their wildest hopes and expectations. Mrs. Bhaer had only modest expectations for these children, not grandiose ambitions:

“I only want to give these children a home in which they can be taught the few simple things that will help to make life less hard to them when they go out to fight their battles in the world. Honesty, courage, industry, faith in God, their fellow creatures, and themselves; that is all I try for.”

However, these “few simple things” taught in the home are the basis of moral education and civilization. “That is everything,”explains Mr. Bhaer to his wife as he acknowledges the great work of the home in the formation of the character of the next generation. Just as Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer imagine that they have gleaned all the fruits of the harvest–the plentiful Thanksgiving dinner, the courteous behavior of the children they have trained in manners, the accomplishments of the boys and girls they have educated at school–there remains one more reward. At the end of the day’s festivities, all the children form a circle around Mr. and Mrs. Bhaer and then join hands and sing their profound gratitude to these two beloved people:

‘Best of all the harvest

In the dear God’s sight,

Are the happy children

In the home tonight;

And we come to offer

Thanks where thanks are due,

With grateful hearts and voices,

Father, mother unto you.’

Although Father and Mother Bhaer sowed the seeds of love in order to reap the fruits of their labor, the harvest they produce is beyond all their calculations. The children capture their father and mother and imprison them in the center of their circle of laughing faces–a configuration which symbolizes the home as the center of love and the source of civilization, a love that reproduces itself and produces countless concentric circles emanating from the center. Alcott perfectly summarizes the mystery of the home in the final sentence of the novel:

“For love is a flower that grows in any soil, works its sweet miracles undaunted by autumn frost or winter snow, blooming fair and fragrant all the year, and blessing those who give and those who receive.”

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The story of the home, then, is one of sowing and reaping, giving and receiving, working and playing. The pleasure of beholding the abundance of the harvest in the field has its counterpart in marveling at the cornucopia of love’s fruitfulness that begins with the love of a man and woman who say “yes” to God, who welcome children with generous hearts, and who rejoice in seeing their children’s children partaking of the goodness of life and tasting the sweetness of the Lord. The happiness that Mrs. March expresses at her sixtieth birthday during the harvest of the apples is the most exquisite of human joys, the fullness of the heart that wonders at God’s beautiful plan for the family and at the abundance of love’s fruitfulness, an experience that surpasses all other pleasures—“no greater happiness than this.”

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
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