Little Women was written in the 19th Century in the time of the American Civil War. Many men were away fighting the war or supporting their cause, so women were often left to await their return and run their lives without the support of their husbands and fathers. Treasure Island was written in Britain nearly 20 years later, at a time when the British Empire was at its zenith and British citizens felt invincible. In both books the children are affected by financial issues and it is this that ultimately brings out the courage in the children. Courage is defined as ‘the quality that makes a person able to meet dangers without fear….Bravery’. I do not believe that any of the children faced their lives without fear, but they managed to control it to allow them to cope with their own dangers. In this context we must look at how they meet dangers, deal with consequences of their actions and face adversity. We must also look at how their courage, or lack thereof, affects the outcomes in certain scenarios. Courage can be shown both physically and psychologically, but it is the mind that drives a person to show courage; for instance people who show acts of physical bravery are only able to carry the act out with a strength of mind and in turn a psychological courage.
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The first book I will look at is that of Little Women. The four March sisters, Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy, are left in the care of their mother ‘Marmee’ when their father goes off to the American Civil War, after losing the majority of their wealth, ‘Mr March lost his property in trying to help an unfortunate friend.’ Each of the sisters has a different personality and this is no less apparent in the way in which their individual courage is portrayed in the story. The story is set in a difficult period in American history and the author bases the book on her own childhood. The story touches on the fight for independence amongst women at the time and portrays a story that captures courage, love and adversity. It is also very much written for girls as it appeals to the sort of life girls would have recognised in the mid-nineteenth century.
The sisters show solidarity through the adversity and one word that crops up frequently, when the author describes the girls change in lifestyle, is ‘Pilgrim’. This is an example of courage; the fact that they are prepared to try to make changes in their personalities in time for their father’s return in one year. They face challenges to rid themselves of their flaws and although this is not always a complete success, they show great resolve and strength of mind not to be beaten. This form of courage may not be as colourful as the more obvious, physical courage that is shown in ‘Treasure Island’ but it has many qualities and gives the readers a belief that they can improve their own lives. Courage is an inspiring trait and it is what makes great leaders; it is the reason that the readers can become engrossed in and involved with the main characters of both the books we are looking at.
Courage for the girls is of enduring, of patience and conquering their fears for their father and overcoming their own personality defects. Fetterley suggests that the girls take on this model of womanhood not from choice or out of virtue, but from necessity. This is certainly true of Jo, who longs to break the mould and become a writer, but she knows it is her father’s wish that his ‘little women’ will ‘do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely and conquer themselves beautifully.’ She remains true to herself, although her task is to control her temper and try to overcome her dislike of housework. She gets into dreadful scrapes, but has a wonderful enthusiasm for life, which is viewed by the others in varying degrees of disapproval or wistfulness. Alcott gives Jo a steadfast friend and admirer in the shy and retiring Beth.
All their striving to improve is worthwhile when Beth gets better and their father returns safely to them. Meg finds love and a future husband, Beth has her health and her father and Jo and Amy are satisfied with their lot. Jo has Laurie, which the reader hopes will blossom successfully in another book. At the last it is Jo who we feel has the courage to step out of the system ‘Jo lounged in her favourite low seat , with the grave, quiet look which best became her.’ She offers us the most promise for the future, she has the most courage.
It is courageous to live in society as a ‘poor relation’, to follow their mother’s strong moral code in the style of John Bunyon’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. It is not exciting courage, where the enemy is an evil person, but it is the mundane courage to improve and strive to be good. Marmee allows the girls to make their own mistakes. When they are given 3 months vacation, they ask if they can take their break following their own desires. Marmee agrees to this, but wisely says ‘You may try your experiment for a week and see if you like it. I think by Saturday night you will find that all play and no work is as bad as all work and no play.’ Of course Marmee is quite right and the girls realise ‘what a peculiar and uncomfortable state of things was produced by the ‘resting and revelling’ process.’
The narrative utilised in each of the books is also a determinant of how the various areas of courage are shown and paint different pictures from the simplistic view of what courage is. In Treasure Island Jim’s narrative of his heroic acts is valuable because he records them modestly, giving us an insider view of heroism that is not very glamorous. Jim is not arrogant, but instead is humbled by his mistakes and successes. He takes full responsibility for his errors rather than finding excuses for them, and he confesses to moments of panic, indecision, and regret rather than bragging exclusively of his successes. Jim’s remarkable honesty and sincerity often make the heroic or noble claims of the grown-ups, pirates and honourable citizens alike, seem like empty bluster. Jim’s inclusion of both his follies and his fortunes make his narrative seem more genuine and the adventure more real. If we look back at what defines courage and in particular at the statement that acts of bravery are ‘without fear’, we can see that everyone experiences fear even if their ultimate act is one of courage and heroism, it is how one’s mind deals with the fear, that creates the courage, as is depicted in the quote from Treasure Island; ”My curiosity, in a sense, was stronger than my fear’ we can understand a little of his personality and how he overcomes his natural instinct to be afraid. Although he is courageous, Jim’s impetuous individualism reminds us that he is still a youth. His tendency to act on his whims and his growing self-awareness also shows that he is caught between two worlds-between childhood and adulthood, and between the lawful, rational world and the lawless pirate world. Jim’s story is therefore not merely a fanciful adventure tale but also a narrative about growing up. The fact that it is written in the first person allows the reader to enter the world of Jim Hawkins and allow themselves to become the character, incorporating their personalities and in turn understanding their strengths and weaknesses fully.
Both books look at the growth of the individuals, in Little Women each of the girls sets out to better herself, by losing her least endearing traits and growing into a finer woman because of this. In Treasure Island Jim starts out life as a scared boy who is frightened easily and runs to his mother when he is. As the story continues after the death of his father, Jim becomes more assertive and courageous. In both stories, it is the courage of their convictions that allows them to mature and become what they desire. They all possess strong will-power and a strong understanding of what is wrong and right. In order that they live their lives in this way they must each possess courage.
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The role that the courage plays in each of the books is creating a hero and keeping the reader interested. Jim’s physical bravery and heroic acts were aimed at inspiring the boys of that generation. The book was written in a time when men were expected to be brave and courageous and the story of Jim Hawkins taps into the mind of boys who were going through an unsure stage in their lives. The fact that Stevenson made Jim a timid, frightened boy at the beginning of the book and then took him trough a journey of growth and maturity, shows that he was understanding of how many boys of that age were feeling and was hoping that this would inspire and show them the way to become a man. It is believed that Stevenson based the story about his own feelings as he grew up; his 12 year old son was also a major influence on how Jim should be portrayed.
In Little women we see a similar influence that the role of courage has on the reader. The book was aimed at young teenage girls who were growing up in a time of expectation. The expectation that you must marry well, not be outspoken, and be a devoted wife. ‘Little women’ breaks this mould and shows girls in a different light. Jo’s courage to be outspoken and wilful showed the reader that life didn’t have to mean conforming and Beth’s bravery through illness would show them that courage through times of adversity is a positive attribute. It gave teenage girls in this time another outlook on life and the courage shown by the ‘little women’ could be related to their own lives in some way.
Both books show various forms of courage in children and the historical element plays a large part in the author’s choice of character. War affected countries and traditional values made for hard times for many children of the era. The authors were able to free the children from their normal lives and enter into lives of children they could relate to and if they chose to, emulate. Although Treasure Island is a fantasy tale, it again incorporates realistic virtues and traits, it interests the children of the time and is understood by many boys of the era, who lost their fathers . Although the death of Jim’s father is not a major part of the story, it is the turning point for Jim as he begins to find his courage and maturity. Books are often written to give children role models and the most successful have characters that they can relate. This is still true of today’s writing and character inspiration for many of today’s leading children’s novels has come from the realisation that the need for a courageous, brave main character is paramount to encouraging children and young teenagers to read so they can live their own lives through these people and take on their qualities.
I believe that the role of courage of the children in both Little Women and Treasure Island is the overriding reason for the success of the books. As has been mentioned above, the historical reasons, the need for children to read about their peers acting in a courageous way and the inspiration that the characters produce for the reader are all reasons for the success of the books. The courage and bravery of the children has been so powerful that it has led to future authors trying to reproduce the characters in their stories. They may be extremely different characters, but if you look at how Pullman created Lyra or Rowling created Harry Potter they all share one trait in particular, courage.
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