‘Cousin Tribulation’s Story’ by Louisa May Alcott: Short Story Analysis
‘Cousin Tribulation’s Story’ is a Victorian New England realistic fiction short story by American writer Louisa May Alcott. The story’s title depicts Louisa May Alcott as a woman called Tribulation Periwinkle. Tribulation Periwinkle is the fictional representation of Alcott and the central character of the book titled Hospital Sketches. Tribulation is the narrator of this Christmas short story where her middle-class family encounters a poor immigrant East-European family and share most of their best New Year breakfast and other food, warm clothes, wood, and coal with them. Tribulation tells this story in a letter probably addressed to her younger cousins to teach them a lesson in generosity. Note that the character Tribulation Periwinkle is a woman of substance who does not cow down to the social practices of the day and acts in a way contrary to what a woman would do in America during the nineteenth century. The short story titled ‘Cousin Tribulation’s Story’ was published in 1868 and is highly moralistic, where actions speak louder than mere words. In this case, the family of Tribulation Periwinkle shares their New Year’s joy with another needy family. Louisa May Alcott was an abolitionist and a feminist and remained unmarried throughout her life. All her life, she was active in such reformist movements as temperance and women’s suffrage.
The story starts with the letter being penned to ‘Dear Merrys’, which indicates that Tribulation is wishing everyone the compliments of the season or referring to her cousins who were always jolly. She is an excellent letter writer and starts right off by narrating the story of how she and her family shared their breakfast with a poor family on a particular New Year’s Day. Note that the father in the story is inclined to think like the mother. The mother answers the call of the elder boy who comes to their doorstep to beg for food. When the mother comes back declaring to her children and their father that they would have to share their breakfast with the poor family, they readily agree to do so. It indicates that American New England women had a say in matters of reform and the social well being of all, making the Christmas season more meaningful than just ‘merry making’. There are five children in the story – Nan, Lu, Beth, May, and Tribulation. They have a young girl working for them called Betsey, who is more than happy to help the poor family.
In her letter, Tribulation humbly mentions her shortcomings stating that at first, she was quite mean and reluctant at the idea of sharing the breakfast of hot porridge, creamy milk, and bread and butter because:
- They were not a wealthy family. They were probably poor or lower middle class, and if they shared their breakfast, they would have no money to buy a better breakfast for themselves.
- She was hungry, greedy, and wanted breakfast for herself and her family.
- She must have been aware of the hardship the family had to undergo to get this breakfast for the family on New Year’s Day. The very fact that they could not eat like this every day indicated that they were not all that well off.
- She probably was aware that if they shared the breakfast, they would have only dry bread and an apple to eat at the end of it.
- Tribulation was also called ‘a regular Sancho’ of the family or a tomboy with a temper. She was seldom docile where her rights were concerned, and there is a hint in the text that only she was not in favor of sharing her breakfast.
However, the humility and generosity of Tribulation’s sisters melted her tomboyish heart, and she was ready to share the breakfast. Note that Louisa May Alcott has often portrayed her women protagonists as manly or tomboyish in her novels and short stories. Usually, such masculine women seem almost like transgender characters. Note that the family does more than what they intended to do for the poor East-European family, maybe because there was no father or male patriarch to help them. If you read the text, you realize that the German woman was the visible head of the impoverished family, and she was a bit incapacitated because she had just given birth. The husband or father is missing in this family of poor Germans.
There is a lot of ‘women power’ and feminist ideals highlighted in this short story. Notice that Tribulation’s whole family was a family of young girls adored by their father, and their mother made the family decisions that the father respected. We also notice this in Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women. I always recommend all my students, irrespective of gender, to read this classic to improve their language and literature skills. If you are an educator and are trying to get your wards into reading classic works like Little Women, you can check out my how-to book titled Classics: Why and how we can encourage children to read them. The girls are called angel-children by the poor immigrant family when they bring in their breakfast and other eatables and clothes to make the poor family’s New Year’s Day a bit more comfortable.
Here is a list of the things Tribulation’s family did for the poor East-European family:
- Their father carried a basket of wood and coal to the place.
- Their mother carried a bundle of warm things and the teapot.
- Tribulation and Nan carried the pail of hot porridge between them along with two pitchers of milk.
- Beth carried some cold meat. Beth happened to be the kindest soul in the whole family.
- May carried the lassy pot, which was her favorite. It probably was a distilling pot for sugar. She also brought her old hood and boots for the poor family.
- Betsey, who worked for the Tribulation’s family, carried a bag of potatoes and a meal.
- Their father made a fire in the old fireplace of the poor house.
- He stuffed the broken window with his hat and coat.
- Their mother set the shivering poor children around the fire.
- Their mother wrapped the poor East-German mother in warm clothes.
- Betsey and the rest of the girls spread the table.
- The girls and Betsey fed the starving little ones.
- Their father, with a towel around himself, tied like an apron, fed the smallest child.
- Their mother dressed the poor new-born baby.
- Betsey gave the East-European mother gruel and tea.
- Betsey comforted the East-European mother that better days would come. She knew best how to comfort a single mother because she herself was poor.
Notice that Lu’s character has not been mentioned at all in the activity of that New Year’s Day except to mention that she was present and did a good deed. This ‘good nature and goodness to all’ is central to most of Louisa May Alcott’s literature and is like most teenage girl related fiction of that time in and around the world. However, the fact is that Cousin Tribulation wanted to project the true meaning of a new year and what it means to start a New Year well by helping others. This is quite different from another short story which also talks of the New Year. The story titled ‘The Little Match Girl’ by Hans Christian Anderson is an ironic story of how a poor little girl dies on New Year’s Eve because of the lack of caring individuals in her life. You can check out that short story analysis here.
The story ends with the entire family happily eating their dry bread and apple. They were happy because they cared for another, which satiated the stomach more than food would. Louisa May Alcott would spend the rest of her life striving for the values which she stood for. There are a few takeaway points that I would like to dwell on in this short story titled ‘Cousin Tribulation’s Story’:
- Notice that the family was the epitome of the true spirit of what it means to be American. Being American was not to illtreat the immigrants but to nurture them and treat them more than family. That is why they shared their meal with them because they knew their ancestors were once immigrants. To learn more about this American ideal, you can read my book review of President Barack Obama’s memoir The Audacity of Hope on my blog.
- The family mentions that they were not like other British families who drank coffee or tea with their breakfast meal. They were brought up like New Englander’s and only had porridge, milk, and bread and butter for breakfast.
- Tribulation’s family were called angel-children by the immigrant family. Tribulation being the tomboy makes a joke that they looked like odd angels in woolen hoods and red mittens. Everyone laughed, but the fact is that indeed, fate or God sends his angels most of the time in regular garments rather than with wings and harps.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story penned by American writer Louisa May Alcott. I love her fiction and read many of her classics in the Bombay Scottish School library when I was eight years old. I spent hours in the library. After all, I considered books to be my father, as my biological father had abandoned me when I was born because I was a girl child. To know my story, you can check out my memoir Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. I hope to read, review, and analyze more American fiction and non-fiction works in the coming days to celebrate the conclusion of the critical 2020 US Presidential Elections. So, if you are looking for more American bookish content, this is the site you should keep watching. I hope to read more works by Louisa May Alcott soon.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short-story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out my blog’s products page. There is so much good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
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