Portions of this post were originally published on Femnista.
Thousands of people the world over know and love Louisa May Alcott’s classic story of sisterhood, Little Women. But what not as many people know is Alcott wrote two follow-up books called Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Both books tell of the various adventures and mishaps of the students at Jo Bhaer’s country school, Plumfield.
One of these boys, Daniel ‘Dan’ Kean, is my favorite fictional character.
Of all time.
And I’m going to tell you why.
My first introduction to Dan came when my mom read Little Men aloud to me and my siblings. I remember that experience vividly. It was difficult to like Dan at first. Alcott describes him as ‘a most unprepossessing boy’ who ‘slouch[es] in’ and has a ‘half bold, half sullen look.’ Dan quickly lives up to the title Alcott gives him—he’s definitely a ‘firebrand’ in that he turns the gentle, quiet world of Plumfield on its head (and eventually, literally sets it on fire).
…he was kinder to animals than to people, he liked to rove about in the woods, and, best of all, little Ted was fond of him. What the secret was no one could discover, but Baby took to him…Teddy was the only creature to whom Dan showed an affection, and this was only manifested when he thought no one else would see it.
Unfortunately, try as Jo does to draw out Dan’s best qualities, her efforts prove in vain. Dan’s worst offense comes when he persuades a few of the younger boys to drink alcohol, smoke cigars, play cards, and swear. After that, Jo and Professor Bhaer send Dan away from Plumfield.
Not the greatest character intro, right? So why is Dan my favorite fictional character?
Well, to begin with, Dan returns to Plumfield. He comes back, half-lame, exhausted and repentant, and hoping against hope to find a welcome there. After a (very slight) hesitation, the Bhaers accept him back into their midst. That is where Dan really begins to change. He isn’t perfect, but he tries to do good. Before, he constantly looked for ways to test and try the Bhaers—but that is all reversed once they accept him unconditionally.
There’s really no better way to show Dan’s change of heart and mind than to talk about the incident of the stolen quarters. The chapter that deals with this event was what first captured my interest as a child, listening to my mom read. The memory of it was what made me seek out Little Men as a teenager, read it, and really fall in love with Dan.
Some quick context: one of the students, Tommy, leaves four of his quarters lying out in the barn. Another student, Nat (a good friend of Dan’s) is falsely accused of the crime. Nat is treated with suspicion and dislike until Dan confesses to the crime.
The only catch? Dan didn’t take the quarters any more than Nat did. He takes responsibility for the theft, even though it means disappointing the Bhaers, the only people he respects in the world. He willingly endures shame and averted eyes and scorn from the other boys. All so that Nat won’t be accused and despised anymore.
I won’t tell you the outcome of the whole thing, in case you read the book, but it is a happy one for Dan. And he continues to mature and grow and become an even better person throughout the rest of Little Men. Dan’s character development and growth was the first redemption arc I ever really knew of; through all this time it’s remained my favorite. And so has he.
But Dan’s redemption arc isn’t the only reason I love him. I think the character trait of Dan’s that places him at the very top of my list of favorite characters is how he looks out for and defends those weaker than himself. This quality of Dan’s is clearly seen in the incident of the stolen quarters, but it crops up constantly throughout both Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Consider this scene where one of the other boys in the school makes fun of a mentally disabled student.
“Why is Billy like this nut?” asked Emil, who was frequently inspired with bad conundrums.
“Because he is cracked,” answered Ned.
“That’s not fair; you mustn’t make fun of Billy, because he can’t hit back again. It’s mean,” cried Dan, smashing a nut wrathfully.
Or, during the matter of the quarters, one of the students bullies Nat in an attempt to discover who really stole the money. Dan comes along and, well…
“I was only in fun,” said Ned.
“You are a sneak yourself to badger Nat round the corner. Let me catch you at it again, and I’ll souse you in the river next time. Get up, and clear out!” thundered Dan, in a rage.
As Dan grows up and becomes a man, he never loses his compassion for those weaker or less fortunate than himself. He never loses that sense of justice and fair play, that burning need to defend those who need him—whether or not the person in trouble has an ‘official’ claim on him. All of which is extremely admirable, something to be proud of.
Or so you would think.
Unfortunately, at some point between writing Little Men and Jo’s Boys, it seems that Louisa May Alcott decided that Dan’s best qualities were in fact somehow dangerous and that he needed a good dressing-down.
“I don’t drink, or do the things you dread; don’t care for ’em; but I get excited, and then this devilish temper of mine is more than I can manage…when you pitch into a man, no matter how great a scamp he is, you’ve got to look out. I shall kill some one some day; that’s all I’m afraid of. I do hate a sneak!”
And Dan brought his fist down on the table with a blow that made the lamp totter and the books skip.
Dan doesn’t want to accidentally kill anyone because of his temper—perfectly understandable. What is not understandable, however, is how Louisa May Alcott deals with the situation when Dan does accidentally take a man’s life.
To set the scene: on a trip west, Dan comes across a young man named Blair who reminds Dan of Teddy. (Side note: Dan and Teddy’s special bond is only strengthened during Jo’s Boys, and I do love that.) Dan keeps a careful watch over Blair and finds him in a gambling hall one night, playing with men who are “bound to have his money.”
…by the look of relief on Blair’s anxious face when he saw him Dan knew without words that things were going badly with him…
Eventually, Blair loses all of his money—and his brothers’ money—and Dan begs him to leave the gambling table before he loses even more. But Blair is determined to keep playing. Dan stays and watches the game closely.
Seeing Dan’s resolute face, keen eye, and traveled air, the sharpers were wary, played fair, and let [Blair] win a little; but they had no mind to give up their prey, and finding that Dan stood sentinel at the boy’s back, an ominous glance was exchanged between them, which meant: “We must get this fellow out of the way.”
Dan saw it, and was on his guard; for he and Blair were strangers, evil deeds are easily done in such places, and no tales told. But he would not desert the boy, and still kept watch of every card till he plainly detected false play, and boldly said so.
One of the cheats fires back with insulting words and a drawn pistol. Dan’s anger flares; he knocks the man down. The man falls back, hits his head on a stove, and dies.
A wild scene followed, but in the midst of it Dan whispered to the boy: “Get away, and hold your tongue. Don’t mind me.”
And for this, for standing in defense of Blair, hitting a man who drew a gun on him when Dan himself was unarmed, not meaning for the man to hit his head and die, Dan is branded (by the author, if not all the other characters) as a murderer with blood-stained hands. The narrator (so, Louisa May Alcott) says “Yes, Dan was in prison…his own bosom sin had brought him there, and this was to be the bitter lesson that tamed the lawless spirit and taught him self-control.“
*takes a moment to calm down because I am Literally Infuriated on Dan’s behalf*
I just…it doesn’t make sense to me!
How is it a sin to defend yourself and another person for whom you feel responsible??? The man had a gun! Dan only had his fists! And as to Dan being angry…yes, being angry can be a sin. But there is such a thing as righteous anger. Dan had caught the men cheating. They insulted him. One of them drew out a weapon (still can’t get over that). So Dan punched him. And I would even go so far as to say that Dan was following Biblical principles (though I’m sure that wasn’t on his mind in the heat of the moment). After all, the Bible has this to say in Psalm 82:
Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.
Which is all exactly what Dan was doing. So take that, Louisa May Alcott.
I’m calm, I’m calm…
Anyway. Yes. Dan goes to prison for a year. He endures many trials, but at the end he is even more mature and wise and wonderful than before. And at the end of that year, he strikes out on his own again, not wanting to go back to Plumfield until he gets “the haggard look out of his face.” (Feeeels.) While out in the wide world, he ends up saving the lives of twenty men during a mining accident—and almost at the expense of his own life. Laurie and Teddy bring Dan back to Plumfield for rest and recuperation.
I’m not going to get into all that happens at Plumfield. Suffice to say that, during his time in prison, Dan fell in love with someone unattainable. Because of the hopelessness of that situation, he goes into the west (“he was eager to be off, to forget a vain love in hard work, and live for others, since he might not for himself“). Eventually, he dies out there in the exact way you would expect of Dan—in defense of those who need his help (a Native American tribe). And alone, but with “a smile on his face which seemed to say that [he] had fought his last fight and was at peace.”
And you know what? The travesty that is Jo’s Boys might actually have increased my love for Dan. After all, defending a fictional character is one of the best ways to get me to adore them. I’ll still even read snippets of Jo’s Boys because, although Louisa May Alcott does terrible things to Dan, Dan is still Dan. I can filter out the narrator’s censure of his actions and form my own views. And that’s just what I do.
After all, he’s my favorite. I have to take what I can get.
TL;DR—Dan is my favorite fictional character because 1) he defends those who need him and 2) he gets an amazing redemption arc. Also, Louisa May Alcott seriously messed up with Jo’s Boys.
Have you read Little Men and/or Jo’s Boys? Do you like Dan? What do you think of how Louisa May Alcott handled his story throughout both books? Let me know in the comments! I’m excited to hear from y’all.