Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
originally published 1868/9
Dell Yearling Classics, 2nd printing, 1987
Genre: Children’s literature
Synopsis & Review: Loosely based on Alcott’s own experiences growing up, Little Women tells the story of the four adolescent March sisters–Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy–as they grow up genteelly poor in Civil War Concord, Massachusetts. While their father serves as chaplain in the Union Army, the girls are raised by their beloved mother, Marmee, who guides them through their trials and tribulations both small and large. The novel begins at Christmas, when the girls work to overcome their selfish instincts by spending their pocket money on gifts for Marmee. As presents, they received individual copies of the New Testament, and each vows to work to overcome her flaws using it as a guidebook. The eldest sister Meg is a proper young lady, pretty and responsible, but she best remembers life before the Marches lost their money, and often sighs for pretty things and luxuries. She struggles against vanity, particularly when compared to the lives of her still-wealthy friends and her employers. The chief protagonist Jo is a harum-scarum girl, tomboyish and outspoken, and an aspiring writer who must learn to subdue her too hot temper. Beth is a talented pianist, but over-shy, to the point where she does not go to school and stays home caring for her dolls and cats, avoid public interaction whenever possible. She works at overcoming her shyness, especially when doing charitable works or befriending old Mr Laurence. The youngest sister, Amy is artistic and self-conscious, too aware of her prettiness and social graces. As the baby of the family, she has been petted and spoilt, and is prone to tantrums when she doesn’t get her way. She is aware of her selfishness, and her task is to overcome it. As the sisters go about their business, they also befriend their neighbors, wealthy old Mr Laurence and his grandson Laurie, a musical young man who becomes fast friends with the Marches, especially Jo. And that is enough synopsis for this classic, since if you haven’t read it already (gasp!) you can see it all on Wikipedia. I mean, who doesn’t know all this already?
I was eight when I read Little Women for the first time (is that late, or right on time?); my mother, who loved helping me pick out my allowance books and often steered me toward the classics she loved as a little girl, suggested it, and so I began reading it that winter.
I delighted in the novel, enjoying both the March sisters’ adventures and the feeling of self-importance I got from carrying such a massive tome around at school. (I told you, I have always struggled with pretentiousness.) Little Women also prompted one of the most violent reactions I’ve ever had to a book.
One evening, my older sister Malia came downstairs because she heard what sounded like crying. There little Schatzi was, curled up on the floor in front of the coffee table, hunched over Little Women and sobbing. She was ten years older, and figured Schatzi had just gotten to Beth’s death, but as she approached, she realized that her baby sister was cursing like a sailor: “G-ddamn, motherf—r, a–hole, sh-t, f-ck you!” and so on. Bemused and alarmed, Malia rushed over to the incoherent and hysterical child, demanding to know what was wrong. It wasn’t Beth’s death at all, it was the marriage of Amy and Laurie. Malia made me put Little Women down and wash my face, and wouldn’t let me continue reading till I calmed down. She didn’t even chastise me much for the swearing, finding the whole thing too funny.
Though I like Professor Bhaer, I remained indignant at Alcott’s scurvy trick, yet another in a long line of injustices perpetrated upon Jo by Amy. Oh, how I loathed Amy, the self-important little brat! She stole Laurie! Not only did she plague Jo with her brattiness, destroying her precious book, she didn’t even suffer for it! Oh no, she fell in the icy river–her own fault, mind you, for being a spoiled wretch–and everyone forgave her. Like that erases what she did? And then she replaced Jo at Aunt March’s, stealing her European tour out from under her! I am still furious at the injustice, and having read this excerpt from an Alcott letter:
Jo should have remained a literary spinster, but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare refuse and out of perversity went and made a funny match for her.
Oh, no you di’int, Louisa May! I am getting incoherent all over again, so I had best leave it.
I don’t know how many times I read and re-read Little Women growing up. The cover on my copy is completely gone, and the book itself is quite tattered; there are some scribbles from me writing homework assignments in it, foodstains, and it looks as though I may have dropped it in the bath at some point. Probably once or twice a year, nearly as often as the Little House books, although Jo and the other March girls were eventually supplanted by Polly and Fanny in An Old-Fashioned Girl. I hadn’t read it recently, though, not in several years. Though Beth’s death never bothered me much growing up (she was such a non-entity, though I sympathized with her affection for dolls and cats), I found myself crying openly this time, my first time reading it since my mother died in 2005. It was difficult for me, but Alcott handles it in a sensitive and honest manner (though she is full of it when she says people go peacefully). Her treatment of grief-stricken Jo after Beth’s death is particularly thoughtful and genuine: Often she started up at night, thinking Beth called her, and [the] sight of the little empty bed made her cry with the bitter cry of an unsubmissive sorrow, “Oh, Beth, come back, come back!” […] The resentful sorrow for her loss, the fruitless efforts that discouraged her, the want of faith that made life look so dark, and all the sad bewilderment which we call despair. Been there, done that.
Something else I appreciate more as an adult than I did as a child is Alcott’s moralizing. I know she’s seen as sanctimonious and preachy by many these days–and she does have her moments, I will never argue that–but she has her points, points that are just as valid today as they were in 1868: Have regular hours for work and play, make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well. Honestly, that’s pretty sensible advice, though it does come from Marmee. (Yes, she is aggravating, but I noticed things I didn’t before on this reading, like her problems with temper–especially in light of Mr March’s financial troubles and going off to war. I also thought her advice to Meg on sharing parental duties eminently sensible, and still applicable, too.) Also worth considering is the state of children’s literature before the mid-nineteenth century.
The she tried a child’s story, which she could easily have disposed of if she had not been mercenary enough to demand filthy lucre for it. The only person who offered enough to make it worth while to try juvenile literature was a worthy gentleman who felt it his mission to convert all the world to his particular belief. But much as she liked to write for children, Jo could not consent to depict all her naughty boys being eaten by bears or tossed by mad bulls because they did not go to a particular Sabbath school, nor all the good infants who did go as rewarded by every kind of bliss, from gilded gingerbread to escorts of angels when they departed this life with psalms or sermons on their lisping tongues.
Amazingly, that was pretty much the entire state of children’s literature before then, instructional, edifying stories of the sort Alcott describes and Jo refuses to write. (Oh, Louisa May, you sly boots! Sliding that criticism in so smoothly!) Aside: You know HC Andersen wrote for adults? And the Grimms collected for adults?
Yes, we occasionally gag of a moment of moralizing, but essentially the March sisters and their little foibles and troubles remains as relevant as they’ve been for generations. Girls (and grown-ups) still sympathize with the March sisters as they pursue happiness, be it in the form of their own little projects, the approbation of peers or adults, or even a pretty new dress–not to mention the broader scope of young women trying to make it in the wide world. And we enjoy Jo’s ambition as well as her predilection for scorching things (her dresses and Meg’s hair), Amy’s malapropisms and mis-spellings a well as her will, Meg’s un-jelled jelly and failed experiment as a social butterfly, and Beth’s, umm, cats.
Favorite moments: The game of Rigamarole (I tried many times to recreate that, but it was never successful), Amy’s picnic for her art class, and the Pickwick Club and Portfolio.
WTF moments: “Irish” as an epithet is a nice reminder of our past immigration and race issues. And holy obsession with German, Louisa May! I don’t think I ever noticed that before. Funny to compare fashions in languages and thought (lest we forget, Romanticism and German naturalism was all the rage). The rabid temperance was pretty humorous, too.
Aside for a different kind of WTF: They’ve got a whole series of parallel novels for Little Women now, apparently aimed at younger readers (Amy’s Story, Jo Makes a Friend, etc). But the suggested ages for that series is 9-12. That’s giving me some cognitive dissonance, since it makes me wonder how old you’re supposed to be when you read Little Women–I thought 9-12 sounded about right, but here’s these (wretched) books. I like the idea of the crafts, recipes, and activities included, but otherwise these are almost as bad as the My First Little House Books and the Little House Chapter Books (does the Little House really need any dumbing down? I always thought the prose simple and straightforward, perfect for young readers). But I digress.
Cover: The Dell Yearling Classic red band across the front cover and solid red back cover (I have several books from this line). Dell Yearling actually sprang for artists to create original paintings based on the books, and they’re very nicely done. (I searched the Internets for HOURS to find my cover, mind you, since mine has been missing for a decade or two.) Jo is in green, standing before the fire as is her wont, looking concerned. Meg sews on the right, Beth kneels on the floor before a pensive Amy. Not bad. There are so many rad covers out there:
15th August – 17 August