This check-in post comes a bit late. I had planned to post it on the 15th, but things have a way of happening, don’t they? Especially at the start of a new semester!
I’m enjoying Little Women so far. It’s not exactly what I expected, but it also is entirely what I expected. Does that make any sense? No? Didn’t think so! Let me try to explain.
I think part of the reason why it has taken me so long to read this book, despite the fact that I know so many people who absolutely love it, is because I thought it would be too sentimental or too “children’s”-focused. I wasn’t worried that it was “chick lit” or “girly,” as I’ve come to despise those kinds of classifications (& because I learned a wicked lesson about such assumptions after reading Pride and Prejudice). But, part of me did expect that this book would be, well, “sweet.” And it is. Each of the chapters thus far (I’m only about 2/3 done) is a kind of episode and each episode seems to offer something less than ideal about one of its characters, only to resolve things with a “lesson learned.” Maybe I’m in for some surprises later in the book, but this is the pattern so far, anyway, and that’s what I expected. It’s (the didactic) not my preferred style of writing, especially when it is heavy-handed, but of course Alcott was trying to sell the book and this was the popular mode.
That being said, I am definitely enjoying the characters and the humor. If one is going to write in such a conventional genre, one can at least bring some unique personality to it. Alcott definitely does that! It’s clear that LMA is intimately familiar with these characters (they are fashioned after her own family members, after all). It’s also admirable, I think, that she presents Jo, the character she bases on herself, so honestly. I understand why so many readers find her an attractive character: filled with great intentions, but flawed, too.
My two favorite chapters so far are Chapter 10, “The P.C. and P.O.” and Chapter 12, “Camp Laurence.” I like Chapter 10 because, well, I love books and language and reading and writing. What person with these interests wouldn’t love this chapter? The girls (and Laurie) create their own newspaper fashioned after Dickens’s Pickwick Papers. Their stories, reports, poems, etc. are creative and fun. I generally enjoy the meta-narrative as a device, and this styling of it, in particular, really seems to suit the girls and their personalities. I envy their imaginations!
Chapter 12, the beach outing with Laurie’s other friends, is also great fun. I particularly loved the way that Jo and Fred kept bickering (Fred completely deserving Jo’s criticisms!). And the story-telling section, where they play a game called “Rig-marole” is really enjoyable, especially, again, for someone who loves reading and storytelling. I can remember playing similar games when I was a kid, though we didn’t have a name for it. Someone would begin a story and each person would have to build upon it. The iteration in Little Women is especially interesting because each character injects a different kind of genre into the story, making it both absurd but also, somehow, quite smart.
I would love to hear what those of you who are reading along are thinking about the book so far. Is this your first read, or a re-read? If you’re re-reading it, have you caught anything new? Appreciating anything different this time? Changing your opinions?
I’m trying to decide which of the characters I most relate to (don’t we love those little quizzes — “Which March girl are you?”) but I haven’t made up my mind, yet. I think I’m quite a bit like Laurie, actually, but also a strange blend of the girls. I’ll have to wait until I finish these last 100 pages before I can really make up my mind. Which character do you enjoy the most, or feel most personally connected to?
This is why I suggested March by Geraldine Brooks. It critiques the very didactic element you question in this novel. Remember when Mr. March comes home and seems no worse the wear for his troubles in battle, and simply starts talking about how the girls’ characters have improved? March opens in battle at the same time Little Women opened, and the true picture of life beyond Concord is QUITE violent and dark. Brooks rewrites the ending to the first book of Little Women (when Mr. March first returns home from war, which you’ve read) to have him note that not a single one of the women at the table notice his character or the changes the year has effected on him — and he went to war. The clear implication is that this world Alcott depicts is isolated, removed, out of touch.
In all honesty, I watched the 1994 adaptation over and over at Christmas, long before I ever read the book. It’s a little more palpably feminist for our generation, but is (I think) true to Alcott’s intention. I love it because it’s a friend — for the characters, the cozy New England setting, the snow. I love the details of the story — the hair burning scene, Laurie and Jo at the ball and her burned dress, the ice-skating. It’s my favorite movie of all time. 🙂 I love Beth, Jo, Mr. Laurence, Laurie — all of them, like I know them. Because of the movie. I probably would never have read the book if I hadn’t seen the movie. You shall watch the trailer. It makes me cry. Literally every time I hear the opening credits. And of course the other scenes that I won’t list, which bring a ready tear. I feel that the story is part mine. I love it first for that. It’s one of those that simply sunk in and stole my heart.
More analytically? Alcott was an abolitionist and a feminist who despised having to write what she called “moral pap.” She had been to war: she served as a nurse in Washington treating both Northerners and Southerners and seeing gruesome injuries. She returned home because she caught typhoid.
I agree Little Women is quite didactic. Alcott couldn’t understand why everyone loved it so much. She’d been coached by her (male) publisher to write a book about girls growing up to be good little women. They wanted didactic, and this made Alcott roll her eyes.
I think part of why I like it so much is the “realness” of the characters. Yes, there’s some sweetness, but she based all of the March sisters and Marmee on the people she loved — strong women, strong girls.
After she published the first book in Little Women, she received stacks and stacks of fan letters from girls in America demanding that Meg marry so and so, and Jo so and so, etc, down the line. She was appalled and disappointed that so many young girls were that fixated on the marrying off of all of her characters. You’ll see how Alcott tries to give them what they want, but with a cynical tone, and with an attempt to complicate the traditional story.
I love the book more every time I read it, because I can sense Alcott’s frustration with the genre. I sense that she wants to “teach” feminism through her didactic. I sense that while the lessons are annoying (I concur, they are a tad! I get past that because I love the characters), I think what she had in mind was to inspire women and girls to think for themselves about their morality — to go out there and get knocked around and eventually conclude on something reminiscent of Transcendentalism:
– “We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.” —Henry David Thoreau
(Louisa May Alcott, as well as her sisters, were reportedly quite close with both Thoreau and Emerson.)
I think if Alcott is trying to teach a lesson, it’s this: girls are not silly beautiful flowers who are born moral representatives for men (as was suggested in the nineteenth century.) They are as flawed as any other human being, and must make an individual choice to choose something higher than habit. Self-reliance, eh? That was probably pretty unusual in the era of the angel of the house. Which is why Marmee’s confession that she is angry almost CONSTANTLY stands out to me as hugely feminist in Little Women.
The Alcotts took in refugees along the Underground Railroad — highly dangerous. Bronson Alcott (Louisa’s father) was an innovator in education, who invented what we now know as recess. He believed in educating women and men equally. He was made destitute (rather like Mr. March) when he admitted an African-American student to his school, and refused to relent the point when pressured by others in the community. He had high ideals, and raised his daughters to have the same.
Marmee was based on Abba May Alcott, Louisa’s mother. Abba was extremely scholarly, blunt — and yes, I’d say angry often, by the injustices she saw all around her. She knew that in her lifetime, she couldn’t hope to do the great things her intellect and will wanted to do — be active in government, enforce social change, etc. As a mother, she reasoned, she could raise her girls to do what her generation wouldn’t yet allow a woman to do — write, draw, paint, speak their minds, form a moral whole. Have TALENTS. It’s the same thing Margaret Mitchell’s mother insisted Margaret do when she was just a child: have a talent, develop your MIND, and when the world falls apart, you will be able to stand. (This conversation reportedly inspired the development of the character Scarlett and her plight against a fallen civilization. Scarlett realizes that charm and looks mean nothing and brains mean everything, in a fallen world.)
In Little Women, we see Amy and Jo having to reconcile their ambition as so many women did: they have talent in a world that seeks to marry them into silence. In real life, Amy (May Alcott) and Jo (Louisa) became a famous respected artist, and a world-famous writer, respectively. I think I read that May had a hand in designing the Lincoln Memorial. You can search her name to see her paintings. 🙂 Marmee and Bronson STRONGLY encouraged Louisa’s writing (as well as May’s painting, and Anna’s choice to marry, and Lizzie (Beth’s) decision to stay home), because they believed in a girl’s right to choose. I believe that’s what Alcott is trying to teach in Little Women, if she must teach something.
She CHALLENGES so many norms in Little Women. She gives Jo a traditionally male ambition and a male name, and she gives Laurie a traditionally female ambition and a female name, and they collide against civilization and its expectations and must choose to defy their world or settle into it realistically, finding a way to be useful anyway. Alcott writes as though the purpose in her novel is didactic, but in the process, she gives to American girls of the nineteenth century perhaps the first honest, hardy, flawed middle class, working female character in American literary history. She puts questions out there for girls to consider: do I want to marry? do I want to write? do I want to paint? These lessons lay behind the more obvious ones styled as didactic, and I think that’s how Alcott slipped her feminist point past “the censors,” and why her books were so popular, and why today we still respond so strongly to Jo: she is real, flawed, defiant. Alcott gives readers what they want (pretty lessons tied in bows), but she challenges what they want through Jo, suggesting that Jo is flawed by society’s standards, but real — and if girls are out there like Jo wanting MORE, MORE, MORE, it isn’t unusual. It’s human. The power to create oneself is entirely in one’s own hands — for girls, for Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, for Laurie.
And at the same time? She suggests that home is beautiful, and ambition is overpowering and exciting and challenging but NOT impossible, and that it’s really, really, really difficult for a woman like Jo to choose between work and home, family and “manly” adventure.
THAT IS PRETTY AHEAD OF ITS TIME.
I can’t say more or I’ll ruin it. I will say I adore Professor Bhaer. Alcott wrote him as a joke on America. He’s hardly the ideal hero, and yet he is.
PS: The Pilgrim’s Progress? I find it mighty cool that Alcott had the great gall to suggest that four young girls might attempt to live up to that book. She’s BASICALLY suggesting that they were on the same moral plane as men — no better (as was too often implied in the nineteenth century as a means to toss women a bone and get them out of the public sphere) and certainly no worse. /essay
Oh, oops! There might be spoilers in the trailer. If you care about that, you should wait to watch it. 🙂
I should add: Alcott wasn’t just writing Little Women to write, and she didn’t capitulate to the didactic genre simply because it was popular and she wanted fame. She financially had to provide for her family, and her one talent, beyond teaching (which paid poorly) was to write whatever might sell. She did it to keep her sisters and mother alive. Her father was (I believe) a well-meaning seed, but not particularly practical. While he dreamed and had literary “conversations” out on his front porch — so frequent Nathanial Hawthorne avoided the Alcott home when he passed so he wouldn’t be bothered by Bronson’s talk — Abba worked as a social worker, Amy tried to sell paintings, Lizzie kept house, and Louisa wrote whatever would sell. She was basically the family breadwinner. If she could have been revolutionary, I’m sure she’d have preferred to do so. She was, from what I’ve read, as thunderous as Jo March, and as contrary. 🙂
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Yes, thanks. That was the point I was trying to make (she, like Dickens whose writing she admired, though she was later let down by the man himself) wrote to pay the bills, but your elaboration is accurate and welcome.
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Ha, yes. She was pretty disappointed by him. 🙂
Thank you for reminding me about this gem of a book. I’ve been meaning to reread some of my childhood greats, but like you, I was afraid of what I’d find. Unpopular opinion here, but I actually quite liked Jo and Professor Bhaer’s relationship, it’s one I didn’t understand then, but upon rewatching the 1994 film, it’s one I can identify with. Thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts on the book. 🙂