Little Women is a story readers have enjoyed for generations and has influenced a number of aspiring and successful writers. It is a story of growing up, moral betterment, career and marital aspirations and fortitude in the face of disappointment and tragedy. A bit sentimental and juvenile, it may not be for everyone, but that should not deter you from experiencing this classic.
Little Women is a coming-of-age tale centred on the four March sisters – Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth. When the story begins, their father is serving voluntarily in the American Civil War as a chaplain. The girls lament the family’s lack of money – what funds they had were lost after their father came to the aid of an unfortunate friend – which prevents them from having the Christmas celebration of their wishes, with abundant presents and an absence of labour.
I shall have to toil and moil all my days, with only little bits of fun now and then, and get old and ugly and sour, because I’m poor, and can’t enjoy my life as other girls do. It’s a shame!
Though they resolve to make the best of their situation and surprise their mother with a present, even this good spirit is spoiled by a letter from their father. Hearing of hardship that exceeds their own, the girls renounce their complaints over gifts and work. Their mother reminds them of their joint love of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and suggests it as an allegory for their own betterment.
Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to peace which is the true Celestial City.
Though still young, and having a great deal in common, the sisters’ individual personalities are already very evident. Meg, the eldest at sixteen years old, dreams of a future of wealth and luxury and occupies herself as a nursery governess. Jo, a bookworm and aspiring writer is something of a tomboy and, much to her displeasure, spends her time as a companion to an elderly aunt. Beth, at thirteen years old is somewhat quiet and timid. A peacemaker in the family with a love of music, her shyness means she is home-schooled. While Amy, the youngest, is very ladylike, a ‘snow maiden’ with careful manners and an interest in drawing and art.
Next door to the March’s lives Mr Laurence, a very private and wealthy elder gentleman who, despite his gruff exterior, is very kind, hiding a sad past. Living with Mr Laurence is his grandson, who goes by ‘Laurie’ and spends most of his time hard at study, locked away with his tutor with high expectations of excelling in college and entering the family’s international trade business. Somewhat lonely, Laurie blossoms with increased acquaintance with the March girls who find him to be a perfect gentleman. Even Beth is enticed out of her shell by the Laurences and visits regularly to play piano for Mr Laurence.
As the girls grow up, episodes from their lives teach them lessons about modesty and gratitude, repentance and forgiveness, pride and a work-life balance. While able to enjoy some of the pursuits of other young adults of the time, there is also the repeated threat of poverty, illness, damaged reputations and the constant onus of hard work. But there are also new opportunities, for love, marriage, career and travel.
I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good; to be admired, loved, and respected, to have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to them as God sees fit to send. To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman; and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience.
Little Women was originally published in two separate parts in 1868 and 1869. It was reworked in 1880 and made even more sentimental than in already was and it is this 1880 version that most readers are familiar with. The version that I read is a recreation of the original 1868-9 edition with the only changes being corrections for spelling and grammar.
I like to think of myself as an openminded reader. With a few exceptions, I don’t want to consciously restrict my reading in any way and I’m happy to not only read books that catch my interest but that have achieved great appeal to others. I detest the idea that there are certain books for certain people. Literature’s greatest power is to allow the reader to experience vicariously what we otherwise would not. Even if some people will understand or be affected by some books more than others, the generation of empathy is literature’s great strength regardless.
All that being said, Little Women may not be a book for me! I don’t really have a great deal to objectively critique the book for – it is clearly very well written and has influenced and been enjoyed by a great number of people. And there were parts of it that I appreciated and enjoyed as well. My overall feelings for the book are mostly subjective and related to its style and tone – it was just too sentimental, too juvenile, for me. Too much fretting over dresses and hair, too difficult to hop on board with the enthusiasm for children’s pursuits and events.
After I finished the book, I realised that I actually have a copy of the 1994 film adaptation which I have not seen; the one with Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon among other notables. Normally I always watch an adaptation after finishing a novel and incorporate it into my review, but this time I just could not face it. There have been multiple adaptations of Little Women and another star-studded one will be released at the end of this year, with Meryl Streep and Saoirse Ronan.
As well as its sentimentality, the book is also quite preachy. It is a story about God, country and father-figures; pride, humility and piety; hard work and simple pleasures. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, as well as Alcott’s own family hardship and her relationships with her sisters, provided the model for Little Women, with female progress replacing male. I would not necessarily say that I found the preachiness off-putting, even though I don’t always agree with it, but it does accumulate and when transparent it takes away the illusion of realism in the story.
I gave my best to the country I love, and kept my tears till [your father] was gone. Why should I complain, when we both have merely done our duty, and will surely be the happier for it in the end? If I don’t seem to need help, it is because I have a better friend, even than father, to comfort and sustain me. My child, the troubles and temptations of your life are beginning, and may be many; but you can overcome and outlive them all, if you learn to feel the strength and tenderness of your Heavenly Father as you do that of your earthly one. The more you love and trust Him, the nearer you will feel to Him, and the less you will depend on human power and wisdom. His love and care never tire or age, can never be taken from you, but may become a source of lifelong peace, happiness and strength. Believe this heartily, and go to God with all your little cares, and hopes, and sins, and sorrows, as freely and confidently as you come to your mother.
As I said, it is very well-written, so despite by own tastes I found myself getting interested and invested. Probably even more that I realised. When the story took a twist or turn, I surprised myself by how much I was committed.
With regards to technique I have very little to say. Alcott is clearly an excellent writer who manipulates her reader’s thoughts and emotions well. There were times when I thought events were a little too transparent, where it seemed too obvious what the writer has in store. But there was also a chapter, late in the book – whose details I won’t spoil here – that I found to be a standout. There, the characters and the reader move from innocence to hesitancy to confession, to conflict and self-doubt within a very believable interaction. It was a wonderful exploitation and manipulation of the characters and the reader.
The one technical fault I felt the book had was that it was too long. Little Women limps towards the end. I felt there was little story left in the last fifth or so to power my enthusiasm and I had to force myself a little to read on and wished the ending, which seemed pretty clear to see, would hurry on. In the end it becomes a bit of a match-making novel but not one as rich or as compelling as an Austen.
After finishing Little Women, I found support in these thoughts from what I thought would be an unlikely source – the author! Alcott had to be cajoled somewhat into writing the second part to Little Women, by publishers who wanted to build on the success of the first part and by readers eager to see the March sisters married off. Alcott complied but mischievously worked to deny readers the satisfaction of the matches they would have hoped for the sisters. But to make such endings plausible, given what had come before, takes time and stretched out the novel.
“I don’t like sequels, and I don’t think No 2 will be as popular as No 1,” [Alcott] wrote her uncle, “but publishers are very [perverse] & won’t let authors have [their] way so my little women must grow up and be married off in a very stupid style.” She was annoyed when girls wrote to her to ask “who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life.” At first Alcott resisted the pressures of the standard marriage plot […] but she quickly saw the fictional possibilities in creating a different kind of marriage for [the characters]. – From the Introduction.
While, in Part One of Little Women the focus is shared pretty evenly between the four girls, in Part Two, which begins three years after Part One ends, Jo feels like the star and centre of the story. I don’t think I am alone in finding her – headstrong, intelligent and bookish – my favourite character.
As an aspiring writer, it is not a big leap to speculate as to the autobiographical relationship between Jo and Alcott. There is much of Part Two of Little Women that is about Jo’s pursuit of a writing career – about the difficulties of getting published, the challenges of earning a living as a writer, the conflict of writing what you want versus what publishers and readers want, not to mention the problem of what women writers of the time ‘ought not’ to write about.
Alcott’s own life experiences would have informed the conflicts Jo faces in the novel. Before writing Little Women she had secretly published several lurid thrillers under a pseudonym. She also wrote unpublishable novels of interracial love. The success of Little Women gave her family the financial security they lacked but also confined the style and subject matter of her writing for the rest of her life.
[Alcott’s unpublished novel The Long Love Chase (1867) and her later novel A Modern Mephistopheles (1877) both] suggest her guilty sense of having bartered her womanhood and art in the name of financial expedience, to achieve literary and commercial success.
[…] “Though I do not enjoy writing ‘moral tales’ for the young,” she wrote to an admiring correspondent, “I do it because it pays well.” – From the Introduction.
The edition I read included an introduction by Elaine Showalter who, at the time of publishing, was an English professor at Princeton. Her introductory essay has some interesting information about Alcott, her influences and inspiration for Little Women, some of which I have included above. In addition, she discusses the fact that, despite the book’s popularity and influence, and the author’s body of other work, it took a long time for Little Women to be accepted as serious literature and a classic. She also shares the relationship feminist critics have had with Little Women, championing some aspects, but being disappointed by others, and the change of this relationship over time.
For some feminist critics, Alcott’s lifelong effort to tailor her turbulent imagination to suit the moralism of her father, the commercialism of her publishers, and the puritanism of “gray Concord,” kept her from fulfilling her literary promise. For others Little Women stands as one of the best studies we have of the literary daughter’s dilemma: the tension between female obligation and artistic freedom. – From the Introduction
To me, it is the sustained enjoyment and influence of Little Women over a long period of time that assures its classic status. It is because of such credentials that I was always going to read Little Women according to my approach to reading. Though it was not for me, for purely subjective reasons of style and subject, I still found things to appreciate and I would not discourage others from giving this classic a try.