I almost didn’t review Little Women by Louisa May Alcott since it is already so familiar to many people. But I couldn’t resist. It’s one of my all-time favorite books and one of the first classics I remember reading. I don’t know how many times I’ve reread it.
If you’re not familiar with the story, it’s basically about four sisters growing up in a poor family in the 1800s, based loosely on Alcott’s own family:
Meg (short for Margaret) is 16 when the story opens. Pretty, proper, lady-like, domestic, works as a governess, good except for a tendency to covet other girls’ nice things.
Jo (short for Josephine) is 15, tomboyish, spirited, clumsy, creative, dramatic, short-tempered, likes to write.
Beth, 13, is quiet, painfully shy, musical, and doesn’t venture far from home and family.
Amy, 12, is artistic, ladylike, vain, and a little pompous.
Some years ago when this story came up in a conversation, a friend said, “They were so perfect, weren’t they?” No! They were realistically flawed, but each knew their faults and tried to work on them (and did make progress during the course of the book). One scene where everyone is being fractious for various reasons while the mom (Marmee) is trying to get some mail ready that has to go out that day was very true to life in the way family life sometimes goes, even though the specifics from that time to this are different.
The family had been prosperous but suffered some financial reversals. As the story opens the father is away as a Union chaplain in the Civil War and the girls are lamenting that there is no money for Christmas presents. They each have a small amount and decide to buy something special for themselves, but later decide to use their resources to get something nice for Marmee. Those kind of struggles come up repeatedly in the book — facing some temptation (often the tendency to be dissatisfied) and the opportunity to overcome it or succumb. Sometimes they do one, sometimes the other, but always they learn from it.
When I read this as a child, I was enthralled with the activities the girls amused themselves with (their own newspaper, plays, etc.) and the striving to be good. When I read it as a young woman, I identified with Meg just after she married — the hilarious scene when the jelly wouldn’t gel after working with it all day, and tired, frustrated, and at the end of herself, that’s the day her husband brings a guest home to dinner unexpectedly. She had told him to feel free to do so and wanted to be a good little wife, but the desire clashed with reality that day. Then another day she overspent and dreaded having to tell her hard-working husband (I had a similar experience as a newlywed). At this reading I still identified with Meg a lot (in personality I’m a combination of Meg and Beth), but I found more in common with Marmee, trying to raise these spirited young people. But I also identified with Jo — not so much in her boyish tendencies but in her bumbling growth and her writing. The scenes where she is so lonely (for a couple of reasons which I don’t want to give away, if you’ve not read the book) and looking for what to do with her life are full of pathos.
In my earlier reading I had thought this book had a Christian underpinning. Later I learned that Alcott’s family were Transcendentalists. I’m still not entirely sure what that is: Wikipedia wasn’t much help. I would disagree about the inherent goodness of people (since the Bible says we are all inherently sinful and need a Savior). My friend Ann teaches high school English and discusses this — I’d love to hear that lesson! (In lieu of that maybe you could send me your notes, Ann. ) There are spiritual principles mentioned and reference to asking God for help.
Other themes include hard work, individuality, the pleasures of home, the benefits of poverty, ministering to those even poorer than themselves. Some say there are early feminist tendrils in this book — I need to read more about Alcott some time to know what her views were. The Wikipedia article on her says she was involved with women’s suffrage, and that kind of thinking is clear in the book, but I don’t think she was into the extreme feminism of eschewing marriage and homemaking, especially since she does magnify home life and domesticity. She does show that every woman’s life and personality may not look exactly the same, and I’d agree with her there. Meg and Jo clash over this more than once.
I enjoyed re-experiencing many scenes, but I was surprised at some I had forgotten. One was a time when the girls were longing not to have to work, and Marmee gave them their way for a week or so. At first they reveled in their freedom, but soon grew restless. Then Marmee further reinforced the lesson by taking a short vacation herself to let the girls experience what happens when all those little humdrum duties aren’t taken care of. In this and other ways the book is a little more didactic than modern readers tend to like, yet this book has been beloved for over a hundred years.
I also rewatched the Winona Ryder version of the film Little Women during the course of this book. It did differ from the book much more than I had remembered — some lines show up in different situations than in the book, some scenes are out of order, Jo doesn’t write that kind of book at the end (in that I think they followed one of the older films, either with Katherine Hepburn or June Allyson as Jo — I think the former). There is one scene with Jo and Professor Bhaer discussing transcendentalism and German philosophers which was not in the book (I think designed to show the author’s background a bit) that was not in the book, but otherwise they didn’t add in unnecessary and irrelevant scenes and people, and I think they kept close to the spirit of the book. I still enjoy it despite the differences, and some scenes are very close to the book (Jo attending a dance with a burn mark on the back of her dress, which she tries to keep hidden, and meeting Laurie in the process, Amy’s near-drowning).
I listened to the book this time via audiobook. This type of book — a classic that I love to reread but can’t always work into my regular reading — is one of the best uses of audiobooks for me. I wasn’t thrilled with this particular narrator: she was okay but didn’t do much with different voices. But overall I thoroughly enjoyed learning and growing again with Little Women.
(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)