I read Little Women for Roof Beam Reader’s Classics Book A Month club. Adam has posted some great discussion questions, which I’ll respond to in this (rather long-winded) review.
If you haven’t read Little Women, this review has spoilers in it. Lots of them.
I must have read a seriously abridged version as a child; I thought I knew this book and I didn’t. I knew the basics of the plot (in other words, who each character ends up with). I understood the characters only at their most basic: responsible Meg, strong-willed Jo, quiet Beth, and selfish Amy.
Thankfully, Louisa May Alcott’s version gives these characters much greater depth, from Meg’s desire to have the pretty clothes her friends have, to Amy’s social grace and love of art, to Jo’s struggles with her temper and her desire to make a living as a writer. These characters develop as they get older, and have faults just as we do, which is what makes this book a classic.
I mistakenly believed this was a children’s book. The girls are young, ages eleven to sixteen, when the book begins, but the book spans about ten years. It’s actually divided into two parts. The first is about these “Little Women” growing up, and in the second half they are adults. Alcott published the first half in 1868 and the second a year later, when people wanted to know who the girls married. I think it would certainly be appreciated by adults as well as teens, but it’s written at an adult level of complexity.
The first half contains lessons on maturity, kindness, strength, and responsibility to one’s family and community. While Alcott does get preachy at times (mostly through the words of their near-perfect mother), her preachiness is tempered by her vivid scene-setting (no one forgets the ice skating scene) and her clever way of writing. She portrays these characters as real people, not just morality lessons. For example, Jo is told that she needs to behave like a young lady, but she’s never told to be someone she’s not. In fact, her mother makes it clear that she and Jo share many of the same traits. And because the girls all have different strengths, Alcott isn’t suggesting any one model for how a young woman is supposed to be. Her sympathies may lie with Jo, but Jo clearly envies the strengths of each of her sisters.
In the second book, as the sisters navigate adulthood, there’s a sense of conflict between feminism and what is proper, and what, in fact, will bring these girls the most happiness. Alcott was constrained by the social mores of the mid-1800’s, and what would have been publishable at the time. The book raises questions like whether every woman needs to marry, whether a woman can have a career, and what is the proper role of a wife and mother. And throughout, there is the theme of what it means to love, and how you know it when you have it.
The second half begins with Meg’s marriage, and the book nearly lost me there as a reader, because Alcott goes on and on about Meg’s house, her linens, her furniture, etc. It’s the same thing women are expected to go on and on about today when they marry. I can tell you as a bride I had absolutely zero interest in china patterns and cloth napkins, and I have no idea why that stuff matters more than what it means to become someone’s wife.
The book becomes much more interesting after Meg has twins; she becomes such a dutiful mother that her husband can’t get anywhere near the babies, and she leaves no time for the adults in her life. Her husband feels pushed out of the home and spends all of his time at a friend’s house, while Meg worries and resents him for his neglect. Mother March comes to the rescue, making Meg see that she has a responsibility not only to her babies, but to her husband, and to herself. In other words, being a mother doesn’t mean subsuming your own needs entirely; in fact that’s not good for the children or the marriage. Once again, Alcott addresses an issue I think many women struggle with today.
I dreaded reading the part where Beth dies. When I was young, this story seriously bothered me, because I identified with Beth. I was also the third girl of four in my family, also the quiet one. I may have had Jo’s bookishness, but I had Beth’s severe shyness. If my older sister was Jo, and my younger sister was definitely Amy, then I was Beth. And poor Beth never has much of a life.
In the book there’s a bit more to the story. Beth isn’t just shy and weak, she’s sort of the moral compass for the sisters. It’s worth noting that Beth, Meg, and Amy are all based on Alcott’s actual sisters, so Beth’s death is primarily reflective of her true life counterpart. If her death serves a purpose, it’s to bring out the best aspects of Jo’s character and to strengthen the bonds among the remaining sisters. (Although I still find her mysterious wasting away a bit scary.)
As a girl I didn’t think much of Jo’s romance. I was always impressed that she turned down Laurie, but then Laurie marrying her younger sister seemed a bit uncomfortable. And then she gets this portly old professor. But reading the book helped – it takes a while to warm to Bhaer, but I liked him. His maturity and bookishness make him a much better match for Jo than Laurie. While Laurie always has everything handed to him, Bhaer seems to understand what it means to struggle. You can see Jo’s relief that she won’t have to be the pampered society wife (that Amy so longs to be). And while their romance isn’t terribly romantic, I loved the scene where he proposes to her in the rain and the mud, and they both keep trying to figure out what the other person means. I find an “imperfect” proposal terribly romantic, compared to a carefully scripted one.
Roof Beam Reader asks what we think of the ending, in which Jo gives up on being a professional writer to manage a boarding school for boys. Is it anti-feminist? I didn’t quite read it as giving up, so much as putting off, but I do think Alcott probably needed to make all the girls more socially acceptable, so Amy shelves her art and Jo her writing, even though in real life both succeeded in those careers. Jo emphasizes that the boarding school for boys is HER dream, even before meeting the Professor, so in fact he’s conceding to her wishes rather than her to his. Although I wondered if that’s Alcott rationalizing her ending, because Jo never mentioned this particular dream before. (And why boys, and not girls? Is it because Jo is more comfortable around boys than girls? Because she doesn’t want to have to teach girls how to be proper women?) I did find the whole feel-good ending annoying, especially the children, but then that’s how women were expected to write.
Two things that surprised me in this book: I expected much more about the Civil War, and I also thought there would be more sense of where in the U.S. this book takes place. Alcott lived in Massachusetts and wrote the book in her family home in Concord, but in the book she never mentions where they are.
Most bookish types I know love and identify with Jo, for her love of reading and writing, and her spirited nature. I also identified with how she feels like she doesn’t fit in with conventional society, but at the same time she wants to be different, and I imagine Alcott must have felt that way too. I loved the part where she’s forced to go on social calls with Amy and she deliberately “misunderstands” Amy’s instructions and sabotages each call. Like Jo, I never liked the things girls were supposed to like, and I never felt comfortable with what society expects of girls and women. Jo is so strong-willed and courageous; she must have been a powerful role model for so many girls.
Which sums up what is so significant about Little Women: it’s a book about four sisters growing up and becoming strong women, each in their own way but within the confines of their time. And Alcott makes clear that their relationships with each other, and with their mother, are just as important as getting married.
This was not the light “children’s read” you might be expecting, but it’s certainly a book I’m glad I read. Thanks to Adam at Roof Beam Reader for the great suggestion. This read also counts towards my Classics Club list and the Back to the Classics Challenge.