Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (1868)

My Edition:littlewomen2
Title: Little Women
Author: Louisa May Alcott
Publisher: Signet Classic
Device: Paper book
Year: 1983. From the original, 1868
Pages: 449
For a plot summary

Work is wholesome, and there is plenty for everyone; it keeps us from ennui and mischief, is good for health and spirits, and gives us a sense of power and independence better than money or fashion.[i]

I like good strong words that mean something, replied Jo.[ii]

 

Apparently, Louisa May Alcott was not happy when her publisher asked her to write a “girl’s book.” She wanted to publish a collection of short stories and didn’t think she could write a successful book for girls. Nor did she enjoy writing it. “I plod away,” she wrote in her diary, “although I don’t enjoy this sort of thing.” After showing the completed manuscript to several girls, who found it “splendid,” Little Women was published to great success and to a surprised Alcott.

This was a first-time read for me and it was a slow process. I found myself totally immersed in the lives of the characters, each page rich in both the large and minute details of the daily life of the March women: pretty Meg is 16, plump and fair, with white hands, of which she was rather vain; Jo at 15 was slim and tall, with gray eyes that saw everything, a flyway look to her clothes and the “uncomfortable appearance of a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman and didn’t like it;”[iii] 13 year-old Beth was shy, but with a peaceful demeanor and was called ‘Little Tranquility’ by her father; the youngest is 12 year-old Amy, blue eyes, yellow hair and a very high opinion of herself. And of course, Marmee, Mrs. March, helping her girls to live and grow as best they can while feeling the absence of their chaplain father away on the front lines (of the Civil War).

If had to sum up in one sentence the theme of the book, I would say it is a morality tale for young women; how to know yourself, what makes you tick so that you can be a better person. So, it was fascinating to watch each daughter’s life journey, each one so different from the other bring their trials, questions, flaws in their character to their mother and with Pilgrim’s Progress as their guide (why is it that one book always leads to another?!) overcome these deficits or ‘burdens’ in their personalities and become independent grown women.

Marmee never scolded or condemned their behavior, but saw each challenge as something that kept them from living up to their best self. And through the normal jealousies, hurt feelings, missteps, growing pains, revelations of truth brought each daughter to her highest self.

So much interested me in this book that I imagine this will be the first of many posts. These are some of the things that struck me.

  • Jo is continually described in masculine terms. She acts “gentlemanly,” she is described as “the man of the family.” Jo is like a boy because she is blunt in her words. Laurie calls her “my dear fellow.” However, these epithets are never used as a mockery or said in spite. They are merely descriptions of her behavior or personality. And it makes me wonder if this meant something different at that time than it does now where calling a woman ‘a gentleman’ has all kinds of negative associations and is often said in mockery toward certain types of women?
  • Though most of the book centers on domestic life, Laurie’s and Amy’s travels in Europe helped both develop a direction for their lives in keeping with the knowing-yourself theme. As Amy says, “Foreign life polishes one in spite of one’s self….”[iv]
  • The sympathetic defense of spinsters and old maids: “Don’t laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God’s sight….and looking at them with compassion, not contempt, girls in their bloom should remember that they too may miss the blossom time; the rose cheeks don’t last forever, that sliver threads will come in the bonnie brown hair, and that, by-and-by kindness and respect will be as sweet as love and admiration now.

    Gentleman, which means boys, be courteous to the old maids, no matter how poor and plain and prim, for the only chivalry worth having is that which is the readiest to pay deference to the old, protect the feeble, and serve womankind, regardless of rank, age, or color. Just recollect the good aunts who have not only lectured and fussed, but nursed and petted, too often without thanks; the scrapes they have helped you out of, the tips they have given you from their small store, the stitches the patient old fingers have set for you, the steps the willing old feet have taken, and gratefully pay the dear old ladies the little attentions that women love to receive as long as they live.”[v]

  • Limes! Who would ever think elementary school popularity was contingent upon the ability to provide limes to your friends? As Amy explains to Meg: “The girls are always buying them, and unless you want to be thought mean, you must do it, too. It’s nothing but limes now, for everyone is sucking them in their desks in the schooltime, and trading them off for pencils, bead rings, paper dolls, or something else, at recess. If one girl likes another, she gives her a lime; if she’s mad with her, she eats one before her face, and doesn’t offer even a suck. They treat by turns, and I’ve had ever so many but haven’t returned them, and I ought, for they are debts of honor, you know.”[vi
  • Titles of books. A nice piece of cultural and literary history to see what books were read at this time or which authors were important to a character. I caught The Vicar of Wakefield, Ivanhoe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Fanny Burney and her Evelina, and of course the importance of Pilgrim’s Progress throughout the book.
  • Beth’s (Louisa’s?) thoughts on death. “Simple, sincere people seldom speak much of their piety, it shows itself in acts rather than in words, and has more influence than homilies or protestations. Beth could not reason upon or explain the faith that gave her courage and patience to give up life, and cheerfully wait for death. Like a confiding child, she asked no questions, but left everything to God and nature, Father and mother of us all, feeling sure that they, and they only, could teach and strengthen her heart and spirit for this life and the life to come.[vii]
  • Amy Gets Snubbed at Mrs. Chester’s Fair Or Mean Girls Fail to Kill Amy’s Spirit.
    Amy was to have the front table at the charity fair to sell her art, but due to circumstances beyond her control (Jo’s imitation of May Chester which put Mrs. Chester off), her table was moved to a less than prominent location and May was given the front table for her work. It would have been Amy’s right to be mad or to even retaliate, but Amy was resolved to participate and keep up the best possible attitude. In the end, May didn’t have enough pieces to fill the table and Amy offered to put back her work, although she was not asked to sit at the table. The pieces sold well and the fair itself was a great success. Her sisters knew what she had been through and praised her for it. “You laugh at me when I say I want to be a lady, but I mean a true gentlewoman in mind and manners, and I try to do it as far as I know how. I can’t explain exactly, but I want to be above the little meannesses and follies and faults that spoil so many women. I’m far from it now, but I do my best, and hope in time to be what Mother is.”[viii]

I have to laugh as I was taught once again that familiarity with a film adaptation (the Hepburn version hepburnis my favorite) does not do a book justice. I thought I knew this story, but it was just a tiny portion.

 

 

As it is summer, let me end on this wise gem from Jo, whose big outdoor hat Meg put the kibosh on by saying, “Oh Jo, you shall not make a guy of yourself.”

“I just will, though, for it’s capital—so shady, light and big. It will make fun, and I don’t mind being a guy if I’m comfortable.”[ix]
_______

[i] 110-111.
[ii] 34.
[iii] 115.
[iv] 354.
[v] 402-403.
[vi] 62.
[vii] 342.
[viii] 284.
[ix] 115.

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23 thoughts on “Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (1868)

  1. Is it bad if I say I didn’t know there was a Hepburn version? I’d like to see it as I like the Elizabeth Taylor version but always had a problem with the choice to make Beth the youngest.

    Interesting to read the history; I wasn’t aware it was a commissioned book of sorts, nor that she didn’t enjoy writing it. Were the rest of them written for the same reason? Very good points in your list. It’s been a while so I can’t remember all of them, but I’d agree that there was a respect behind Laurie’s words.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am now just beginning to learn about LMA, but I get the impression that she wrote because 1) she liked it, but 2. she had to, because of her family situation. Her father wasn’t the best of bread winners. Since she was also good at it, she took the responsibility to use her stories to help her family.

      For some reason, maybe because Beth is so sickly, they make her the youngest. It’s troubling to me now that I have read the book.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Until this reading challenge I didn’t know that either- that LMA didn’t want to write a “girl story.” Amazing that it turned out to be an enduring classic. Fascinating. I also didn’t know there was a Hepburn version or Liz Taylor version. I’ll have to get to those one day… : )

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  2. Pingback: Louisa May Alcott Challenge | Relevant Obscurity

  3. Really great review! It’s been a long time since I read this, but your thoughtful comments made me want to pick it up again now that I’m older and read it more carefully.

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      1. (Hi there again Laurie!) I didn’t read Jane Eyre until my 30s and it absolutely blew me away. It is one my top five favorites and probably always will be. Your review of Little Women, as well as the comments from other readers, has made me realize I need to read it again. Not only because I have obviously forgotten so much about it (The limes! How could I forget about the limes!?), but also because I read it when I was only about 20, give or take a year or two. It would interesting to re-read it now.
        One last thought, Great review! I love that you included quotes from the book, and I was immensely relieved to find that your review style is similar to mine because I was seriously thinking I was doing it “wrong.”

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        1. What a nice comment!

          I admire people who give actual reviews, but I don’t think I do that. I read because I am interested in history, especially 19th century and early 20th, so I think of classic fiction as primary source documents in a way. I like to see what they eat, what their dress/homes/transportation is like, how men and women and children interact, mentions of historical or cultural events, that sort of thing. It’s very personal and arbitrary; I just react to those interests. But there are others who really seem to know so much more about either the author, the times, the literary tradition and put all that in their reviews. I enjoy those reviews, because I learn so much, but I don’t have the background to do it my self (my BA is in Medieval History)! I think whatever is comfortable for you, what ever style shows who you are is the ‘right’ style.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Oh, definitely. I learn more about history and 19th century lifestyles through the books I read than I ever did in classes. Like you said, I also like learning about what they ate, what they wore, their homes, transportation, etc. It’s so fascinating!
            As for “reviewing”, I wish I could be more concise, I admire the bloggers who can do that, but it’s just so hard for me! I have too many thoughts in my head! So I’ve learned that I have to just go with it because, you’re right, it’s the style that I’m comfortable with and shows who I am. Thank you!

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  4. Hi Laurie! I feel that it simply MUST have been such a fun experience to get to live through Little Women for the first time…. ah! I can read it as many times as I want in my lifetime, but it will never be like the first time — in which I actually cried over it — and I’m not even a book-crier. 🙂

    I’m glad you shared some of your favorite quotes from the book too. I didn’t even catch how much of a tomboy that Jo really was when I first read it (granted, I was probably a “tween”). After reading it more recently, in adult years, I’ve found how confidant Jo is as a person, yet graceful and compassionate — and I aspire to be that kind of person myself.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and linking up for the LMA reading challenge!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, thank you for creating this challenge. I was so pleasantly surprised with all I discovered and while I will never read it for the first time again (my “cry about book” is Jane Eyre, so I understand what you are saying), I will read it again. SO much to plumb 🙂

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  5. Wonderful insights, and I especially like how you characterize Marmee’s “lessons” as leading each daughter toward her best self. This book is often criticized as being didactic, and it is, but it’s not about conventional morality but about integrity and self-knowledge. That’s why I think that Alcott has endured when so many of her contemporaries have faded.

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    1. “That’s why I think that Alcott has endured when so many of her contemporaries have faded.”

      I couldn’t help thinking as I read how contemporary these lessons translate to modern life. Meg’s difficulties as a young married woman, then as a young mother come to mind.

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  6. Glad to hear I am not the only one late to reading Little Women! I have read it twice (both times listening through Librivox (definitely prefer the dramatic reading lead by Elizabeth Klett). As much as Louisa said she was not a Transcendentalist like her father, she was a Transcendentalist through and through–how could she help it? The part you described with Amy at the fair was one of the reasons why she became a favorite character for me–she chose to be large while those around her were small and petty, and in choosing to be large she had to endure some small humiliation (which hurts nonetheless). This is the type of spirituality/morality, the day-to-day mundane stuff, that life is made up of and that makes it meaningful, when you are able to make the better choice. Unlike most readers, I found Jo to be a hard character to like at first. It seemed like she was itching for a fight sometimes. But the chapter titled “Alone” where she grieves for Beth really won me over. That was a wonderful chapter exploring the grief process and how it transforms our lives when we let it.

    Looking forward to future posts on Little Women. 🙂

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    1. I am reading Madeleine Stern’s biography of LMA now so I am learning more about her family (I also found a copy of Eden’s Outcasts while on vacation). I don’t know how she could not have been influenced by her transcendental surroundings if she is taking walks with Emerson, learning with Thoreau and having conversations with Fuller!

      I tell you, Susan, now I understand why someone would devote so much time to the study of the Alcotts. I think I drank the kool aid 🙂

      That whole sequence with Amy at the charity fair as to how she was treated, the gossip, the mean girls and how she rose above it, sounded like such a contemporary experience; a good model for anyone young or old, male or female, imo.

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