Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

After finally finishing Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women for the first time as an adult, I am feeling rather “bi-polar” regarding my feelings for the book. In turn, it both delighted and irritated me. This was one of my favorite books as a child. In retrospect, I think I found it so endearing because (as the only child living with my grandmother) I longed to be a part of a family like the Marches. As a child, I don’t remember feeling the sometimes over-bearing morality of the novel, but only the lovely warmth exuded to me through the sister’s lives and adventures. At times, I still found this novel comforting. The sort of book that is best read aloud so the words can wash over you as you read. However, at other times I found myself rolling my eyes at the utter “sappiness” of it all. Even Beth’s death was sugar-coated for goodness sake. Perhaps this is just a testament to how times have changed since Book 1 of Little Women was first published in 1868 and Book 2 was published in 1869. After all, it was commissioned as a children’s book and children’s books at the time were mostly morality tales. As Jo says, when first trying to sell her work in NY: “but, Sir, I thought every story should have some sort of moral…” Little Women was also autobiographical in nature and proved a sharp contrast to the more racy adult stories that Louisa had previously been writing for various publications to earn her living. In Harriet Reisen’s biography, entitled Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, Louisa is quoted as having said this about the novel: “Not a bit sensational, but simple and true, for we really lived most of it; and if it succeeds, that will be the reason.” It certainly did succeed.

Louisa May Alcott

My favorite character is, as it is for most, Jo March…in who we find Louisa May Alcott herself: literary, unique, sassy, lively, independent, ambitious, yet sometimes low and lonely. Consider the following, one of my favorite scenes in the novel (reading as an adult):
“Jo was alone in the twilight, lying on the old sofa, looking at the fire, and thinking. It was her favorite way of spending the hour of dusk; no one disturbed her, and she used to lie there on Beth’s little red pillow, planning stories, dreaming dreams, or thinking tender thoughts of the sister who never seemed far away. Her face looked tired, grave and rather sad; for tomorrow was her birthday, and she was thinking how fast the years went by, how old she was getting, and how little she had seemed to have accomplished.”
Of course, Louisa never marries and Jo finally does. Although I liked the match of Jo and her Professor (once I got over the shock of her NOT marrying Laurie), I can’t decide if I would have preferred Jo stay unmarried and so more true to the character of Louisa. In this passage I truly sense that Louisa is speaking directly about herself:
“Don’t laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragical 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.”
In Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, we learn that Louisa would have preferred that Jo remain single, but that the demands of the majority won out: “Publishers … insist on having people married off in a wholesome manner which much afflicts me. “Jo” should have remained a literary spinster but so many enthusiastic ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare refuse, and out of perversity went and made a funny match for her.”

Bronson Alcott

The moral that stands out to me, among the many preached in the novel, is that money cannot buy happiness. Jo says this in the novel after an outing: “I don’t believe fine young ladies enjoy themselves a bit more than we do, in spite of our burned hair, old gowns, one glove a piece, and tight slippers that sprain our ankles when we are silly enough to wear them.” Transcendentalism is my least favorite period in literature. I do not find favor in Emerson, Thoreau, or for that matter Bronson Alcott, also a Transcendentalist. He strikes me as a man who meant well, but in truth was selfish and altogether odd. The Alcott family suffered the challenges of profound poverty due to Bronson’s failure to provide for his family and I find myself wondering if Louisa’s younger years could really have been as happy, despite it all, as she depicts them through Little Women or if this was the way she simply preferred to remember it. We often remember the bad with more clarity than the good, but after reading Reisen’s biography the opposite seems to be true in Louisa’s writing of Little Women.  Maybe that is the true moral of the story…that we should cherish the good rather than the bad and move forward to even better days.
Abigail Alcott…Marmee

Anna Alcott…Meg
Louisa May Alcott…Jo

Elizabeth Alcott…Beth

May Alcott…Amy