Remembering and Revisiting Alcott’s Little Women

I first read Little Women in sixth grade.  At that time, I fancied myself to be like Jo.  I had ink-stained fingers, I wrote stories and plays, and I left manuscripts all over the house. I even occasionally got bored with writing and instead ripped my white notebook paper into little squares, which I wrapped over my teeth to make them whiter.  I’d pretend to be a news anchor or movie star for the few minutes they lasted.  Then I’d spit them out reluctantly and turn to the paper clips, fashioning them into “braces.”

As to those manuscripts, one was lost.  It was called Sarah Small and was a work of staggering genius, if you ask me.  It seemed to follow the theme of children’s books about the Littles or the Borrowers. I was fascinated by miniatures and by the possibility of small people living in the walls.  I also wrote a full novel about a mischievous girl named Marie, who played tricks on her older brother involving his love life.  I modeled her after Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and after the person I wished I could be.

Well, enough reminiscing.  Back to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) and number 11 on the BBC book list.  I recently listened to the novel on CD during my drive to school.  I had forgotten most of it since sixth grade and I wanted to refresh my memories. I realized that I did not remember much, except for the part with the Pickwick papers.  That fascinated me as a child.  And I knew that Beth died, although this time around I held onto hope that she wouldn’t.  I had forgotten the entire second half of the novel, in which the girls grow up into those “women” and find suitors and marry.

I have to admit I’m feeling a little angry with the novel.  It strikes me as anti-feminist (a true product of its time, I guess), despite moves to the contrary on Jo’s and Meg’s parts.  I understand that I cannot expect Alcott to have the same views on the female experience as I do, but nevertheless I feel a bit perturbed.  Especially annoying is the fact that the one sister who does not and cannot marry ends up dead.  I guess that’s the only acceptable fate for women who have no men to support them.  I also find Meg’s husband to be a brute, but he does come around in certain situations.  I’m also disappointed that Jo ends up marrying, although it is to a man of letters.  And the fact that Amy only looks forward to pleasing Laurie is somewhat irksome.

The most interesting part to me, in light of the class I took on the culture and politics of motherhood, is the same ambivalence Meg feels in her role as mother and housewife that women still feel a today, over 100 years later.  The scene in which she fails at jelly making is pretty hysterical, and still played out, I’m sure, in new marriages today.

My favorite part of the book is the first half.  I could have done without the second half.  In my humble opinion, they should have been two books.

It’s also full of neat little sayings.  Some of them are:

Learn to know and value praise.

Jo: I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.

Jo: If only I could be like father and crave violence and go to war and stand up to the lions of injustice.

Marmee: Feminine weaknesses and fainting spells are the direct result of our confining young girls to the house, bent over their needlework, and restrictive corsets.

I mentioned earlier that as a young girl I identified with Jo, but I realize now that the book’s success and place as a beloved classic for girls may have to do with the fact that we can identify with each of the little women.  They each possess personality traits and face situations that we can envision ourselves experiencing.  For me, I found Amy’s dislike of her nose to be familiar.  I had a friend in sixth grade tell me that I have a big nose, and I’ve been conscious if it since.  My friends now think it’s hilarious that I still worry about it, since they say it isn’t too big.  As for Jo, I identify with her rebellion against typical forms of womanhood and her interest in books and writing.  I want to identify with Beth as a kind.  Maybe someday I will be as good as she is.  Although, I was a quiet and shy child, so that part of Beth is familiar to me.  With Meg, I find her role as a mother and as the oldest child similar to mind.  I’m the oldest of three sisters, a step-sister, and a half-brother in my family.  I am also the only one to have children so far, so in her experience, I see myself.

The motherhood experience, although fraught for Meg, is too ideal in the book. Marmee is always happy and kind.  She does admit to having conquered her anger, a trait that Jo is working to contain.  But we never see Marmee struggle with this.  We also never see Mr. March, even after he returns from the Civil War.  But that’s okay, because his absence made way for Geraldine Brooks to write her Pulitzer Prize-winning account of his experiences in March, a book I highly recommend.

Now, I wondered if the names March and Brooke were significant.  They reminded me of a fabulous novel called Middlemarch (maybe you’ve heard of it, ha ha, or heard me praise it over and over again on this blog), in which the protagonist is Dorothea Brooke, a model of a perfect lady.  Perhaps Alcott was influenced by Eliot’s masterwork.

My favorite part of Little Women has to be the scene of Christmas near the beginning, in which the sisters give up their breakfasts for a poor family in need.  They display true Christian sacrifice and love for one’s neighbor.  I am touched by their willingness to share because they have been given much and realize that they too must give.

What is your favorite part of Little Women?  There’s so much to love and think about that I cannot possibly cover it here.