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.

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38 thoughts on “Remembering and Revisiting Alcott’s Little Women

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  1. Little Women was one of those classics I never got around to reading until a few years ago. So perhaps I approached it with a bit of lingering guilt. Didn’t everyone else read this book when they were 10? How dare I confess that I had missed all those years of loving the story of Jo, Meg, Beth, and the rest? (Yes, I knew the characters’ names, for the most part.) But the truth is, when I read it I was sorely disappointed on a number of levels….time prevents me from elaborating just now, but I wonder if I wouldn’t have appreciated it more when I was 11 or so.

    1. I wonder that, too. I don’t think I enjoyed it as much now as I did as a child. But I do think I read it too young. I didn’t pick up on everything that was happening in the novel and reading it at 15 or 16 probably would have made more sense, for me.

  2. Hi Emily:

    I have been reading your blog since a colleague recommended it. I am very curious about the class you took on motherhood. Was it a graduate class?

    1. Sally, it is a women’s studies 6900 class at USU titled The Culture and Politics of Motherhood. It will serve as part of my cognate area for my Ph.D. Fascinating stuff! It’s just coming to a close, and I’m going to miss it. We’ve focused on Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born and a collection of essays edited by Andrea O’Reilly called 21st Century Motherhood. My professor is a post-doctoral fellow with a degree in Sociology, but she focuses her research on women’s issues. If you’d like a more comprehensive list of the readings and such, I’d be happy to email it to you. Let me know. And thanks for reading!

  3. I first loved Little Women because my mother loved it, and she was the youngest of four girls. Her name was Joann — Jo, of course. All four turned out to be strong, independent women! It occurs to me that we like the different personalities in “Sex and the City” for some of the same reason you mentioned.

  4. Hi Emily –

    In my humble opinion, they should have been two books.

    They were. 🙂 Little Women is the first book, and Good Wives is the second book. (Followed by Little Men and Jo’s Boys.)

    In America the first two books are now sold as one book (Little Women), for some reason. Alcott originally ended the tale while the girls were children.

    (spoilers below)

    Her publisher (a male) pushed her to write a story about “good little girls who become good wives.” He was all about making sure the novel taught girls a moral lesson. Alcott HATED it, and didn’t much care for the parts you dislike in Little Women either (from what I’ve read.) Alcott, like Jo, liked writing horror stories and thrillers. But those weren’t making much money, and her family was impoverished. Writing a novel the way the publisher demanded was the only way to keep from starving. Much of the plot in Little Women is based upon her own life. Beth was a character inspired by Louisa’s sister Lizzie. Lizzie was shy, unmarried and died in her early twenties after fighting off scarlet fever. Her heart had been weakened, like Beth’s.

    While Alcott was writing Good Wives, little girls wrote her and BEGGED her to marry Jo to Laurie. She created the professor as her own private joke, appalled that girls actually thought the only possible end for Jo (or any female) was marriage. The professor values Jo’s mind, and I think that’s why she created him. That Jo marries him? Honestly, I see it as validation for choosing marriage and children, and trying to find a way to engage in a career as a woman, wife, and mother. I feel like Jo’s outcome is a suggestion that a woman can be strong, defiant and wild (like Jo), and still ultimately choose marriage.

    My Mom was a stay-at-home mom, and I don’t for a second think she didn’t choose it. Alcott, meanwhile, chose to never marry, and I think that’s testament to her ability to see both sides. Ultimately, freedom as a woman is about CHOICE. (IMO.)

    Louisa May Alcott’s mother (Abigail May) was a suffragist who had no plans to marry – and this was astonishing to her friends and family. She wanted to educate herself and use her education to better the world. She spent much of her youth reading. (Her elder brother was also a suffragist – Samuel Joseph May. Female freedom was wild in the Alcott/May family, as was going against the grain. When Abigail met Louisa’s father, she proposed to him herself. She valued his gentle spirit, his fire for human rights – and she married him, not to be a good little woman, but to unite with him in mind and spirit, in her effort to better the world. And she was a mother toward the same goal – and raised Louisa and her sisters to fight for freedom.

    That Little Women ends as it does is anything but a cop-out, to my way of thinking. It is Jo uniting with someone she believes honors her intelligence, to begin a school that will change the way children think. That part is likely based on Louisa’s father, who strove to change the educational system in America, so children would be free to think and exercise their minds, rather than simply memorize facts without challenging the,. While he taught Socratic dialogue in schools, Abigail taught it to the four Alcott girls, knowing that to teach them was to contribute her own fire for freedom times four.

    All of this is (I believe) under the surface of Little Women, because Louisa was writing for male publishers in a male world. Like Austen, she had to speak in between the lines.

    Apologies if you already know the background. I just wanted to share my thoughts as another perspective, to think about or dismiss. Cheers! 🙂

  5. I was just like you when I first read it in sixth grade. I wanted to be strong like Jo, and I felt that Amy was very unfair to her sister. I may need to pick it up and read it again. I have had March sitting on my bookshelf for some time now, I may need to read that one, too! 🙂

  6. I know your frustrations with Little Women. I disagree with you about the part where you said the only girl who doesn’t marry dies, that is definitely a trope in literature where a breakout person pays for it with her life (which makes Ibsen’s ‘the Dollhouse all the more astonishing, especially since it was written by a man). But Beth is still a child, or young teen when she dies, isn’t she? That was always the impression I had. I was always sad that Jo got married too. I think the book would have been stronger if she’d had a career rather than a marriage, but at least it is to someone who challenges her intellectually and personally. Laurie and Amy are really perfect for each other but I always judged Amy for stealing Laurie. It is funny that the most uncontroversial book has become controversial now a days because it does seem so anti-feminist. But not every book or movie has to be feminist either. For the life of me I can’t remember what book it was but I recently read a book where I liked the book but felt disgruntled because it wasn’t feminist enough for me! Hopefully I’ll think of what it was. I think that it is unfair to expect women to be as forward thinking as we are. They lived in a time where they couldn’t even vote or hold property and while they may be balking at the bad or unhappy marriages, at the time of their writing they didn’t have a history of female rebellion and triumph like we are so blessed with today. It is easy for us to view things from a desire for equality because we understand that we can have it, it is not abstract to us. But sometimes you just want to shake female characters!!

    1. You are absolutely right. I love your comments about being frustrated but also being gentle and giving the women, especially the authors, some sort of credit for what they did do. It takes time to change social structures and attitudes, and I should be grateful that Alcott (and her forward-thinking eccentric father) did what they did to change society during their time.

      1. It is so easy for us to put our ideas onto past peoples because it makes sense for us. I find it so funny that one of the most uncontroversial stories ever written is actually pretty controversial!

  7. I see what you mean about it being anti-feminist in that it still ties women to marriage and domestic life, but what I love about this novel is that Marmee teaches them to be thinking, kindhearted women within that social structure. At the time, many women were only concerned with outward appearances and trapping a good man, but in this novel, Jo is taken to task when she tries out these behaviours at the ball. Jo is encouraged instead to become more of who she is, to read Emerson and think about how she might improve the world. i think her marriage to Dr Bhaer and founding of a school is a good use of her talents, even if it isn’t as clearly about blazing her own trail.

  8. I never realized the (possible) connection between Middlemarch and Little Women. Good observation. I think, though, that I would call it un-feminist rather than anti-feminist. I don’t think Louisa May Alcott was against the women remaining single or wanted to make an example of Beth for not marrying. That’s simply not how it happened for her characters. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with being married, even if you’re a feminist. I never got the impression that her female characters were weak or dependent on their husbands. They were strong women who found joy in loving their husbands, and I admire that. Like you, I related to a lot of Meg’s scenes. I’ve spoiled many dinners that my poor husband has had to endure!

    1. Ah, there you go! That is a much better way if describing it, but I am almost convinced that it was feminist in its time and way because of all of the fantastic comments from readers. Just because it doesn’t go all the way from our perspective, doesn’t mean that it isn’t trying. And wow, I am hearing echoes of my master’s thesis in that statement. You’d think I would’ve realized this while reading!

  9. SUCH a great book, one of my favorites. I think every person I’ve ever known who’s read it has said, “I’M JO!” I think we all secretly thought we were her because she was just so independent and rebellious and smart. I love your thought, though, about being able to identify with all the characters.

    The book and movie (one of the few times I’ve like Claire Danes or Winona Ryder and LOVED Susan Serandon as Marmee) have always brought me comfort. I think of their cozy home, their humble surroundings, their love for each other, each trying to do her part to help the family cope during a hard time. Makes me want to have 4 girls and live in a simpler time. I’ve never thought about the feminist connotations, but to me they’ve always represented a progressive little family because it seemed to be a home that valued being sensible, smart and talented.

    1. I like your description of the family as progressive, especially when it comes to raising girls. Perhaps Marmee is just doing what I claim to do when I wrote that post on teaching my daughters about feminism. And, you’re right that we all think we’re Jo, but the truth is, I’m really probably Meg. I bet there’s a social media quiz out there that will tell you which March sister you are!

  10. ‘Little Women’ and ‘Good Wives’ are some of my favourite books and I have read the sequels. Also have Louisa May Alcott biography that I need to get around to reading.
    I identified with Jo though she was my least favourite sister. I found her independent but a bit self absorbed. I felt that she married Bhaer to be perverse as she regretted not being with Laurie. My favourite was Amy who I feel is misunderstood. She had her childish naughtiness and blossomed into a lovely woman who had traits of all of her sisters.
    Shameless bit of self promotion but here are my thoughts on it: http://philofelinist.wordpress.com/2012/11/14/under-the-boardwalk/

    1. I love your analysis of the love triangle involving Jo, Amy, and Laurie. It is perverse and a little unfair to Amy. I think I like Beth the most. And I did like Bhaer, but I am pretty sure that Alcott wanted us to like him. In real life, I am not sure I would. That older man attracted to a younger woman motif reminds me of all the dirty old men I’ve ever known…

  11. Feminism has levels. I think at its most basic level feminism is simply allowing that women are just as human as men and agreeing that we need to be treated just as well as men. I don’t think feminism requires that women act in a way that would be considered “masculine” or eschew marriage. Rather, I think feminism requires that women should be marrying for love, not out of duty or simply to be taken care of. Also I think feminism protects the right of women to have the personalities we were born with, whether they be considered “feminine” or “masculine.” So, in that sense, I think Little Women does have some feminist undertones, even if they are subtle. I loved this post and I wish I could have read the manuscript you described.

  12. Great post. I also loved reading the comments. I had always thought LMA had married and that her husband was a little Prof Bhaer-ish. In fact, the more I think about it, I seem to remember an interview I had heard some time ago, that mentioned that LMA was not as impoverished in her adult life as is believed. Also, unlike many other women forging a career in those days, her husband was very supportive of her. And now, I read here, and in Wikipedia that she never married. I am confused. Who have I confused LMA with?

  13. Wow what a question! Can I have more than one favourite part? 😉
    * where the girls give away their breakfast and Laurie surprises them with a replacement breakfast
    * Jo dancing in the hallway with Laurie
    * Laurie telling Jo he sent for Mrs March to bring her home for Beth
    * Jo cutting off her hair for money for her father
    * Meg’s confrontation with Aunt March over John Brooke
    * where Jo tells Amy they shouldn’t treat men according to their rank or status, but according to their character (this was what

    I share your anger with the novel, but for different reasons I suspect! I would’ve liked to have seen what Louisa would have done with Jo’s character as a single as she had intended, had she not married her off due to pressure from her publisher and perhaps even her father (I wonder whether Louisa would have written Jo into a marriage with a professor with whom she establishes a school, had her father Bronson Alcott not been so involved in propagating his educational ideas).

    1. The older I get, the more I wish Jo had stayed single as well and shown us more of what it meant to be an independent woman. Bronson had some strange ideas about a lot of things. I don’t know how Louisa reacted to all of them, but I’m sure glad she took to writing novels!

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