Little Women

Friday, February 8, 2013

Little Women
by Louisa May Alcott

From the very first sentences of Little Women we know the four daughters in the March family: the eldest, Meg, tomboy Jo, gentle Beth and vain Amy. Soon we meet their kind mother, Marmee and from those first moments the reader is part of the family.

Set during the Civil War the March family is left with no men in their household when their father is sent off to war. The remaining house full of women is left to manage on their own.

I first read this when I was in grade school and I was thrilled to discover the character of Jo. She was a stubborn tomboy who longed to be an author and on the very first page she's described as "Jo, who was a bookworm." It was me in every way. Jo was the antidote to every sugary sweet character tossed my way in other books. She wasn't a lady, but she was strong and loving and she was willing to sacrifice anything for the good of her family.

Re-reading Little Women as an adult was an even richer experience. I returned to these beloved characters with fresh eyes. Amy and Laurie’s blossoming romance, born of their gradual maturity, was even more poignant. Meg’s trials as a new wife and parent were much more relevant now. I love watching Meg learn how to be a wife and mother; trying to trust her husband as a parent and discovering that there are much greater joys in the world than having nice things.

The other characters, neighbor Laurie, selfish Aunt March, sweet Hannah, etc. are engraved in my mind forever. I longed to be there, in their world, acting out the Pickwick Portfolio with them in the attic. I loved Mr. Brooke’s character so much more this time around. I’d forgotten how sweet he is while wooing Meg. In the movie it happens so quickly, but in the book it’s all quiet yearning and even a lovely story of a knight’s search, a thinly veiled look at Mr. Brooke’s true feelings for her.

On Jo’s romantic relationships; so many people wish she’d end up with Laurie, but as I re-read the book it made complete sense to me why they didn’t end up together. I love what Marmee says to Jo about it, that they would never work because they are too much alike. They both adore their freedom; they have stubborn natures and fiery temperaments. They aren’t suited for marriage and you can’t force romantic love where it doesn’t exist. Laurie was always a brother to Jo and she couldn’t see him as anything else.

Professor Bhaer, on the other hand, is the calm and gentle balance to Jo’s brash nature. He understands her and supports her writing. He challenges her to be the best she can be, but he does it in a kind way that never makes her defensive. He is poor, but he still manages to give her an entire library between the covers of a single book, his complete collection of Shakespeare. They get to know each other through their actions and they see each other’s true characters. She watches him with the children in the boarding house and she can’t help but love him, even though she doesn’t recognize it as romantic love at first.

Alcott wrote about intimate family dynamics in a time when little was known about women's interaction in the privacy of their own homes. The book was published in 1869, shortly after the end of the war. She created a family full of women with very different personalities, who must struggle through some horrible trials, but survive because their love for each other holds them together. It's a beautiful story that everyone should read.

One of my favorite things about this book is that they’re never forced into a specific life style. Marmee encourages every single one of them to pursue the things they love; Amy with her art, Jo with her writing, which takes her all the way to New York by herself, Beth is never told to go find a husband, etc. She lets Meg marry John even though he’s poor. She asks only that they wait a few years until Meg is older. She wants them to excel in the field of their choice and to always show kindness to those around them. It’s such a wise way to raise your children, showing you trust their decisions while at the same time gently guiding their natures.

BOTTOM LINE: Read it as soon as you can! It’s relevant in every stage of life, offering fresh advice depending on your personality type or current trials. I will be re-reading this one every decade for as long as I live.

“There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the heart stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.”

“And so, at last they came to the library, where she clapped her hands and prance, as she always did when especially delighted. It was lined with books, and there were pictures and statues, and distracting little cabinets full of coins and curiosities, and Sleepy Hollow chairs, and queer tables, and bronzes, and best of all, a great open fireplace with quaint tiles all round it.”

“Young ladies in America love independence as much as their ancestors did, and are admired and respected for supporting themselves.”


Bybee said...

I read it again in 2005 and got so much more out of it. A rich rewarding reading experience. Great review!

Laura said...

I loooove Little Women so so much. It was the first classic I ever read, and it was one of the only good books at my nan's house, so whenever I was there I'd just read it! Until really really recently I hadn't read Good Wives (they're published separately over here, rather than in one edition) and I was like 'Laurie and Amy? NO!' but I've kind of made my peace with it now. And I never had any issues with Jo and Prof Bhaer because he's awesome :).

I'm pretty sure I'll be re-reading this a lot too :)

Anne said...

I love this post! Little Women is one of my all time favorite books, I have read it several times.

I love the quotes you added, they make me want to read Little Women again!

Caro said...

Lovely post! I reread Little Women a few months ago, and it was just as magical an experience as it was the first time around, over 13 years ago. It certainly made a deeper impression than it did when I was a nine year old.

I don't mind Amy/Laurie and Jo/Bhaer - I thought they were sweet and I could enjoy their scenes. However, I'm one of those people who wish that Jo and Laurie had ended up together. What bothers me about the way things unfolded isn't that Jo couldn't reciprocate Laurie's feelings - if it's not there, it's not there and there's no point in forcing it, end of story - but that LMA made it seem as though Laurie wouldn't be okay with Jo being herself with him. He was the first person outside of her family to fully support and appreciate her writing, he found her honesty refreshing and he was always there for her. They would have clashed, definitely, but I believe they would have met in the middle and apologized every time. But oh, well. It wasn't meant to be.

Jeanne said...

I'm one of the people who always wish Jo had married Laurie, because it seemed like they tamped down their passion in order to be decorous, and her taking up with Baer at the end was settling, when she'd known a real, tempestuous passion that wasn't "suitable."

Selah said...

What a lovely review! You've reminded me why I love Little Women. I read it as a pre-teen, a teenager, and a young married woman. Like you, I found new things to love about it each time. Now that I'm a mother, I should really read it again!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Bybee - Thanks! I took more away from it this time than I did when I was young.

Laura - Oh no, I can't imagine not reading the second half at the same time! I think I would have rooted for Jo and Laurie more if I'd only read the first half.

Anne - Now that I've re-read it as an adult I think I'll return to it more frequently. For some reason it had become a "kid" book in my mind and it's definitely for adults too.

Caro - I know what you mean. I think Laurie would have let her be herself, but I think it would have been hard for her to retain her fiery nature if she had to sweet talk people in his society. I think she needed someone who was ok with her not being accepted by the "good" social circles.

Jeanne - I never felt that way. To me Jo saw Laurie as her brother and that's why it would never have worked. I always felt like she set her self free by marrying the Professor because they could run their school and live their life the way they wanted to, instead of her having to be a rich man's wife like she would have had to with Laurie. Even if Laurie didn't expect that of her, others would have because of his position and fortune.

Selah - You should! I bet you see Marmee in a whole new light.

Ali said...

I loved Little Women as a girl and am right in the middle of re-reading it with my 12 year old son. Just posted about it yesterday! So funny--145 years after publication, we both posted about this book on the same day. ( Great minds think alike, I guess!

Jeanne said...

That's true about position and fortune. I guess I haven't thought much of the drawbacks, particularly of fortune :-)

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Ali - I love that so much! I can't believe we both posted on it in the same day.

Jeanne - It can be a blessing or a curse I guess. There are definitely expectations that are tied to it.

LindyLouMac said...

One of my all time favourite classics which I re-read a couple of years ago, something I rarely do.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

LindyLouMac - I loved re-reading it this year.

Unknown said...

I know you wrote this post a long time ago but I just found your blog today! I read Little Women for the first time last week and I loved it! There is so much wisdom weaved in it. And yes, from the beginning I wanted to be in their world :)
Your blog is great and I'll be back to read your future posts! Thanks!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Bryn - I'm glad you found it! Little Women is definitely one of those books that surprised me with its depth. Such a treat!

Joseph said...

Hi Melissa, I just read this was the first time...what a gem! It's a testimony to the greatness of this work that it appeals to children and adults. Wonderful review. My review:

And I see you are reading Ulysses now...feel I should offer my sympathy :P But well read, well rounded, all that. It will be worth it. Read something fun next though.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Joseph - I'm so glad you loved it! I finished Ulysses and... yes I will definitely be reading some fun books now!