Way back in July, I had this insane idea that I would challenge myself to read several classics. I read a ton of classics in my uni days as a student of English literature, but there were many more I always meant to read…and haven’t gotten to in twenty years. Where does the time go, you know?
July 2021 was a bad time in my life to set myself said challenge as in August 2021 I gave birth to my son, Baby J, but I like a challenge when it involves books so I set it anyway and intend to keep to the challenge. And, I have completed book one out of six that I challenged myself to read. And that book is Little Women. Also, I just noticed that I didn’t include this title in the original blog post, but I had in my head so here I guess now this challenge is seven books instead of six.
Synopsis for Little Women
Generations of readers young and old, male and female, have fallen in love with the March sisters of Louisa May Alcott’s most popular and enduring novel, Little Women. Here are talented tomboy and author-to-be Jo, tragically frail Beth, beautiful Meg, and romantic, spoiled Amy, united in their devotion to each other and their struggles to survive in New England during the Civil War.
It is no secret that Alcott based Little Women on her own early life. While her father, the freethinking reformer and abolitionist Bronson Alcott, hobnobbed with such eminent male authors as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne, Louisa supported herself and her sisters with “woman’s work,” including sewing, doing laundry, and acting as a domestic servant. But she soon discovered she could make more money writing. Little Women brought her lasting fame and fortune, and far from being the “girl’s book” her publisher requested, it explores such timeless themes as love and death, war and peace, the conflict between personal ambition and family responsibilities, and the clash of cultures between Europe and America.
Before I dive into the review, I do want to pause and insert some commentary. This book has its pros and cons, but the cons seem to outshine the pros. The last time I read this book, I was thirteen, and the 1994 movie had just come out. In fact, I had the movie edition book that I ordered from Scholastic Books at school. I don’t remember loving the book, though I do remember being infuriated that Jo and Laurie don’t end up together, but I wanted to read this book as an adult because, well, because it’s Little Women. As a lover of classics and women’s literature, I had to read it because it’s a popular title.
To a modern reader, especially those in their twenties, I think this would book would badly interpreted and received. The characters, all young girls, grow into women and all settle down to marriage and children despite their girlhood dreams of having fantastic lives as artists and adventurers and ladies of society. Even worse, it seems, only one of them “marries well” in that she marries money, which leaves a bad taste in the mouth as by the end it seems that each sister has accepted a life of poverty, albeit happy poverty, with a husband and children. It feels as though they have lost their personalities and independence somehow and have submitted to the patriarchal expectations of society, enforced by the fine example of their parents who are as upright and kind as saints. It’s disgusting, and I can well hear feminists today bemoaning this novel as preachy (as strong Christian values are embedded in the every day lessons and values of the Marches) and part of the culture that subjugated and marginalized women.
It would be so easy for a young, modern reader, used to hearing about the evils of the “white patriarchy” on social media, to jump to make this analysis. In fact, with that rhetoric constantly in our ears, its what I think is most likely to surface in our minds as the casual reader reads Little Women today.
But, Little Women is actually a much debated book, both at the time and now, when it comes to interpretation. You can read more about that in this article from The Atlantic .
So, as I outlined above, you can see how the cons outshine the pros. The girls coming of age story doesn’t seem to capture them as growing into their authentic selves despite the obstacles placed before them by life, family and society, as many coming of age stories do, but instead seems to render them meek and even a little stodgy. Fun right? So what is the appeal?
First off, I think that a classic is a classic for a reason. It has stood the test of time, and continues to entertain and inform the lives of readers long after the first decades of its publication. Little Women is certainly charming and entertaining, as the many mishaps and childhood hurts and lessons learned are told. The characters are endearing and you do smile and shake your head over their childish hurts and mistakes. As the girls grow into women, you can’t help but be swept along by their romances and want each of them to live, as fairy tales have us believe, “happily ever after.” So on a surface level, the novel holds appeal for this reason.
But under the surface, it’s the subtext that makes us continue to puzzle over this American classic. Is it the “girls’ book” Alcott’s publisher wanted? Yes and no. It has that moralizing overlay that irks, but it also subtly suggests that women should be themselves. Jo always is, though she marries, as it is she who inherits her rich aunt’s mansion, not the sisters who were always proper little women in dress and manner. She is the one who is working and earning by running a school with her husband, an older man and a poor foreigner, hardly suitable husband material in those days. This work allows for more freedom than her sisters Meg and Amy would have, as she has this income to fall back should anything befall her husband, whereas her sisters do not, rendering her far more free and independent than any of them.
The novel is funny in places, touching in others, and it is an enjoyable read about a happy family that has many of the day to day struggles many of us face and thus, we continue to relate to the March sisters some one hundred and fifty years later, despite its surface moralization.
If you’ve read my little essay above, thank you! I didn’t realize my book review would turn into a critical analysis of sorts, but it felt necessary to share these thoughts. If you are still wondering, did I enjoy the book, would I recommend it, then the answer to both is yes. Classics are always worth the read because they do force to think, as I did above, about the subtext, and when we are thinking we are doing great things for ourselves, and society too I think. The world needs people who can think after all, and not just swallow shallow lessons (and even untruths) such as those sappy moralizing ones that you might take Little Women for at first.
Have you read Little Women? Share your thoughts about this novel in the comments below!