Revisiting Little Women

Little Women
Louisa May Alcott
First published 1868

My history with this book
Little Women was one of my mother’s favorite childhood books, and she pushed me to read it. Being a contrary child, I resisted for a long time, but then one winter’s day when I was around 11, I was stuck in the house during a snowstorm and I finally picked it up. It turns out my mother was right, and I loved Little Women.

My thoughts
I have a lot of conflicting emotions about Little Women. On the one hand, I enjoyed re-reading it immensely, and it took me back to a time in my life when I was discovering new worlds through books, and I loved revisiting that. On the other hand, there are parts of it that drove me bananas, a reaction I don’t recall having as a child.

First, the good. Little Women is a highly moral tale, but it somehow avoids the overly moralizing tone you find in a lot of 19th century literature. The characters strive to do good and become better, but they all have imperfections. Jo fights against her temper, and she’s greatly comforted when she learns that he mother, the seemingly perfect Marmee, also struggles with her temper.

No one is perfect in this book, except Beth, but they all want to be better and they struggle against their worst qualities, trying to be better people. I like the concept of striving to be better.

Something I found very annoying as an adult that I don’t think even registered for me as a child is the Marches constantly complaining about being poor. I said out loud, “You are not poor!” multiple times while reading this book. Yes, poverty is relative, but the Marches live in a nice house, have enough food to eat, can afford clothes (although simple and not fashionable), and have a live-in servant. This is not exactly poverty. They were once wealthy and lost most of their money, but they are far from destitute. This feels particularly weird since Alcott has some actual poor characters in the book, the Hummels, an immigrant family who are so destitute that one of the children dies of scarlet fever because their mother has no money for a doctor. After Meg is married, she whines a lot about how poor she is, although she and her husband have their own house, a live-in servant, and enough money that Meg can go crazy in the kitchen creating all sorts of extravagant cooking mistakes. Her kitchen failures are sent to the Hummels for the children to eat. (Those poor Hummels. “Here’s some bad cooking that’s too gross for us to eat. Enjoy!”)

The attitudes about poverty are really odd. Laurie talks about wanting to spend his fortune helping gentlefolk who are down on their luck, because “There’s one sort of poverty that I particularly like to help. Out-and-out beggar get taken care of [tell that to the Hummels and their dead child], but poor gentlefolk fare badly, because they won’t ask and people don’t dare to offer charity; yet there are a thousand ways of helping them, if only one knows how to do it so delicately that one does not offend.” (No one seems to worry about offending the “out-and-out” beggars.)

The inherent sexism in society at the time the book was written is very much reflected in its pages, which makes it a little hard to read now. Even as Jo fights against society’s expectations, she’s told again and again that her true worth is in being a wife and a mother. Jo is very much the author’s stand in, but where Louisa May Alcott never married and supported herself as a writer, Jo eventually marries and raises a family. Perhaps Alcott felt she couldn’t write the story as it actually played out–the readers of her time wouldn’t have wanted a book about a “spinster.” (There’s a rather poignant lament for maiden aunts in the book; perhaps this is Alcott reminding her readers what it’s like to be the single aunt.)

I think reading this book now would be an eye-opening experience for children, to see how few choices women had at the time. This wasn’t news to me this time around, but it still makes me incredibly grateful to be alive now and not living in the 19th century. We still need more progress, but at least I have options that were unthinkable to women in the 19th century.

I remember being disappointed as a child that Jo turns down her neighbor and best friend Laurie’s marriage proposal. As an adult, her turning him down seems much more reasonable. She’s not in love with him. As a child, I couldn’t get why she just didn’t love him. He’s Laurie. He’s great. But as an adult, I feel like Laurie ending up with Amy is just fine. They’re much better suited to each other (although I feel bad for Amy having to live the rest of her life wondering if her husband still harbors feelings for her sister). But I can’t help wishing that Alcott had just let Jo remain single. I suppose that a book that lionizes marriage and motherhood couldn’t allow its heroine to not meet those goals.

Professor Bhaer is fine enough, but I can’t forgive him for the subtle shade he throws at Jo for her “sensational stories.” Why shouldn’t she be able to write stories that people enjoy? Alcott herself wrote some sensational stories, but perhaps she had some ambivalence about them.

While I re-read Little Women, I began reading Turning the Pages of American Girlhood: The Evolution of Girls’ Series Fiction, 1865-1930 by Emily Hamilton-Honey. There’s a chapter on Little Women, and it provides some very interesting historical context.

Does it hold up?
Mostly. I enjoyed re-reading, but I had a lot of critical thoughts that never occurred to me as a child.

Is there any objectionable content?
I gasped when a character is referred to in passing as a “large-nosed Jew.” Yikes. Overall, the book has far less objectionable content than most books from the time period, but this passage was painful. The attitudes about women are hard to read, but accurate for the time period.

Can you read it aloud?
It’s really a bit too long for reading aloud.

Would I want my kid to read it?
Yes, but with a few caveats.

Still in print and widely available. The ebook is available for free.