My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Just read it again for the first time in years for book club. It is honestly a difficult book for me to critique because I have such fondness for it from childhood. It is perhaps the hardest to be objective of things we love as children. Wouldn’t you agree? It was the first big book I remember reading, the first novel that I was proud of. In my memory I was 9 and I ate up every page.
This is of course the story of the 4 March sisters in Civil War America. As we meet them, they are sad about a poor Christmas with a father far away. Over the course of what was actually 2 books they deal with the effects of war, illness, romance and poverty while being constantly guided by the perfect mother they call Marmee.
Little Women is completely sentimental but it works on several levels. First, as a transcendentalist Alcott creates an ideal family, ideal situation, ideal mother. Transcendentalists believed that the human mind could be perfected until the afterlife. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a friend of Alcott, said ” Build, therefore, your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions.” Alcott presents a ‘pure idea’ and that has tremendous appeal and power.
Even the version of poverty is perfect- its a poverty that is chosen and moral, and the fear of abject desolation is never really felt by the women. It is also an ideal version of wealth with all of the main figures coming around to see the value of giving and helping the misfortunate.
Admitting the sentiment- why has the book remained so popular for over 150 years? I think it is because there is great comfort in an ideal. Its no wonder Alcott’s book was so popular immediately after the Civil War, a time where people could use a little idealism- to dream that everything could be good again.
I was also reading on the Kate Hepburn movie sleeve and it said “Released during the depths of the Depression. It buoyed American’s spirits. It still does”. Even in movie form there is something comforting and buoying about this story. People want to believe in such a world.
I also think this sense of comfort has allowed the story to transfer well across cultures and mediums with versions in opera, broadway, and even anime.
Little Women is also written very well. Alcott clips things along at a fast enough pace that the sentiment is not distracting- especially true in part 1. I was amazed with how much happens in just the first few chapters.
She also creates 4 young women that almost any child can relate to, especially Jo who yearns for self expression, and the ability to be different. I remember how this inspired me when I read it. People relate to Jo because I think secretly they wish they could be her. They wish they could be that unconventional and free, but real life often tempers the free spirit.
Growing up in the March family also seems like a lot of fun. I can remember being envious of the plays they’d perform, parties attend, creating newspapers and having secret groups in attics along with other various misadventures.
I never had any male friends so the idea of a Laurie brother figure was very appealing (my brother and I squabbled constantly as children and have always struggled to understand one another). Like I said, the whole situation seems very idyllic and happy. Even a Christmas where the girls get 1 book under their pillow has a certain charm. It did for me as a 9 year old and still does now. Almost tough to put into words.
I also saw things this time that I didn’t get from my early reads or the movie versions. Alcott is more nuanced in her character development than at first blush. Laurie is more of a rascal, and he and Jo argue more than I remember. Perhaps this shows my age but it made sense this read-through why she would refuse him. I’m not sure I quite buy the perfect romance between Laurie and Amy but it was better than I remembered.
Beth is also more nuanced than the perfect child I remember, experiencing some aching loneliness that Alcott allows you to feel. Beth was based on one of her sisters and you can feel that personal ache within the story. Alcott also said that she took the events of her hard life and gave them a happy, hopeful perspective, so while it is sentimental (as all imagined life is), it also feels remarkably grounded and personal. Like reading someone’s journal and who isn’t a bit sentimental in their journals?
I just enjoy this book so much and hope to be able to read it to my nieces or daughter if I have one. I hope it will inspire them to figure out who they are and what they want in life- that it will encourage them to act, read, write and serve others. That it will make them cry, smile and laugh. Its a great book!
I’ve been surprised by how many of our book cluber’s haven’t read Little Women and how many dislike it. I suppose sentiment will do that. What do you think? I look forward to a good discussion and I will try my best to have my 9 year old self not take things too personal 🙂
1933 version is so great-
The most rediculous version was in 1949 with Elizabeth Taylor looking absurd as Amy.
1994 version is great (wonderful music) but the Laurie is perhaps to perfect. It should be a little easier to understand why Jo says no. 🙂 Also, I don’t like Susan Sarandon as Marmee. She is too icey and Marmee is all sweetness and warmth. Still good film.
There was also an excellent Broadway musical in 2005. While it does take liberties with the story, the heart is right on. I love this duet between Beth and Jo.
One more by the amazing Sutton Foster (who I saw in the Drowsy Chaperon in 2006). What a gift her voice is.