Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott was chosen by the banned book group because it’s been challenged for its traditional portrayal of gender roles, specifically the role of women in the home.  Like most American women, I read this novel as a teenager and I remembered liking it very much.  It’s always interesting to revisit an old friend and see how well it holds up.  Here is what I discovered.

I didn’t like her when I was younger but as an adult I found her more amusing and even relatable.  I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been married and know the vagaries of starting a home, the promises we make and inevitably break, and the ways that we try to do the right thing but occasionally act more selfishly than we should.  Whatever the reason, I liked Meg and found her most interesting in Part Two when she comes into her own.

I’ve always liked Jo and I think that most girls who read this novel end up liking her.  I still like her.  Perhaps I even like her more.  I know that some people don’t understand a decision she makes in the novel (no spoilers, I promise) but I wasn’t upset or surprised by it before and, upon rereading it, I can all the more agree with her decision.  Good for her.

Dear, sweet Beth.  Am I the only one who finds her dull?  I didn’t find her interesting enough to remember much about her because she’s just so darn perfect.  And perfect is boring.  She’s shy and childlike throughout.  Certainly, she is in many ways a balance to Jo’s more outrageous personality but in the end she’s tedious.  She was then.  She remains so now.

As much as I disliked Meg, I truly didn’t like Amy whatsoever and had a long list of reasons why I found her annoying and would never ever want to meet someone like her.  I thought her foolish and vain, pretentious and completely distasteful.  In real life, I’d want nothing to do with her.  Now, upon rereading the novel, I find her to be charming and possibly the only character that truly develops throughout the novel.  The other three sisters remain who and what they are from beginning to end but Amy grows, developing a quality of character that proves her maturing into an interesting young woman.

As for the novel over all.  It is charming and quaint.  Frankly, it is so old-fashioned and reads the way it was meant to be read–as a serial.  Each chapter published in a newspaper pretty much stands on its own, telling a single story in the overall narrative plot.  There are no cliff-hangers.  What I didn’t remember, and I find this most amusing, is that the novel is so moralistic and downright preachy.  You get the feeling that Alcott wrote most of it with an agenda and then, when others perhaps criticized her for being overly didactic, she comes to her own defense through Jo’s experiences.

Which is why I said it is “so old-fashioned” because the chapters sound like something out of a McGuffey’s reader.  Even Dickens managed to thread his chapters so that they wove more smoothly together and his writing could be tedious to read.  And yes, the women’s roles are very traditional from beginning to end with Jo being the only one who has the potential of being something more.  It is surprising, knowing that Alcott grew up in a home that was very much in support of the suffragette movement (as well as abolitionists) and given how her own life and lifestyle were far from traditional to find this novel so lacking in contemporary relevance let alone contemporary style.

Would I mind if my child read this novel?  Certainly not.  I probably wouldn’t even want to discuss it to ensure that more modern standards are appreciated.  I wouldn’t have to.  It’s too, too obvious.

So charming.  Quaint.  Old-fashioned.  And I see why I never read any of the sequels.


  1. You should link this post to the Classic Bribe too. I agree entirely with your review - I felt the same upon my own re-read - isn't that funny?

    Alcott wrote what she was told would be a hit - she really enjoyed writing the tawdry stuff under pen names more. I think the fact that this book and the rest were so beloved really cracked her up. And she kept a certain pair apart mostly to spite her readers and show them that women didn't need anyone but themselves to be a success.


  2. Molly, I'll link to it at your suggestion. I think I didn't do so because I assumed I hadn't learned about the bribe until after I'd read this.

    And thank you for the insight regarding Alcott's experience with being told what would work. I think there is a hint of this within the book itself. I know I read a bit between the lines how Jo was inspired to write something else but was advised, as much by editors as success, to write what the public wanted to read (and like, what society expected a woman to write).

    PS: The next classic review goes "live" on the 8th. Aha! I knew I'd written one that had not yet posted. :)

  3. I've just finished the novel and found your review through Goodreads. I will save the more detailed thoughts for the review, but it's surprising on how many points I agree with you! It's the first time I read it and I have nothing to compare it with, but I think it's the novel that would be interesting to reread in a couple of decades.

    1. I can't wait to read your review. It doesn't surprise me that we agree. I tend to esteem your evaluations of books more than others.


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