“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.”
There are a few reasons why I picked up Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868): (1) I was given the copy I own in 1995 and had never picked it up , (2) I would like to read more children’s literature and particularly classical children’s literature, and (3) a local theatre is putting on the musical Little Women in February and I had wanted to read the novel before seeing the show. I have also seen two film adaptations of the book, and it was interesting how much these, particularly the more recent version with Susan Sarandon and Wynona Rider, colored my reading.
Part one of Alcott’s Little Women begins with the four March daughters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) at that in between stage of childhood and adulthood. Referring to them as teenagers does not at all seem an apt description, as even the oldest daughter Meg is very full of child like whimsy and care. It is clear that as a result of their father’s benevolence and help to a friend that the March’s have lost much of their fortune and now must live a more frugal and working class life style. Their father for much of the first volume is away at the Civil War, and his “little women” are left at home.
Alongside this family theme, Alcott interjected a strong subplot of Protestant work ethic and most chapters contain morality lessons. For the most part, the inventive Mrs. March or Marmee allows her daughters to creatively discover their own mistakes but at the end of the stories it is revealed that being kind, giving, and understanding are valuable traits and that we all have some degree of selfishness and vanity that we should try to keep in check. These mini-tales are quite fascinating and avoid being preachy or dreary largely because the four daughters are each so different and their mishaps in life reflect this.
In addition, Alcott provides an interesting look at the childhood fun of the girls ranging from writing and performing in plays to secret societies of busy bees to writing and publishing their own newspaper. After picking up some of the novel recommendations in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, I can say Alcott quite surpassed Austen in literary references and the first part of the novel is punctuated with references to Johnson, Ivanhoe, and the reoccurring thread of Pilgrim’s Progress.
However, not everything is light and cheerful throughout the novel. There is the ever daunting and pressing fear of impoverishment, that for three fourths of the book their father is a chaplain in the war, the two oldest daughters work outside of the home to improve their own income, regular referencing of poor foreign immigrants, Beth has an infant die in her arms and subsequently catches scarlet fever, and the sorrow (and excitement) of putting away childish things to grow up. While much of the book has a thick layer of family love, morality and ingenuity Alcott does not shy away from a more frightening reality.
Part one ends with the father returned, Beth healed, and Meg engaged. The final sentences of part one is brilliant: “So grouped the curtain falls upon Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Whether it ever rises again, depends upon the reception given to the first act of the domestic drama, called Little Women.” While in the modern book publishing era we are still acquainted with trilogies and series, but it seems to have less to do with reader demand more to do with a contract. Part one, which Alcott wrote in six weeks (which Alcott credits to being “simple and true, for we really lived most of it”) was an “instant success” and the following volume produced.
 Okay, I had picked it up but soon after put it back down. I was not one of those girls who found Austen and Alcott delightful reads and as a child I found them rather stuffy and boring.
Other opinions: Rebecca Reads.