Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (1868-9)
What makes Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women immortal, when as a nineteenth-century moral story for the young it should properly have been forgotten long ago? A portion of the reading population might like to forget it, as Elaine Showalter points out in her illuminating introduction to my Penguin Classics edition: “in male literature. . . Little Women stands as a code term for sentimentality and female piety. . . . In a typically dismissive critical judgment of the 1950s, Edward Wagenknecht declared that Little Women ‘needs — and is susceptible of — little analysis.’ ” Yet it is still read and loved, at a time when the mores of American society have changed almost beyond recognition from those of Alcott’s day. Clearly, more is at work here than mere “sentimentality and female piety.”
As a child, I was simply entranced by the adventures of those four wonderfully realized characters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. When Alcott decided to draw on her own life to create the moral tale her publisher requested, she feared the result would be dull. The reverse was the case, as the homely details of family life are what lend the story its irresistible charm and vitality. Who can forget Jo selling her hair, Amy bringing forbidden pickled limes to school, Meg succumbing to the temptation to dress up in “frills and furbelows,” or Beth’s joyful reaction to the gift of a piano? The girls’ idiosyncrasies and foibles are described with a wry humor that saves the narrative from becoming overly sweet, and their relationships with one another are spiced with realistic quarrels and quirks as well as love and tenderness.
When I went back to Little Women as an adult, I did find the moralizing aspect to intrude somewhat, but not as much as one might expect. With her unfailing perception and equanimity, Marmee is an idealized quasi-divine mother figure whose words of wisdom bring each episode to neat closure, especially in the first half of the book, which explicitly takes its theme and direction from the Christian precepts of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Yet the undogmatic, sensible nature of most of these lessons saves them from being only examples of that dreaded “female piety.” The underlying message is to be true to one’s inner core, and to find value in the lasting treasures of life: integrity, self-knowledge, human connections. Though the trappings of time and culture may change, this moral journey is universally valid, and surely a key to the book’s continuing relevance.
Meanwhile, the marvelously unconventional character of Jo, Alcott’s own alter ego, also plays a large part in its enduring appeal. With her exuberant speech and behavior, disregard of propriety, and literary creativity, she points toward a later time when women would be able to more fully express themselves and their potentialities. For modern readers, it can be disappointing when Jo’s youthful urges and artistic ambitions, along with those of her sisters, are partly squashed in favor of the ultimate female consummation of marriage and motherhood. But her spirit remains unquenched for readers and writers who have found in her a soul-sister, an inspiration and a companion when “genius burns.”
Opposite to Jo is gentle Beth, whose death is one of the other indelible experiences of reading Little Women in childhood. Saccharine Victorian death scenes are notorious, but Alcott’s sincere depth of feeling born of her own sorrow and loss gives this one a poignant simplicity, and I still cannot read it without sobbing. “Love is the only thing we can carry with us when we go,” Beth says. For me, this “belief in the immortality of love” is the gift and the legacy of Little Women, one for which I am forever grateful.