Oh, how I’m glad for contextual essays and supporting material!
When I finished reading “Little Women”, my first impression was that this might have been a relevant and somewhat disruptive book for its time, but it also conforms with a lot of presently outdated beliefs. By reading the contextual essays which the 150th Anniversary Annotated Edition includes, I was able to realise exactly how much change this tale brought about but also what and how cultural and social forces of the time influenced Alcott’s work.
The story of the March family is largely based on the author’s own family. Jo can be easily traced back to Louisa herself, while Meg, Beth, and Amy correspond to the author’s sisters Anna, Elizabeth, and May. The dreams and aspirations of the beloved characters can be spotted in the lives of these four women who also grew up in a family with fewer means, with a father who was often away from home, and a mother who the daughters idealized as having given her all to the family and the community.
Jo’s story, in particular, can be closely tied to that of Louisa Alcott. Standing out from her sisters due to her tomboyish and independent nature, the author too found a safe space in writing and developed literary ambitions early on in her life. This was an uncommon path for women at that time, which meant female authors had to work harder than their male counterparts in order to prove themselves and were often frowned upon even after achieving success. As one of Alcott’s neighbours, Nathaniel Hawthorne, “elegantly” puts it: “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance at success while the public taste is occupied with their trash – and should be ashamed with myself if I did succeed.”
Given the social landscape at the time of publication of “Little Women”, it is undeniable the impact that a character such as Jo had in young female readers in the 1800s. Jo unapologetically opens up a path for girls to be less feminine and delicate if they wish to and, to some extent, to follow their ambitions and pursue independence. Note I say “to some extent” here because indeed Jo ends up abandoning her seeking for literary greatness so as to dedicate herself to her marriage and children. This turn of events after Jo had stood her ground and repeatedly refused Laurie’s proposals disappointed me significantly. Enter contextual essays and supporting materials: Alcott would probably have chosen for Jo the same faith she chose for herself – that of a successful “literary spinster”. But due to pressure from the readers and her publisher to follow the conventions of the time, the author found a compromise in Mr Bhaer. The German character represents Jo’s possibility to remain herself, be her partner’s intellectual equal and contribute to the household evenly. Some theorise this was also Alcott’s way of rebelling against the public’s desire to see Jo and Laurie together, instead, marrying her off to a far less attractive character. This example shows perfectly how multi-layered and complex the tale of “Little Women” truly is once we take into account the author’s life story.
Throughout the entire book, we notice that Alcott takes her time, bringing the reader close to the characters. She crafts the story in a beautiful manner which results in a sense of familiarity and an emotional investment from the part of the reader. This reaches its zenith in Beth’s death scene, an intense episode which is notably based on a real-life experience with the author’s sister, Elizabeth. I can only imagine the impact of this chapter on younger readers, as Beth is an adorable character which we grow very fond of throughout the novel. Alcott manages this scene genially, guiding the readers through it in a sheltering manner, allowing them to peer into Beth’s last moments and to see their pain replicated in the rest of the family’s actions during and after the death. The feeling of proximity to the character and those who cared for her is what makes this scene so brilliant.
However, there is one point in the storyline where it seems that the author almost purposefully rushes a development and risk its realism. After growing up in love with his best friend, being so blinded that he repeatedly asks her for a chance, Laurie only needs a few months to fall out of love with Jo and in love with Amy. Upon Laurie and Amy’s return from Europe, the young man is described as acting towards Jo in a brotherly manner which only adds to the contrast of this transition. Having Alcott loyally accompanying the reader throughout the majority of the story, and then rushing through this change of heart, made it hard for me to take the change seriously.
“Little Women” is dotted with moral and religious lessons, clearly attempting to teach young readers what is proper and what is not. Some critics praise Alcott for building a novel where these lessons are presented by a compassionate mother figure, speaking to young readers as someone on the same level as them rather than talking down to them as most works until then did. While I very much agree with this statement, I must also add that, as someone reading the book 150 years after it was published, I felt some of these lessons are significantly outdated and dare say they may have seemed so to Alcott already at the time. The book’s supporting material allowed me to learn Alcott did indeed fight her publisher on this topic. She won a discussion on whether the characters should go to Sunday school instead of performing plays at their house on a Sunday morning – this was a risky move as Sunday schools seem to have commanded a lot of sales at the time. It’s therefore evident the author’s struggle with the need for tradition and her desire for reform.
The mother figure in “Litte Women”, Marmee, is one of the strong points of the novel. She dances the line between some of the traditional beliefs and her progressive questioning of part of the status quo. Marmee shines in her one on one talks to her girls. I especially appreciated her honest advice to Jo on how to handle a quick temper, exposing her own flaws and challenges she faced. This scene allows us a glimpse at a more complex character than a first glance at Marmee might have shown.
Lastly, when we hear “Little Women” being talked about, there is a tendency for people to identify with one of the four sisters. “I’m a Meg!” “Oh, I’m most definitely an Amy with a little bit of Jo.” I find this oversimplification of the characters slightly problematic. It delineates the tastes, ambitions, and traits of each character and fixes them in place as if almost forever unchangeable. On the other hand, I can recognise that such treatment can be comforting for younger readers, who are often struggling with defining themselves. The use of a widely held idea of a character allows for the creation of a group of people who identify with it. This, in turn, allows each individual to experiment within the group, learn where the similarities and differences lay, and, eventually, learn about themselves.
“Little Women” remains representative of the period it was written in, directly presenting some ideas ahead of its time, and hiding a lot of Alcott’s progressive and rebellious messages between the lines.