Friday, April 3, 2009

LitRec: Louisa May Alcott

I can’t imagine my life without that one definitive story that shaped my adolescent existence. Many women I talk to, slightly younger than myself, point to work such as Harry Potter or His Dark Materials, but I can’t imagine my literary life without Louisa May Alcott. Yup, I’m going classic in this recommendation, and of the twenty or so people I have asked, only three have actually read this piece of brilliant fiction. So sad.

I’m going to have to backup a little bit to my twelfth birthday. Most girls that age are lost between Barbie Doll and first makeup kit—not quite tween, but definitely no longer child willing to spend an afternoon playing tea set with her stuffed animals. I, like any typical kid, fell somewhere in between, but my father had always refused to allow his little girl be so frivolous. So, instead of a new makeup kit, he gave me Little Women.

At the time, I did not understand why he found it so important for me to read. Hell, I barely understood the themes, and I’m pretty sure it took me about six months to finish. When I was done following Jo March and her sisters around New England, I gave the book back to my dad. He asked me what I thought. I said it was nice. He nodded and let it go. I didn’t think about this again until recently.

The March Sisters

The first half of what in its entirety is now Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was initially published in 1868. The second half, written due to popular demand, was published in 1869. The novel follows the four March sisters, the primary heroine being Jo March, through their adolescent to adult lives. What is so wonderful is that we see these wonderful girls being raised in a house that allows them to become women. They aren’t pushed into the cliché of perfect society wife for the sake of family finances, but are encouraged to develop their own sense of self. Little Women explored themes of family, love, and feminism that were oft ignored in polite society. One of the main features noted by literary critics is the book’s emphasis on human flaws. In the book, each of the four March sisters possess one predominant failing. Each sister’s flaw is a moral lesson, guiding and instructing the reader. While this is intriguing in itself, the one thing I latched onto during a reread in my nineteenth year was the tone of feminism and familial bonds we as women make.

Jo March, the main protagonist, is the quintessential tomboy following ala Lizzie Bennett. It is through her narration that we see the life the March family lives. Jo stole my heart. For me, she stands a notch or so above Lizzie, because she made her choices from a passion and a great zest to experience life. Jo is loud and oftentimes naïve, but in the end, I respect her for telling their childhood neighbor and friend Laurie that no, she will not marry him early on because although they were best friends, she did not love him. He was rich and convenient and would most assuredly improve her family’s prospects, but you see, Jo had bigger plans. She wants to go to Europe and become a respected author who writes about worldly things, but even this dream is dashed when her Great Aunt March decides to take her younger sister Amy across the pond. But Jo is no emo—well, not for long anyway. A girl of fortitude and strength, Joe perseveres in the face of this massive disappointment.

Eventually, the sisters all come back together due to a tragic death, and even Laurie makes another appearance in a form that sometimes makes me scratch my head, but that is neither here nor there. This story isn’t about the boy next door; it’s about Amy’s selfishness and how she outgrows that to become a fine young woman, Meg’s hearth and home subtle beauty that shone through brilliantly as she discovered not all worth has monetary value, Beth’s shy artistic nature that in the end was the glue that held them together and Jo’s determination to be Jo March, not anyone else.

It’s also about “Marmee”. As mother to the sisters, Marmee guides her daughters into good people – not just lovely women. With a progressive streak, she teaches them temperance, morality, and good character. If this was modern day, Marmee would be on the cover of Working Mother’s Magazine. In the days the late nineteenth century, she was a radical and thus looked down upon. She never lets the pressure from Aunt March (or anyone else) sway her. A “suitable husband” is not a substitute for her daughters’ personal dreams. With a few simple words and a mother’s love, Marmee urges her daughters to grow as people, not just the typical good wives desired by her contemporary society. She is why I truly loved Little Women.

Louisa May Alcott

The author herself, Louisa May Alcott, wrote this story from a viewpoint of her own childhood in Pennsylvania. In her own life, she was a bit of a spinster. Like Jane Austen, Alcott’s life never held a great romance, though like Austen, a speculated failed romance haunted her youth. Alcott had initially planned for Jo to become a “literary spinster” at the end of the story but decided that dreams did not mean she couldn’t love. This was a normal reality for most successful females in the late nineteenth century.

Alcott never did anything so grand as to refuse to move to the back of the bus or fight for women’s suffrage. All she did was write this little story about what it meant to grow up in a predominantly female household and how the characters’ mother helped to mold their person. It seems simple, but when you take out the words, we just have the themes that so many of us live universally these modern days: love, family, trust, and dreams. Alcott is truly, in my opinion, one of the greatest feminists of American History, even if she is never recognized for it. I hope one day to lay flowers at her grave in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in thanks for all the ideologies she has given the modern American Woman.

I think many of you familiar with what I enjoy reccing, readering and writing about can most definitely see a trend here. I do like feminist ideologies. I love watching a character grow into their own. I don’t mind romance, being a closet fluff devotee, but when it comes down to it, the truths that make us women in our own right, the things that define us: mother, sister, friend, wife, are what move me in the daily doldrums of life. Women are all of these characters so much that when the day is over and we put our head on the goose feather pillow we bought as an indulgence, where do those roles end and where does the person begin?

Last week, after finishing Little Women for the third time in my life, I asked my Dad this question on a long distance phone call. He was silent at first, and when he finally answered my question he said something that I hope to be able to say to my own hypothetical spawn one day:

“It only took you eighteen years, but finally you understand that I have never looked at you as anything other than Amelia. Don’t fall for the roles that are designated for you as you have done many times in your life already. Make your role and then tell me about it in a story you write just for me. You may be a woman, daughter, wife and I hope one day you will make me a grandfather, but you will leave as you came in this world—Amelia.”

My father, the feminist, gave me my first Rec and from that, has molded my life without me ever knowing it. So on that note, I leave you to challenge yourself to read this book and not see a piece of yourself in one of the many roles we play every day. You can be that role, but you can also be you. I only have Dad and Ms. Alcott to thank for that epiphany.

Little Women available to read online.

Little Women available online to listen to.

Yup, they're free, but I don't know how I'd live without my own copy.

Smellyia is the administrator for this blog and does try her hand at writing when she isn't bastardizing people for GBs for hippie and community enlightenment. Contrary to popular belief, she is not a n00b to the Twilight Fandom as some lovely folk asked her most recently. The BSG fail she wallowed in last week is slowly easing away, but it is still a one day at a time scenario.


  1. Do you think the author will comment on this one?

  2. I loved Little Women. Laurie and Jo weren't meant to be, but am I the only one who secretly rooted for them?

  3. Try, try, try not to get addicted to librivox (the audio link site) - Pastiche has spent far too many hours playing in the public domain audio... I listened to: War of the Worlds, Dracula, Sense & Sensibility, all of Anne of Green Gables, and lots of O. Henry. Like, I said - effin' addictive.

  4. seriously? only THREE people!? that's APPALLING!!!!!!!!!!!!!! i mean...that honestly wounds me. i realise that HP & HDM are huge books that changed fiction (for better and for worse and obviously twilight is included) but to NEVER hear of little women!? man. it used to be my go-to book when i needed a good cry. i loved my little women book, i read it once every couple months for years on end. i don't understand people who don't treasure and utilise books...they're our greatest resource to history and ideals/idealism. i was the kid who got in trouble for reading too much instead of talking out of turn

  5. Thank you SO much for the flashback. I must have read Little Women at least thirty times and I consider it a definite MUST READ for my daughter. This is one of the stories that I think has been done a disservice by being made into a movie. While I liked the movie and loved the casting (Susan Sarandon as Marmee? Thank you!) I hate to think that anyone might watch it and think they don't need to read the book after that. The movie was about one fifth of the book and just couldn't do it justice. It really does seem like it was rather a revolutionary book for its time, with Jo having loftier goals in life than getting married, as you pointed out *gasp! shock!* and with the way that it wasn't all neatly tied up with everything perfect - it was realistic. Little Men was a great follow up too. I need to buy a new, right after I buy Pride and Prejudice, of course. :D

  6. Little women is one of my all time favourite books. My copy is totally battered, what with a stained cover, a broken spine (a la Bella's Wuthering Heights), and looks exactly like an ancient book. I've had it 3 years. I love this book!

  7. I swear I adore this book beyond and to hear that a lot of younger women have not read -- nor were encouraged to almost made me tear up. I am lucky that my dad has always been so conscientious of such things when it came to my own education outside of school.

    Um, no caitlin -- i don't think she will what with being dead and all. smartass.


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