Little Women

Wednesday, August 19, 2009



Little Women (Parts 1 and 2)
Louisa May Alcott, 1868, 1869


While prettily written at times, I just could not get into Little Women. The style is so completely presentational, and so completely sugar-dipped in overtly Christian morality. Upon my describing what I disliked about it, Erin commented that it could have been written specifically NOT for me.

(If references to teaching little girls to love God don't cause you to break out in hives, your mileage may vary.)

The author is constantly reminding you of the main characteristic she has assigned to each girl, not necessarily by having them act in a particular way, but either having them talk about the fact that one is selfish, or vain, or tomboyish, etc. or by constantly describing them in that way.

Re-skimming the beginning, I might have initially been too harsh on the writing. It sometimes has a lovely lilt to it, but there are still enough wince-worthy turns of phrase to put me off. Personally, I just couldn't get past the premise. 'Poor (not really) little girls learn to be virtuous and at peace with their largely unfulfilling lives;' does not exactly make riveting reading. There is an odd disconnect with the constant claims of poverty, as well.

Perhaps it was more obvious to me, coming straight here off of Little House on the Prairie, but these are still upper middle class girls. The scale of their poverty is fairly relative, and they only seem to be 'poor' when it's important to the plot, or the situation. The two elder sisters work out of the house, but they also have a cook/servant/"friend", (who speaks in an unfortunately dated patois). They complain mightily about having no new clothes to wear to the party, but they are still invited to the fancy party.

I can't actually dismiss this work, though, because I did find sections compelling, and maybe in the way the author actually meant. It's very hard to judge from this distance Alcott's opinion of her own work, although she is quoted as thinking it “moral pap for the young”. She was an abolitionist, and suffragette, and wrote piles of adult romance/thriller pieces. The same kind of pieces that Jo, in the pages of Little Women, is writing when she is described as follows:
"unconsciously, she was beginning to desecrate some of the womanliest attributes of a woman's character."
Huh.

It is the disconnect between what Alcott may have thought, and what is openly put on the pages of Little Women that I find so interesting. One scene which struck me greatly occurs early on: Jo is struggling with her temper (in a situation which any creative person would think she had every right to be angry), and her mother tells her:

"Don't cry so bitterly, but remember this day, and resolve with all your soul that you will never know another like it. Jo, dear, we all have our temptations, some far greater than yours, and it often takes us all our lives to conquer them. You think your temper is the worst in the world, but mine used to be just like it."

"Yours, Mother? Why, you are never angry!" And for the moment Jo forgot remorse in surprise.

"I've been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so."

I am angry nearly every day of my life. What a way to live!

Why is she angry? I mean, there is the anger at stupidity in government or larger authority, the resentment of unfair treatment, the quick irritation at casual cruelty. An article at Jezebel speculates that she is angry that her husband lost all their money. To me this reads like the repression of a fundamental frustration at life. The idea of constantly being angry, and constantly suppressing it. Not dealing with it, not acting to reduce the circumstances that incite it, just suppressing it, to me is repugnant.

Of course, it's not feminine to be angry.

Later in this chapter, the mother credits her husband for helping her control herself, and recommends Jo look to God, described as "the Friend who always welcomes every child with a love stronger than that of any father, tenderer than that of any mother." Gag me.

So, obviously I have personal issues, which are somewhat incompatible with this book's style. I try to take historical books in their own context, try not to project too much of a modern sensibility onto them. I just couldn't here. Yes, these girls are not overtly oppressed, and Jo struggles vocally, if not actually, with issues of the rights of women. Even though they end up jolly enough with their lot, becoming a dutiful wife, a charitable lady, poetically dead, and a schoolmistress/author, I can't make the leap to say that makes their story a triumph.

I'll leave you with a few more quotes from the chapter (in the second half) which Professor Bhear shames Jo into only writing pieces with overt morals.

Jo's writing 'harms' her:
"...much describing of other people's passions and feelings set her to studying and speculating about her own,-a morbid amusement, in which healthy young minds do not voluntarily indulge. Wrong-doing always brings its own punishment; and when Jo most needed hers, she got it."
In their discussion which follows he maligns people who write sensational stories as harmful, while pretending he doesn't suspect she's been doing just that. Afterward:
While these internal revolutions were going on, her external life had been as busy and uneventful as usual, and if she sometimes looked serious or a little sad no one observed it but Professor Bhaer. He did it so quietly that Jo never knew he was watching to see if she would accept and profit by his reproof, but she stood the test, and he was satisfied, for though no words passed between them, he knew that she had given up writing. Not only did he guess it by the fact that the second finger of her right hand was no longer inky, but she spent her evenings downstairs now, was met no more among newspaper offices, and studied with a dogged patience, which assured him that she was bent on occupying her mind with something useful, if not pleasant.
Later, she marries him.

PS: Wikipedia reports: Alcott later wrote, "Jo should have remained a literary spinster, but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn't dare refuse and out of perversity went and made a funny match for her".

Um... Okay...

1 Star - Didn't Like It.

3 comments:

Shiraz Biggie said...

Darn it, now I have to go and actually reread this so I can comment intelligently and in context.

Marian Perera said...

Enjoyed the review even though I did like the book when I was younger. Thanks for the link to the Jezebel article too! You're right, the girls do tend to be smacked down in one way or another when they want something more than what they have, or get (rightfully) angry.

As for Bhaer shaming Jo out of writing, that just irritated me.

Lindsay said...

Thanks! I missed this one when I was younger, so I know my perspective is different than many folks'. If I'd read it as a young girl I'm sure I'd have a slightly different impression, (I'd at least have known ahead of time what I was getting into) but reading it as an adult was so frustrating.

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