I first read Little Women as most girls do sometime between the ages of 10 and 13 and, like many others, I’ve always remembered it fondly. I’ve seen the movie versions and even a community theater production many years ago. So when I unwrapped my new Kindle at Christmas, it was one of the first free downloads I made. Rereading this classic has been extremely interesting and worthwhile, I think. There are some scenes I literally recall word for word, but some elements that I have no memory of at all. I also find myself thinking of the characters and their struggles great and small much differently so many years on.
I’ve read what a few others have thought when reexperiencing the book as an adult, and two feelings in particular seem to be common. 1. The book is far more moralistic than I remember. 2. While I actively disliked Amy as a child, I quite like her now.
In terms of the first point, the book is quite strongly vocal about Protestant morals of the time and goes beyond just “teaching lessons” with each event. Jo advises Teddy never to drink and he shakes hands on it, a promise that Alcott tells us he will never regret. Jo takes to writing “sensation” stories to make money, which seem to just be what we would call fiction today, but these tales begin to weaken her morally and something terrible might have happened had not Professor Baehr admonished her against them. Some of the lessons of the time do not mesh with how we’d want a girl to behave today. Amy prepares an art table for the fair and a rival demands that Amy let her run the table. Instead of defending her work and being proud of it, Amy gives up her table and the lesson is that she should turn the other cheek.
But speaking of Amy, I found her to be a much different girl than I remembered. The fault may lie with the film versions, which make her out to be very vain and spoiled. But though the Amy of the book begins a bit silly, it must be remembered that she is the youngest and will of course say and do the most childish things. As she grows up, Amy is not vain or spoiled at all; rather, she is quite grateful to others, and seeks to make them happy. While I remembered Amy’s trip to Europe as a slight to Jo, the actual event is quite different. In reality, Jo is rude and snobbish to her aunt, while Amy is appreciative, kind and patient, so her aunt chooses her for the trip. I also remember feeling quite let down that Jo didn’t marry Laurie, but in my rereading I now agree with her feeling that they are too alike. I think this is a lesson of age. At 12 or 13, I would have been just like Laurie and nothing would have pleased me more than to fall in love and marry a childhood sweetheart. It would have been poetic and romantic. But now, I see things Jo’s way and understand her choice.
Meg’s character also surprised me as some of the qualities I had given to Amy are actually hers. I remembered Meg as almost motherly, as a demure girl who marries the sweet tutor next door. But Meg is the one who longs for riches, who lets herself be dressed up in finery and paraded like a doll at a friend’s ball until she is shamed by comments behind her back. Meg is also described as the beauty of the family, where I had always imagined her as plain and Amy as the beauty, perhaps because of the old blonde v. brunette trope. I send my apologies to Amy; you are exonerated and Meg, rather than being ruined by these realizations, is actually given dimension and humanity.
All those things considered, there are still so many moments that shine bright, especially the dynamics of the four March sisters. Despite each being a “type,” you still find them endearing and all too human. Their struggles are quite relatable, if occasionally put quite bluntly. What young girl doesn’t wish to be rich, famous, beautiful and loved by all? The turning point for me in the book is the crisis of their father and Beth falling ill simultaneously. Before this, the book’s greatest traumas are those of children—Amy wasting her money on a bag of limes only to have the teacher throw them out and send her to the corner; Jo learning to deal with her hot temper. Even Amy’s near-death drop into the ice falls lightly and the lesson is quickly learned and passed over. But Beth and Mr. March mark a turning point, after which the girls must quite truly become “little women.”
P.S. I just discovered this book cover and now I want to buy this edition. So cute!