I read the first 75 pages of Little Women and tossed down the book in disappointment, commenting to my husband that it was syrupy and insufferably preachy. I didn’t want to finish it; there were plenty of other books on my to-read list that would thrill my soul rather than send it into a sugar coma.
But I read it anyways, and fell completely in love with the story. It’s a simple one of four sisters coming of age during the American Civil War – but for all its simplicity, there’s a depth to the story that is really quite touching. The last time I cried so much when reading is when I read Gone With the Wind – but in that novel, it was in despair over the brokenness of Scarlett’s life, the way she kept deferring virtue for a tomorrow that would never come. In Little Women, I cried over good, beautiful things, like the moment when one sister trusts another with the secret of her heart, the way in which a father praises his daughter’s selflessness with just a few, perfect words, and the utterly delightful friendship between a boy and a girl.
Oh, the friendship! If you ask me, this is the real strength of Alcott’s book. I loved Laurie and Josephine’s fun and spirited friendship. I loved the way they know each other thoroughly and are even able to call each other out on their weaknesses (so refreshing!). They care enough for each other to poke their nose in the other one’s business and interfere if necessary. And I was moved by the way they sought to see virtue developed in one another; Jo isn’t content with Laurie as an irrepressible boy, she wants to see him mature into a man of courage and conviction.
The novel loosely follows the structure of The Pilgrim’s Progress – in fact, at the beginning, Mrs. March gives each of her daughters a copy of that book. The girls each come of age as they wage war against their own particular sins and learn to love. Various situations are likened to points on Christian’s pilgrimage; Meg’s evening at a fancy ball is compared to the temptation of Vanity Fair, for example, and Beth finds her Palace Beautiful.
I found it delightful to read what four young girls might be up to in America in the 1850s. What wonderfully imaginative girls they are! They spend most of their lives in and around home, but they’re not boring people. Quite the opposite – they’re wonderfully creative! The girls act out plays, attend balls, read novels, sing hymns and even create their own newspaper, replete with poetry, news items and wanted ads. One verse of Jo’s poetry stood out to me:
The year is gone, we still unite
To joke and laugh and read,
And tread the path of literature
That doth to glory lead.
What a lovely line: tread the path of literature / that doth to glory lead. Isn’t that a marvellous picture: walking through books on the way to glory. We’re being formed and shaped by the books we read because books give life and substance to things like virtue and friendship, motherhood and sisterhood, growing up and growing old. I read Little Women and I see what it looks like to patiently guide a tempestuous daughter, to befriend and love a neighbour, and to put off the weaknesses of youth. We grow as we read.
I still found the beginning of the book fairly weak in the way the four sisters’ gifts and flaws were so carefully delineated (Meg is beautiful, but tempted to vanity; Jo loves to write but struggles with her temper, etc.). I’m one of four sisters myself, and real life seems rather messier than that to me; the neat divvying up of strengths and weaknesses comes across as forced. And occasionally Mrs. March is terribly preachy! But aside from those little quibbles, I heartily recommend this book – and I look forward to reading it with my own sweet daughter when she’s a little older.
P.S. – I watched the 1994 movie Little Women with high hopes given its 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I don’t know what those voters were thinking! The movie was awful! It was vacuous and smarmy and the book was ten thousand times better.
Painting: A Reading from Goethe by Wilhelm Amberg, 1870