For the second year in a row, I’m participating in the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge. This year is also special because it marks the 150th anniversary of Alcott’s most beloved novel of all time. For this reason, I thought Little Women would make an excellent choice as my first review for the challenge. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never read it, but I do have vague memories of the film version starring Winona Ryder as Jo. Overall, I was very pleased with Little Women. I not only found it to be a very charming story about the importance of family, but I was quite surprised with some of the directions Alcott decided to take in terms of plot. Sometimes a book comes along that just makes you feel all warm inside. There’s a indomitable spirit that runs through Little Women that I found as quite the beacon of hope in even the darkest of times.
During my research on the book, I learned that Louisa May Alcott originally did not want to write this “book for girls” preferring to stay with the more adult thrillers she had been penning for quite some time. She finally agreed in the hopes that the publisher would return the favor by helping her father publish his own idea for a book. Despite her initial reservations, I think that it’s safe to say she made the right call as Little Women is heralded as one of the greatest works of nineteenth-century literature. Alcott even manages to insert many of her own beliefs into the book, making a case that Little Women stands as a strong piece of feminist fiction.
The “little women” of the book’s title refers to four close-knit sisters living with their mother during the American Civil War. Meg, the oldest, loves her family but dreams of living a life of riches with fancy balls and beautiful houses. The second oldest is tomboy Jo who is very outspoken and rebellious. Her one dream is that she may one day become a successful writer and escape the expected duties of a typical woman. Then we have the gentle and shy Beth who loves music and is quite gifted on the piano. The youngest is Amy whose artistic talent is matched only by her occasional selfishness. While their father is away helping as a pastor on the battlefront, the girls are cared for by their mother who they affectionately call “Marmee.” Throughout the novel, Mrs. March stands as someone who is trying to bring out nothing but the best in her four girls, as each works to eliminate a significant character flaw. For example, Jo attempts to calm her rather fiery temper (with rather mixed results).
This work has been described as Alcott’s most biographical novel, as the inspiration for the four March girls are based on Alcott herself and her sisters (guess which one is Louisa). They can all be described as dreamers striving for success, but they have a lot to learn, as they work to improve themselves both academically and morally. I was impressed with how Alcott manages to insert her own philosophy into this novel. For example, there’s a scene where the youngest Amy gets into trouble and suffers corporal punishment from her teacher due to her misbehavior. The family immediately pulls her out of that school, reflecting the Alcott family’s disdain at treating children in this manner. Now, the book does occasionally talk of possessing “womanly values” which would sadly make some female readers want to vomit. However, Alcott does make Little Women cutting edge through the very feminist character of Jo.
I don’t think Little Women would have been successful without the inclusion of Jo March. This is a character who struggled to find her role in society. Brash and argumentative, you never knew what she going to do or say next. I loved the scene where Jo cuts off all of her hair in order to raise money for her mother to go see her father. There’s just something particularly appealing about watching this character in a world of proper manners. Everything “girly” goes against her nature. Although she is self-aware of her character traits, she is someone who doesn’t back down. Her relationship with Laurie, the rich boy next door, was extremely charming making them one of the best double acts I’ve encountered in fiction. Another great moment was Jo’s first encounter with Laurie’s scary and frosty guardian who quickly warms to Jo and later, the rest of the March family. This isn’t to say there was anything wrong with the other sisters; for me, Jo March elevated a great novel into something truly legendary.
Despite being a work of nineteenth-century literature, the writing makes this novel quite an easy read. The chapters are short, and each one is almost a short story within itself. I would be doing a great disservice to this review if I did not name my favorite chapter called “Castles in the Air.” It is beautifully written, and if nothing else, you should read that one chapter as a selling point to read the entire book. This isn’t to say the book is for everyone’s tastes. Little Women, at times, can comes across as quite preachy with discussions on religion and moral commentary. None of the advice giving bothered me though because there was such a feeling of kindness behind all of it, that it left me feeling as though I was a better person for having read it.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a message of hope contained within Alcott’s prose. Although we never witness scenes of war firsthand, the outcomes from the conflict are felt throughout the book. Despite all the fun in telling stories to each other and playing make believe, Jo and her sister strive to find their places in the world. They must find a way to fulfill the domestic roles that are expected while trying to become more and stand as individuals. Despite the hardships they face, one quality that unites the girls are their unfailing devotion to family. Perhaps that is the true reason this novel shines bright.
Little Women is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful classics I have ever read, and I think the reason I loved it so much is that it teaches the importance of gratitude. Although the March family doesn’t have a lot in the way of money and possessions, they are rich in the bonds that unite them. In today’s technological world, we often rely on more convenient methods of communication. We don’t actually spend time talking to one another. Family time has become an almost forgotten commodity. Although we can stand to learn a lot from the March sisters, the most important lesson of all is that we shouldn’t lose sight of time with our loved ones. Also, there’s something to be said about enjoying more childlike pursuits. Throughout the novel, the girls are usually engaged in some “frivolous” activity like performing plays or telling silly stories to each other. These activities would be unheard of by today’s youth. So maybe Louisa May Alcott had the right idea. Stop and look at what’s truly important in life. Spend time with your family. Do something silly. Most importantly, love and be grateful.
“Wouldn’t it be fun if all the castles in the air which we make could come true, and we could live in them? I’ve got the key to my castle in the air, but whether I can unlock the door remains to be seen.”
This book counts towards one of my challenges for the year. You can track my progress by clicking here.
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Sound off with a comment down below.