Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women and I have had a long relationship now extending over 15 years. I first encounter the story when my maternal grandma, the one after I took in all senses, gave me an illustrated, Spanish translation dating from 1976. The book had belonged to my mom and my aunt and, in 1997 my grandma thought it was time for me to have it. I have always been an avid reader and very curious, but there was something in the book I did not understand, mainly because I had no idea about the American civil war, I only knew of the Spanish one (1936-1939) so, somehow I found the story historically wrong for I knew no one wore “long, beautiful dresses” during our civil war. Later in life, I encountered the 1994 version and, finally in college I wrote an essay on the 1933 version with my beloved Katharine Hepburn, but still, I felt I needed to read the book.

I sat down to read Little Women at the beginning of December and it felt like the perfect timing since the book starts on a Christmas morning. I really wanted something cozy and easy, and very 19th century and I really wanted to enjoy this book and add it to my “Favourite Books”, but it didn’t work for me. I actually gave it only 2 out of 5 stars on Goodreads although the book seems to be pretty popular and beloved, enjoying a 3,96/5. My review will have two parts, following the novel’s structure, because I found them so utterly different, that I thought I was reading two different books.

Part I – Little Women

Originally published as a single novel, this was the first literary success for Alcott who had been writing to support her family for some years now. To be sincere, I expected Little Women to be this, only part I although I must admit I was familiar with part II as well. Here, we get the well-known beginning at Christmas where the March sisters donate their Christmas breakfast to a poor neighbouring family. All throughout Part I we see the kindness and generosity at many levels and sometimes in tension with a natural selfishness of the perfect daughters, the perfect sisters who love each other so much that eventually the common wellness prevails over trifle matters. The struggle of the March sisters to get along well overlaps with their desire to be more perfect than they already are, following Marmee’s example. I found parts of their struggle encouraging, inspiring and I longed to follow their preachy ways: I posted about following her example here. I really found myself trying to work harder and being happier for doing so. These were some of my favourite and most inspiring quotes:

“You may try your experiment for a week, and see how you like it. I think by Saturday night you will find that all play and no work is as bad as all work and no play.”

“[…] For though we have to work, we make fun for ourselves, and are a pretty jolly set, as Jo would say.”

“Let us do it”, said Meg, thoughtfully “It is only another name for trying to be good, and the story may help us; for though we do want to be good, it’s hard work, and we forget. and don’t do our best.”

“That was a very happy breakfast, though they didn’t get any of it; and when they went away, leaving comfort behind, I think there were not in all the city four merrier people than the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfast, and contented themselves with bread and milk on Christmas morning.”

All throughout Part I I felt more identified with Jo than with any other sister, being the bookish type and, above all, for having a moody and explosive behaviour as I do. Jo likes “good, strong words, that mean something” and her “ambition was to do something very splendid” but she is usually described to have a “the least self-control, and had hard times trying to curb the fiery spirit which was continually getting her into trouble”. However, I also sympathised with Amy and her change from extremely materialist ways to a recognition of her luck for having her wonderful family supporting her for I myself have experienced this change during the last years.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this part and it had the mood and style I expected. I will revisit it any time I feel to tired or lazy and I’ll surely find the comfort and encouragement I need to any of my struggles. I will work harder and be thankful and happy for what I have because trying to make the most of what we already have, while also fighting for a little bit more, is in my opinion the key to a successful and happy way of living. As an anecdote, I remembered the girls much older than me when I first read the book, but I was surprised to find them as 12 to 16 years old. Now, I see them almost as children!

Part II – Good Wives

I was surprised to find that the Penguin Classics edition also contained the sequel to Little Women. I knew about the major things happening, but I was surprised. I did not start to read it as happy and convinced of the plot as with Part I. I had a feeling I was done with the March girls by the end of Part I, I was glad everything had worked out for them and her dad was finally home, the family was complete – in the traditional way- again. But, Part II saw the March girls turn into the prototypical women and I did not like at all. In the introduction to the Penguin edition, feminist literary critic Elaine Showalter analyzes Alcott’s need or desire to create good daughters, and ultimately, good wives: at home, Louisa was Jo, the rebellious daughter who was trying to be tamed by her father. Showalter also highlights some of Alcott’s statements such as “I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with a man” which could possibly point out to a repressed Victorian sexuality. All this made Louisa not only rebellious, but I think very conscious of her condition and, as a contrast, Good Wives stands as the decalogue for the perfect rebellious girl who needs to become a good wife. Some of the quotes, such a the following ones, made me sick, want to throw the book across the room and, as a feminist reader, want to cry. in fact, some of them clearly state arguments used by those who support violence against women.

“Girls say no when they mean yes and drive a man out of his wits just for the fun of it”

It was Meg’s chapters what made the most difficult reading. She is such a devoted mother that she neglects her husband and he starts to spend his evenings with his friend and his wife while Meg stays at home with the babies. Marmee offers her help to bring John back by urging Meg to dress well, have time to devote to him and finally, fake interest in the topics he likes to talk about. Also, as devoted as she is, Meg is unable to discipline her children and needs John to do it, for she is portrayed as too weak and sentimental to do so. You can imagine how I felt reading Meg’s fate in Part II. But then, as I read the introduction by Showalter, I was reminded to read the book in context, and with context she also referred to Alcott’s struggle with her own sexuality and role as a woman to a father described as taming, dependent and unable to support himself. All this, in consideration with 1860’s USA clearly called for some understanding. I pitied Alcott and her personal fight to fit in.

Final thoughts

So, I cannot say I enjoyed Little Women, because although I really loved Part I, I was very disappointed with Part II, even more when in the introduction Showalter clearly points at her interest in monetary matters more than artistic ones. Alcott wrote Part I when a publisher asked her for a girls’ story which actually translates as “moralistic guidelines for future wives and mothers”. Clearly, Part II was a subproject of these monetary reasons, after all, she came from a family where the father was not the bread-winner but a dependent man who liked being pet by the women surrounding him, as Showalter points out.

I highly recommend Part I to everyone, but I have my doubts about Part II. Of course, it is a classic story in that it influenced American art in many ways, it has been adapted for the big screen at least three times and actresses as great as Katharine Hepburn found in Jo March a strong, artistic heroine among the many submissive and weak roles out there. If you feel like watching a movie this Christmas, don’t doubt to take the 1933 version with Mrs. Hepburn and directed by George Cukor, you won’t be disappointed.

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13 thoughts on “Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

  1. FleurFisher says:

    My copy of Little Women is falling apart, but my copy of Good Wives is in excellent shape. Or in other words I agree – book 1 is one of my favourote books ever and, while I like book 2, it has never quite captured my heart..

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    • Elena says:

      It’s so interesting when physical books reflect their use and how much their owners love them (or not). I’m happy I’m not the only one who hates Good Wives, it is quite a plain, boring book.

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  2. Leah says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I had no idea there were two parts; I’m definitely looking forward to reading Part 1 when I get a chance, but I’m wary of Part 2. I feel like the portrayal of women and their roles at that time might be frustrating, but you’re right to think about it in context.

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  3. Risa says:

    Like you, I know the second part of the story. But after reading your comments on Meg I begin to suspect that quite a bit is really taken out from the second part when told to little children, no? I should read part two out of sheer curiosity now.

    Have you read any of her darker works? They’re very good and so unlike the usually Alcott. I would recommend Behind a Mask or a Woman’s Power. I’ve reviewed it sometime last year. Her lead woman character was disturbingly dark but strong. I’m sure you would love it! 🙂

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    • Elena says:

      I think Meg’s story is left behind when adapting the book for childern, even in films. I think they tend to focus on Laurie & Jo and Beth’s death because they definitely are more moving stories.

      I actually downloaded Behind a Mask because, as you say, it is considered a darker work. Thanks for the recommendation! I’ll check it as soon as possible.

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  4. amanda says:

    I don’t have much to say at the moment as it’s been so long since I’ve read Little Women–which has been published as one volume in the U.S. for decades–that most of my memories come from the 1994 film (which did include both parts, so that’s probably where your familiarity comes from). I’m currently rereading it though, so I’m sure I’ll have many more thoughts once I’m finished. Are you aware that Good Wives isn’t actually the only sequel, but that Alcott wrote Little Men and Jo’s Boys as two more follow-ups? It’s been as long since I read those as Little Women, so I don’t remember much beyond the fact that there is an abundance of boys and only one or two girls introduced!

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    • Elena says:

      I knew about other sequels, but I don’t know why Penguin publishes Good Wives and Little Women together: they have two different tones and ideas behind the stories.

      I haven’t watched the 1994 film yet, but I will this week. I highly recommend the Katharine Hepburn vesion though.

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      • amanda says:

        Most likely because that is the way the books are published in the U.S.–and both under the same title. I didn’t even know a books called Good Wives existed until I started reading book blogs.

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      • amanda says:

        A little more info: I just read today (HERE) that when the sequel to Little Women was first published it was called Little Women, Part Second and the title Good Wives was only provided later by an English publisher. That first fact is most likely why the two parts are so frequently published as one book under the one title.

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