Before I start, I want to give a SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t yet read the book, then a) you should, and b) you shouldn’t read this post (yet) because it contains many details that are vital to the plot. Read the book, I urge you, and come back!
Okay, here we go, the five reasons why my love for Little Women endures, everlasting:
1. The complexity of the characters. Little Women is often assumed to be a simple book for little girls, a book you should read in middle school and then put aside with the other chapter books. It is so much more than that. I reread it once a year, and every year I discover more facets of and motives for the characters . Let’s take Jo March as a case study. Jo is a tomboy when she is young – not because she shuns her contemporaries’ femininity on the whole, but because she recognizes that men have freedom where women don’t, and it is that freedom that she yearns for. She escapes by reading, writing and playacting, finding in these activities the adventures and capacity for expression she needs. But when her favorite sister, Beth, becomes deathly ill, Jo begins to change, to mature. Though the reader rarely witnesses Jo struggling verbally with her emotions, her actions speak far louder than any words she could utter; Jo nurses Beth with obsessive dedication, but fails to bring her back to health. Some time after Beth’s death, Jo realizes that she cannot reconcile herself to fulfilling her dream of becoming a writer. She can’t make her castle in the air a reality with the guilt of Beth’s passing still weighing on her. Instead, Jo ends up devoting her life to the care of others, opening a school for boys that takes in poor and disadvantaged students as well as wealthy ones. Jo’s progression from teenager to woman is complex, and Louisa May Alcott brilliantly shows – rather than tells – Jo’s struggles.
2. The faith. Though a staunch atheist myself, the brand of religion that Alcott portrays in Little Women has always seemed particularly beautiful to me. The particular Christianity practiced by the March family is welcoming and socially-conscious, more about the doing of good deeds than the preaching of good news. There is a wonderful section in which Amy discusses her desire to have a chapel to pray in, similar to the one Esther, a Catholic servant, has. Mrs. March, though uncomfortable with the idea of a Catholic chapel in her home, is amenable to having her daughter set up a little room in which to pray, meditate and think. When religion is spoken of blatantly, it is to comfort and console one another. I’ve always been envious of the March family’s calm, matter-of-fact, approach to faith; as a reader, it is appealing, comforting, and never discomforting.
3. The realistic portrayal of marriage. Unlike many 19th-century novels Little Women doesn’t end with a marriage. Instead, the second part of the book deals with the sisters’ adult life, including the first years of a new marriage. Meg and John marry after a three-year long engagement. Even though John has spent that time earning money and Meg has tried saving the little wages she made as well, they run into financial difficulties quite soon after they marry – a reality of life that is familiar today as well. Meg and John learn to fight through and for their relationship, how to have disagreements, to argue and make up – they struggle with their pride, youth and different expectations from one another. They discover that maintaining a healthy relationship takes work.
4. The reality of parenting. Alcott takes the reader into Meg and John’s life as new parents. Mrs. March has been, previously, a beautiful example of a loving and beloved mother, and Mr. March, though absent for the first third of the novel, is only so because he is working as a war chaplain and is clearly much loved by his family as well. However, once Meg and John grow distant from one another because of Meg’s devotion to her children, the reader gets to hear a little about the March’s difficult early years as well, a fact that humanizes their saintly dispositions. Meg and John struggle to make parenting a shared venture, and Meg, especially, learns to overcome certain instincts that are unhealthy, she realizes, for both her and her children. Once again, Alcott doesn’t pretend that parenting is an easy task, but handles the difficulties with empathy and humor simultaneously.
5. The sheer beauty of the writing. The style is simple throughout, but there is not a page that doesn’t give me that warm and comforting feeling of a truly human book. The way the characters talk to one another is always lively and lifelike – Jo and Laurie meeting behind the curtain at the party, Amy solemnly explaining why she wrote a will, Meg and John so awkwardly settling upon their engagement, and on and on and on; there are a thousand examples I’d like to give, but I fear I’d end up simply writing a synopsis of the entire story if I started.
So let me recommend again that if you haven’t read it, do so – and if you have read it, reread it. You might be surprised by what you’ll find in it now that you’ve graduated middle school.