Saturday, March 17, 2018

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (98 down, 2 to go)

"I do think that families are the most beautiful things in all the world!" ~ Jo March


Such a charming little tale, and quite a change from my last read: The Stand - terrifying, poignant, death and destruction, heroes and villains, epic world changing conflict. By contrast Little Women is a tender tale, with only one “small” conflict – a mother’s labor to make something beautiful and useful of the lives of her four little women. (Not surprising, but worth noting – I loved both stories.)

Mother, or Marmee to her daughters, would probably object to my assertion that the book is about her, but she is the hero, though the narrative is dedicated mostly to the girls: Margaret (Meg) age 16 at the beginning, Josephine (Jo) 15, Elizabeth (Beth) 13, and Amy 12.

The March family, once a prominent mid 19th Century Massachusetts family, keep a humble but idyllic home. Mr. March is away serving as a chaplain in the Union Army during the War Between the States. The girls, usually sweet and sincere, are not yet the beautiful women they will become. I’ll offer a glimpse of the girls with the author’s words.

Poor Meg seldom complained, but a sense of injustice made her feel bitter toward everyone sometimes, for she had not yet learned to know how rich she was in the blessings which alone can make life happy 
Jo never, never would learn to be proper… 
Beth: Spoiler Alert – an excerpt from a poem that Jo wrote about her sister Beth.
        O my sister, passing from me,
        Out of human care and strife,
        Leave me, as a gift, those virtues
        Which have beautified your life

So Amy sailed away to find the Old World, which is always new and beautiful to young eyes, while her father and friend watched her from the shore, fervently hoping that none but gentle fortunes would befall the happy-hearted girl, who waved her hand to them till they could see nothing but the summer sunshine dazzling on the sea. 
The girls gave their hearts into their mother’s keeping, their souls into their father’s, who lived and labored so faithfully for them, they gave a love that grew with their growth and bound them tenderly together by the sweetest tie which blesses life and outlives death.
And the wisdom of Marmee:
Mothers have need of sharp eyes and discreet tongues when they have girls to manage. …the great charm of all power is modesty.

Of course, a story about teen girls becoming women includes embarrassing balls, awkward suitors, broken hearts, unlooked for love, and the obligatory wealthy busybody aunt.

Alcott gives nods to two classic authors. Marmee cites frequently from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress as a guiding light for her daughters. There is even a chapter titled: "Meg Goes To Vanity Fair" (Vanity Fair being an allegorical city in The Pilgrim’s Progress). And then the girls were apparently avid readers of Charles Dickens as they make numerous references to his characters, and play act the Pickwick Club. There is also a reference to “the cricket on the hearth” but I believe it was more a reference to the tradition that a cricket on the hearth brought good fortune, rather than a reference to Dicken’s short story.

My Rating: 4 ½ of 5 stars

This novel satisfies – a classic by a woman author in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2018.

This is my first time reading Louisa May Alcott or Little Women. The novel is a third-person narrative with definite transcendentalist theme. I toured Alcott’s childhood home, Orchard House, many years ago, and the guide stated that young Louisa would sit on the stairs at night while her father philosophized with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne – can you imagine? Have you read Little Women? What did you think?

Other Excerpts:

Beth ceased to fear him from that moment, and sat there talking to him as cozily as if she had known him all her life, for love casts out fear, and gratitude can conquer pride.

Jo’s only answer was to hold her mother close, and in the silence which followed the sincerest prayer she had ever prayed left her heart without words.

As she lifted the curtain to look out into the dreary night, the moon broke suddenly from behind the clouds and shone upon her like a bright, benignant face, which seemed to whisper in the silence, “Be comforted, dear soul! There is always light behind the clouds.”

Then it was that Margaret, sitting alone with tears dropping often on her work, felt how rich she had been in things more precious than any luxuries money could buy – in love, protection, peace, and health, the real blessings of life.

She could not speak, but she did ‘hold on’, and the warm grasp of the friendly human hand comforted her sore heart, and seemed to lead her nearer to the Divine arm which alone could uphold her in her trouble.

…love is a great beautifier

She began to see that character is a better possession than money, rank, intellect, or beauty, and to feel that if greatness is what a wise man has defined it to be, ‘truth, reverence, and good will’, then her friend Friedrich Bhaer was not only good, but great.

The fresh winds blew away desponding doubts, delusive fancies, and moody mists. The warm spring sunshine brought out all sorts of aspiring ideas, tender hopes, and happy thoughts.

For poverty enriches those who live above it, and is a sure passport to truly hospitable spirits.

…Beth still seemed among them, a peaceful presence, invisible, but dearer than ever, since death could not break the household league that love made dissoluble.

Little they cared what anybody thought, for they were enjoying the happy hour that seldom comes but once in any life, the magical moment which bestows youth on the old, beauty on the plain, wealth on the poor, and gives human hearts a foretaste of heaven.

Film Rendition: The 1994 version with Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Christian Bale, is an excellent rendition. Well cast, true to the book, and a GORGEOUS film score.



  1. We shake hands, sir! There's a new mini-series of this story coming out on PBS in May. And there's a modern-retelling coming to theaters this year, which looks excellent. :)

    I love Marmee. I read the real Marmee's journal from when the Alcott sisters were little. Pretty piping interesting.

    Abba (Marmee) was a strong woman. She believed in education and changing the world. Because she couldn't do it herself, she instilled drive in her daughters. I'd have liked to meet her.

    Bronson Alcott was really intelligent as well, although Marmee basically wore the pants in the family by the time the sisters were teens. He was big on education as well: he actually advocated recess in school. Before that children had to sit quietly and do rote memorization. He believed in Socratic dialogue -- with kids and adults. He was pretty famous in Concord (admired alongside Thoreau and Emerson, though he was a better speaker than writer), but he lost respect and status when he admitted am African-American girl to his school. He and the Alcotts were part of the Underground Railroad as well. Good folks. :)

    1. Thanks for the feedback Ms. Jillian Esquire. Yep, this one's a peach.

  2. It really is a charming book, and I too love how LMA wove references to other great books through the story. It really shows how special they must have been to her and her sisters, since the March girls were sort of based upon them. I consider a book to draw anyone out of a bad mood, since the girls all take on corrective ideas so earnestly, and are willing to change their attitudes any time.

  3. OH MY GOODNESS! Your first time reading this? I'm so glad you've read it at last, then! And that you liked it. I grew up with the March girls, and the movie version you mention came out when I was in my teens, so I spent a lot of my older girlhood watching it too.

    Oh, such a charming book. Thought to be honest, I like Little Men even better.

    1. I know...I'm so ashamed :) (not really, and YES I know that was NOT your point). I am VERY glad I got around to it as well. I'm certain the only way I could have enjoyed it more is if I was not familiar with the story due to the film, but even with that spoiler, it was a delight.

    2. There's a 1978 made-for TV version that I also like a LOT. You can't go wrong with Dorothy McGuire as Marmee and Greer Garson as Aunt March. And as odd as this may sound, I find William Shatner makes a charming Professor Bhaer.

  4. I'm so glad you loved it! Even reading the excerpts you included made me tear up a bit. Marmee is definitely the hero of the story.

  5. I read this years ago and remember liking it although I find the Victorian culture where women must always be self-contained slightly annoying, but only slightly. They also showed great strength.

    I did not know that Alcott used a transcendentalist theme. I would like to read an analysis of her work, showing how she wove that into her work.

    1. She could hardly avoid it for all she was exposed to it. Cheers!

  6. Oh, such beautiful reminders -- all of those quotes. Such beautiful writing! Yes, I have got to read this again.

    Thanks for your encouragement on my blog. I know you are right about Alcott. Point is, I need to read it again with new eyes.

    1. Well...I'm not absolutely certain, just the feel I got. Regardless, it's a charming read. Thanks Ruth.

  7. One of my favorite novels!! And I love Alcott's simple yet poignant style. Not an action packed story, but it's so relatable and beautiful.

    In January, I read Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs which a great biography of Alcott. It also won the Newbery in the 1930s which I think is awesome. I was surprised by how many autobiographical elements are in Little Women. Louisa was one of 4 daughters and many of the stories and characters are based on her own life. I love that.

    I have not yet visited Orchard House but I definitely want to some day!

  8. Still one of my most iconic and formative books, with messages that through dressed in nineteenth century clothing resound through the ages. Character is worth more than money, and love is stronger than death.

  9. Great post! Loved the way you pulled specific excerpts about each daughter! I have read a couple of short stories by Alcott, also. They were very good. She is the one author that for some reason can get away with using her stories to teach and preach.

  10. Have you read "March" by Geraldine Brooks? It fictionalizes Mr. March during the Civil War. To me, March was more engaging (and felt more real) than Little Women.

    1. I haven't. It sounds intriguing. Thanks for the rec.

  11. Great review! I also loved all of the subtle references to other works of literature as well as how Jo's development as a writer mirrored Alcott's own journey. It amazes me how Alcott could write suspense thrillers and then turn around and produce a work such as this. She is such a genius.


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