© 1868 Louisa May Alcott
“But you see, Jo wasn’t a heroine, she was only a struggling human girl like hundreds of others, and she just acted out her nature, being sad, cross, listless, or energetic, as the mood suggested. It’s highly virtuous to say we’ll be good, but we can’t do it all at once, and it takes a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull all together before some of us even get our feet set in the right way.”
Last year I began a course of American literature, purposely reading classics I’d heard of my entire life but never read. Little Women resumes that effort, and like A Scarlet Letter and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I found it a genuine surprise. Originally written as a story for girls, it features the four girls of the March family — Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy — as they grow up in America’s 19th century. Aside from the odd jaunt to New York or Europe, this is domestic fiction, set in or around the March home, and filled with the quiet little episode of childhood. The sisters chatter endlessly as they see to their responsibilities, they run about outside having wild adventures in their minds, they piece together bold plans and see them fly apart — they fight, they love. The home life is punctuated with minor drama throughout — a little scarlet fever here, a near-drowning there — but there’s no great quest, no calamitous struggle to overcome. There is merely the challenge of living life day to day, of growing as a result of its challenges and not giving into them. Is it exciting? Well, no, but it’s cozy, and even entertaining. I read this to strike it off a list, but Alcott’s sense of humor won me over. The book’s gushing wholesomeness can be gathered from the fact that the girls interpret their lives according to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, but there’s too much snark here for it to be saccharine. Jo and her neighbor-friend Laurie are especially fun: the word ‘mischief’ appears twenty times in the text, and every time they are getting up to it. It’s not that they’re scheming, but Jo in particularly doesn’t respond well to having to stuff her into a box of propriety, as she does when she and her sister go to make social calls at an overly pompous house. She doesn’t desire an ordinary life, but yearns to write, and so she does — but eventually becoming an aunt, she finds all the pleasures of ordinary family life besides. The relationships between the characters have especial appeal because they are developed through the years; the full book covers over a decade, and in it the characters mature from children to adults with children of their own. Though the voices of the characters alter as they increase in maturity, still there are the spots where childlike abandon erupts through. This is a tale full of warmth, good humor and more than a few one-liners.