I had been procrastinating the decision to read this book for a very long time…that is until I saw the movie trailer of ‘Little Women’, the book adaptation by Greta Gerwig! I jumped in, read the book, saw the movie, and loved both!
Coming to the book, ‘Little Women’ is like a fable for adult readers. The story follows the lives of four sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and their adorable mother. There is so much goodness in each character and the moral values are of utmost importance – helping the poor, following your heart, and surrendering to occasional failures and setbacks. Sadly, there is only one Prince charming in the story – Laurie, the rich neighbourhood boy. I would not consider Meg’s husband a ‘Prince’, not for being poor but for being too didactic. And, Professor Bhaer is more of a King without a kingdom.
Honestly, it is a long book where you would want to trim a few pages with the Christmas Eve enactments, Pickwick Club pretend proceedings, and the picnic playtimes. But then you give in to the charm of Alcott’s storytelling and for creating Jo, the headstrong girl who wants to become an author in the 1800s.
Louisa May Alcott wrote ‘Little Women’ over several months and published it in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. It is said that the book is semi-autobiographical, based on Alcott and her three sisters’ lives.
What is the story about?
‘Little Women’ is about the four March sisters and their adorable mother whom they call Marmee. Marmee teaches her little women to be benevolent, morally upright, and to be never ashamed of their poverty.
The four sisters are drawn in stark contrast.
Meg is the oldest, sixteen-year-old at the beginning of the story. She is pretty but swayed by material temptations.
Jo is a headstrong tomboy. She is fifteen years old when the story begins and she wants to be a writer.
Beth is shy, sweet, and a music lover. Her father calls her ‘Little Miss Tranquility’ for her sweet disposition.
Amy is the youngest, a little selfish but amiable, elegant, and an artist.
Against the backdrop of the Civil War and Mr. March being away from the family, the story begins with Christmas without presents for the young March sisters. But of course, in ‘Little Women’, the protagonists are always considerate, thinking about the difficulties faced by others, less privileged than them during the war, readily sidelining their little girlish whims.
Meg has to teach a few children while Jo has to spend time with Aunt March to earn some extra money for the family. Beth stays back home to do the household chores. Amy is the only one going to school, who would rather avoid this situation of being mocked by fellow girls for her poorly turned-out dresses. However, the birds in their little nest are content to be together.
On Christmas morning, the girls are happy to find books under their pillows. And later they join their mother in giving their breakfast to the poor Hummels family.
Mr.Laurence and his grandson Laurie are the rich neighbours of the March family. This may sound a bit odd that old Mr. Laurence notices the March sisters so late in his life and soon takes Beth to be his favourite. He even gifts Beth his deceased granddaughter’s piano.
Alcott brings in little travesties of Amy showing off a bag of pickles in school to Meg borrowing an expensive dress for a ball to Jo writing sensational novels as part of the venality clouding over nice and sweet March girls.
There is a bit of bickering too amongst the sisters. Amy once burns Jo’s manuscript after a tiff; a point where the family realizes Jo’s seriousness towards writing.
In the second part of the book, Jo moves to New York where she works as a Governess. Here, she meets Professor Bhaer, the man who influences her to turn away from the novels she had been writing and publishing in the local newspaper for money.
‘Pride and Prejudice’ versus ‘Little Women’
‘Little Women’ was published in 1868, almost fifty years after ‘Pride and Prejudice’. As a reader, you can see the parallels and juxtaposed characters placed around the same theme of marriage and coming-of-age.
‘Little Women’ has four March sisters and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ had five Bennet sisters. Kitty Bennet mostly merges into the background, so minus her you can draw similarities between the characteristics of the March and Bennet sisters.
Marmee is in complete contrast to Mrs. Bennet. Mrs. Bennet is the pushy mother who wants her daughters married to rich men. Marmee, on the other hand, believes in marrying an honest, hardworking, and loving man, sidelining the financial aspects. The drive for money is too much in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ whereas ‘Little Women’ talks about generosity amidst scarcity.
Laurie isn’t Mr. Darcy. So, perhaps Professor Bhaer is placed as Mr. Darcy.
‘Pride and Prejudice’ is more romantically drawn. While ‘Little Women’ characters are affected by war, diseases and even death. The scope for dramatic elopement does not exist in ‘Little Women’. The March sisters are responsible towards their family, contributing in whatever means they are capable of delivering.
I believe Alcott was brave to portray a ‘heroine’ who didn’t win over the man depicted conventionally as the ‘hero’. In ‘Little Women’, coming-of-age is about understanding love and marriage, beyond the laws of youthful attraction.
Why is it a book with so much feel-good vibe?
The most striking aspect of ‘Little Women’ is Marmee. The mother is central to the household decisions and takes upon her shoulders the responsibility to teach the daughters. The girls turn to Marmee for advice and they are always comforted.
Head, you may think, Heart, you may feel, But, Hand, you shall work away!
Marmee’s benevolence is brushed upon her daughters who are angelic enough to part with their Christmas meal or visit a poor family suffering from scarlet fever.
Mother is always ready to be your confidante, Father to be your friend, and both hope and trust that our daughters, whether married or single, will be the pride and comfort of our lives.
The girls love Marmee so much that they contribute their money for Christmas to buy a present for her.
Marmee is honest about herself with the daughters; she admits to Jo that it has taken forty years trying to control her temper. And, it may take her another forty years to succeed over it.
There are no real villains in this book except perhaps for Aunt March who is a rather subdued old woman compared to Miss Havisham from ‘Great Expectations’. Aunt March didn’t possess the qualities to ‘hide wise lessons under pleasant plays, giving and receiving friendship in the sweetest way’. She apprehends Meg from being foolish and setting aside practicalities when she hears of her plans with John Brooke, Laurie’s tutor. She gladly takes Amy instead of Jo with her on the Europe trip, considering Amy worthy of being her prodigy.
Jo, the headstrong female protagonist, an aspiring Author
Jo the Governess and the aspirant writer is the soul of ‘Little Women’. She is headstrong and honest, she wants to write books, get rich and famous. Jo loves to read and composes plays that the sisters perform on Christmas Eve. She is cold to reject Laurie’s proposal. It is difficult to find a female protagonist who is so passionate and feisty about writing that it supersedes her romantic inclinations of any sort. And, when she realizes she had been wrong, she accepts her mistake and treads the path following her heart.
Meg as a Wife and Mother
When the story begins, Meg is working as a Governess but the details are quite sketchy. She later chooses to have a family over a profession. Meg is confined within the stereotypical caricature of a homemaker, tending to her husband and two little children. She forsakes her dream of a fine house, carriage, and splendid outfits for John’s love.
…Meg learned, that a woman’s happiest kingdom is home, her highest honor the art of ruling it not as a queen, but as a wise wife and mother.
Here, I am not sure if I agree with Alcott entirely. Meg shows the practical side of being married and having children while managing on less than sufficient funds. John is not the most considerate husband, especially when he married Meg for love. After having children, Meg’s life is completely turned upside down but John expects his evenings to be the usual ones.
A Little Bookish thing from ‘Little Women’
When the story begins, for Christmas, Jo wishes to buy a copy of ‘Undine and Sintram’, a book of two German tales. In ‘Undine’ published in 1811, a water sprite marries a knight and in ‘Sintram’ published in 1814, a knight undertakes a semi-allegorical quest.
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