Louisa May Alcott
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
All right, I give up. I have tried to get into the books that absolutely everybody seems to have read and I have largely failed (case study: my disastrous brush with Jane Eyre), and I don’t want to do this anymore. I might change my mind at the next full moon, but for now I am shelving my ambition to catch up on classical Western literature, because I really don’t get the hype. With all that said, today marks my final foray into the world of Classics That Everybody Loves But I Somehow Don’t, with a review of a book so large that it gave me a whopping thumb cramp while I was parked on my couch trying to finish it.
Set in a neighborhood loosely based on Concord, Massachusetts during and after the American Civil War, Little Women follows Margaret (“Meg”), Josephine (“Jo”), Elizabeth (“Beth”), and Amy (no nickname), the four daughters of the March family. They are guided by their mother, Marmee, and their servant, Hannah (yes, they somehow have a servant despite being dirt poor – I don’t understand it either), as they navigate their unaccustomed poverty and the usual trials and tribulations of growing up. Though their means are small and their schedules busy, they still find time to pursue their respective passions – Jo is a writer, Beth is a musician, and Amy is an artist – while maintaining a strong familial bond. They also befriend their fabulously wealthy next-door neighbors, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence and his grandfather, and provide friendship and assistance to the Hummels, an impoverished German family comprising one widowed mother and six children. Despite a lot of hardships and an almost-fatal brush with scarlet fever, they make it to adulthood in one piece, and the first part of the book ends with Meg’s betrothal to John Brooke, Laurie’s long-suffering but conscientious tutor.
The second part of the book continues in a similar vein, but with a lot of the innocent wonder stripped out as the sisters grow older. Meg, who is now married, struggles to balance the demands of motherhood with the demands of her husband and the ever-present specter of relative poverty, as well as her perpetual resentment over their frugal lifestyle. Jo finds success in the stories she publishes, but – prodded by her new friend, German professor Friedrich Bhaer – questions her own morals as she begins to write sensationalist stories solely for money. Beth dies of complications following her earlier battle with scarlet fever, Amy becomes disillusioned upon seeing the work of other artists, and Laurie, smarting from Jo’s rejection of his heartfelt proposal, slips into a self-pitying lassitude. Slowly the surviving sisters (and Laurie) all find their way back to start, and their lives begin to stabilize: Meg finds her balance, Jo marries Professor Bhaer and opens a boys’ school, and Amy marries Laurie. The book ends with all of them celebrating Marmee’s sixtieth birthday on the grounds of Jo’s school, formerly a mansion owned by their crotchety Aunt March.
Little Women was a strange read because the first thirteen chapters were written by a woman who very clearly was not enjoying herself, and then the rest of the book was both spellbinding and much more in line with what I was expecting. Alcott has gone on record saying that she had a hard time writing to a female audience and that she herself found the first several chapters dull, and, well, it shows. The book is unbearable until chapter 14, in which Alcott’s writing – not unlike Jo’s – takes off like a rocket. This was something I really was not expecting, because those first thirteen chapters were a severe trial. I’m sure there’s an audience somewhere for that kind of thing, but I thought they were preachy, saccharine, and way too goddamn long.
…and Amy never minded the rumpling of her curls as she hid her face on her mother’s shoulder and sobbed out, “I am a selfish girl! but I’ll truly try to be better so he mayn’t be disappointed in me by-and-by.”
Um, okay. I’m sorry, but whatever your opinion of Alcott, she wasn’t even trying here. The writing in the first third of the book is so stiff and heavy-handed that it almost reads like an SNL sketch on Victorian morals, to the point that the following two-thirds feel like a completely different book. While it is still somewhat tainted by the same pearl-clutching nineteenth-century morals that characterize the beginning, Alcott’s later writing is much more fluid and mischievous, pervaded with a wonderfully sly humor. The characters start out as cardboard cutouts with no money, as they themselves frequently remind us, but over time they become more interesting, more relatable, more human. Jo is the heart and soul of the book, and, as another writer with some pretty serious anger issues, I connected with her on an emotional level I can’t fully articulate. I love her independence and her honesty and her all-consuming passion for writing, and I really love that one time she spends an entire chapter trolling a very exasperated Amy, though granted I’m not sure how much of her trolling is actually intentional.
Of course, it goes without saying that I am a card-carrying member of the Why Did Jo Have To Get Married club. Her marriage was definitely a choice, and I don’t think it was a good one. I find it somewhat odd, not to mention disappointing, that she gives up writing to run a boys’ boarding school when she spends most of the book pursuing a career in writing. The other problem is that I’m not particularly enamored of Professor Bhaer, at least not as a partner for Jo. I like him well enough but haven’t been able to fully envision him as Jo’s husband because he’s about fifteen years older than she is, and he comes across more like a father figure when he is first introduced. Early in their relationship, when he realizes she has been writing trashy stories for money, he takes it upon himself to shame her on behalf of her family, who as it happens are not present to shame her themselves. He considers this a helpful push in the right direction, but I’m not actually sure how a moral lecture qualifies as “help” when he knows perfectly well that she needs the money and desperately wants to support her family. You can’t eat morals.
I can sort of see where he’s coming from, because Jo does take her side hustle a little too far, albeit not in the way Professor Bhaer means when he takes her to task. Lacking any sort of knowledge or personal experience in the fields of murder and general crime, Jo does what any writer would do and starts pulling her thrilling dramas from newspaper articles, focusing on “accidents, incidents, and crimes.” She plumbs the depths of the human psyche and makes all the librarians nervous when she starts asking for books on poisons, which is entirely relatable. (“I’M A WRITER,” I yell as I Google “how many stab wounds before you die.”) In our current era this would’ve been fine, although – and this is what I mean when I say she goes too far – I think her work has the potential to be triggering to the people whose lives she appropriates, assuming of course they survived their ordeals and happen to read the magazine that buys her stories. However, this book is not from our current era, and the hand-wringing narrator feels that Jo deserves a good punishment for “desecrat[ing] some of the womanliest attributes of a woman’s character,” I mean, yeesh, okay Boomer. Leaving aside the possibility of triggering content, I really don’t feel that Jo’s stories are a hill that anyone should die on. I have always hated the idea that manners, good breeding, and pride are more important than physical survival. This book made me hate it more.
I am similarly irritated with Laurie, whose greatest problem in life appears to be that one time Jo told him she didn’t like him like him. This traumatic event forms the basis of his personality for the next several chapters, and he is only rescued when Amy finally slaps some sense into him, which is (1) not her job and (2) a continuation of his relationship with Jo, who tends to take a more maternal role in his life. Yes, yes, old book, product of its times, etc, etc. I still hate this idea that women are responsible for raising whatever men they happen to stumble across. The narrator sometimes mocks him and sometimes validates his self-indulgent misogyny, but the one thing that remains consistent is that both he and Amy immediately label Jo “hardhearted,” and they stick to their irrational guns come hell or high water. Jo for her part is so flooded with remorse after telling Laurie exactly what he doesn’t want to hear that she immediately offers to kill herself if it would do any good (i.e., if it would make him feel any better). Give me a fucking break.
I don’t know who needs to hear this, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with refusing a proposal, regardless of past history, relationship status, familial expectations, one-sided feelings, or any other bullshit reason the proposer tries to throw in your face. A clear-cut rejection is an extraordinarily difficult thing to pull off, and I admire Jo tremendously for being able to articulate her refusal so cleanly. To be honest, I would have preferred her genuinely hardhearted, or at least capable of watching Laurie learn hard truths without trying to intervene. Her refusal is strong, kind, and unmistakable, but the strength of her will is diluted by her misguided attempts to appease him by debasing herself. Fortunately, Laurie does listen to Amy and he does come out of his whiny funk and everything is fine in the end, but it bugs me. This really was something he should have figured out on his own, without first making himself unpleasant to Amy. I don’t believe he’s ever had to do his own emotional labor, and it doesn’t seem like he ever will.
This isn’t to say that Laurie doesn’t have his good points. The characters don’t get off to the strongest start, but none of them are one-dimensional. They are, for the most part, deeply flawed people who are trying to do the right thing while living their lives as agreeably as possible. When he’s not crying in a corner, Laurie is sweet and thoughtful, flighty and flirtatious, unenthusiastic about the path his grandfather has laid out for him but still a dutiful grandson, a good friend but also a slightly malicious one, a lonely but kind-hearted neighbor. As annoyed as I am with him, I am so grateful that he has the sense to send for Marmee when Hannah repeatedly and inexplicably refuses to do so even though they have every reason to believe that Beth is dying. (On the subject of Hannah: I still don’t understand how the Marches can afford to pay her a living wage when they can barely afford food, and I am furious with her for her well-meaning but unbelievably stupid insistence that Marmee absolutely does not need to know about the state of her own daughter’s health. If I were Beth’s mother; if I came back from a trip to learn that Hannah had obstructed every attempt to tell me about Beth’s illness, and ignored the pleas of my three other daughters; if Beth had died before my return without my ever knowing about it until the literal day of my arrival; and if I had ever concluded that Hannah unilaterally decided that my husband should matter more to me than my daughter without ever consulting me, she would have been fired on the spot.)
Ultimately, my feelings towards this book are ambiguous. I love it, and I don’t. I am irritated by it, and entranced by it. I was going to unhaul it when I was still mired in the first thirteen chapters, but now I think I’m going to keep it. I started out not liking any of the characters but as of this writing am cursing Alcott’s departed soul for making Beth that sick, and for turning my face into a goddamn waterfall during the scarlet fever chapter. I have had all the feelings, and, though a lot of those feelings were negative, in the end I’m still glad I read this book. I still don’t get the hype and I haven’t changed my mind on axing my classical literature project, but I’m glad that I at least read this one final book. At its very best, it is sweet, relatable, and beautifully written. For all my irritations and complaints, its intentions are generally irreproachable. And, unlike all these other books I have complained about, I may even read it a second time.