“Jo never knew how it happened, but something got into that story that went straight to the hearts of those who read it, for when her family had laughed and cried over it, her father sent it, much against her will, to one of the popular magazines, and to her utter surprise, it was not only paid for, but others requested. Letters from several persons, whose praise was honor, followed the appearance of the little story, newspapers copied it, and strangers as well as friends admired it. For a small thing it was a great success, and Jo was more astonished than when her novel was commended and condemned all at once. “
I don’t understand it. What can there be in a simple little story like that to make people praise it so?” she said, quite bewildered.
“There is truth in it, Jo, that’s the secret.”
— Louisa May Alcott
One of the delights of Little Women (and subsequent books in the series) (among many) is the parallel drawn between Jo’s literary attempts and Alcott’s own literary triumph (a sort of art imitates life scenario). It is the “simple little story” that Jo eventually writes that finally propels her to fame and garners her the high praises of the masses (sometimes too much so, as we see in a comedic sketch of Jo hiding in her own home—unsuccessfully—from a barrage of ‘adoring’ fans). Likewise it is Alcott’s simple tale that has etched her name in history as a literary icon and has kept her relevant for over 150 years.
If it is a simple little story, however, it is deceptively so. It’s not that there isn’t a beautiful simplicity to it, but that this is only one part of a larger whole—a simplicity that clothes the body and soul of the tale. I would argue that there is a surprising depth to this book—that there would have to be or otherwise it wouldn’t have thrived this long. Today—Christmas Day, 2019—yet another film adaptation (this one directed by Greta Gerwig) hits theatres: a full 151 years after the initial publication of the first volume. This is still a story worth retelling, in other words, even after so much time. Not only that, but of all the novels I’ve read, probably ever, there never was one so encouraging as Little Women. It left me feeling like (yes!) I could manage my own little struggles cheerfully, that I really ought to build some beautiful castles in the sky of my own, that I genuinely do have so much to be thankful for, and that I really can work on improving those areas of myself that I’d like see transcended, if only imperfectly (and probably with the odd a-mishap inbetween—fun fact: Little Women is the third book I’ve read recently wherein the heroine accidentally replaces sugar with salt in a recipe to disastrous effect: an odd repetitive motif, right?).
A couple of observations, from someone who had a much less enthusiastic understanding of what the Little Women series was before actually reading it:
- One really, really needs to read things for themselves before passing judgement. Don’t believe the reviews, or what your friends or professors or cinematic retellings say: read it for yourself. One quick example (I have more, but for now, one): I thought that Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus was about a zombie-like creature who moaned incoherently, walked stiffly on green legs, and generally spent the duration of the text being chased out of villages via torch and pitchfork. Wrong. He was so articulate, there was so much feeling, so much humanity, such skillful framing, and such literary prowess. Where was the superficial ‘zombie story’ I had envisioned? Lesson learned: read the book, the actual book (doesn’t matter if it’s audio or digital or in print), before passing judgement. After being humbled more than once into realizing that my initial, second-hand impression of something was not as accurate as I thought, I learned that nothing can replace first-hand experience. If you’ve never read it, if you’ve only heard about it or maybe seen a movie version somewhere along the line, I highly recommend giving Alcott’s original Little Women a try.
- You may be surprised by how much you fall in love with it—just a warning. I went the audiobook route to start with but found that I wanted a more intimate format—it was so good that I really wanted to cherish those chapters. I craved a slow, savouring pace—I wanted to re-read lines three times over, to pause (without pressing pause) at every beautiful thing. And this never happens, by the way. I am such a staunch audiobook-lover, both fiction and non, and I’ve never before felt the urge to switch formats. Needless to say, however, I made a prompt and triumphant effort to obtain every single one of the books.
Part of what makes Little Women so special is that it’s a story about the ‘real’ lives and inner-struggles of ordinary women; it’s about sisters and family and all of that is so, so beautiful. But like my Modern Prometheus example, it is also very much about the human condition, particularly regarding the innate weaknesses that we may (or may not) recognize in ourselves, and how we might choose to manage them as we make our way in the world. One scene that stands out particularly for me is when Jo finds herself almost responsible for Amy’s drowning, so unable to control her own anger was she that she didn’t warn Amy about the thin ice:
“It’s my dreadful temper! I try to cure it, I think I have, and then it breaks out worse than ever. Oh, Mother, what shall I do? What shall I do?” cried poor Jo in despair.
“Watch and pray, dear, never get tired of trying, and never think it is impossible to conquer your fault.”
All of the sisters are revealed to have a particular personal struggle that we get to see them work through (anger, vanity, selfishness, severe shyness). In contrast to Frankenstein’s monster, who famously says; “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous,” the March sisters make no such excuse—to the contrary, they recognize their individual “bosom enemies” and work through them in spite of (and even because of) miserable circumstances—and, perhaps most interestingly, they strive to be cheerful as a virtuous aim in itself. Research would indicate that they may have been onto something; “…happier people are more likely to help other people, they’re more interested in social problems, they do more volunteer work, and they contribute more to charity. They’re less preoccupied with their personal problems. They’re friendlier. They make better leaders” (Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project). Life is full of the good and the bad, the happy and the deeply sad, so it’s less about being happy all the time no matter what and more about keeping one’s spirits up when possible, and with the best intentions (also, where that happiness loop begins is somewhat unclear, because volunteering and acts of altruism are shown, in themselves, to improve personal happiness).
In all of Alcott’s Little Women books, we get to watch her characters fail, to feel those human feelings, to identify personal weaknesses, but then to rise above, to succeed, to keep striving, to have setbacks, and eventually (given all of this striving) to become closer to the people they would envision themselves as being—the kind of people that they themselves might deem worthy of imitation, or even admiration. There is real growth there; as Stephanie Harrington put it (quoted in Anne Boyd Rioux’s The Story of Little Women and Why it Still Matters) “They at least think. They at least, in their own terms, grow.” And that right there may have been the most encouraging aspect of all—how much we get to see the characters change and grow:
“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.”
This ode to personal growth, I must say, was not at all what I expected or was looking for; after all, it was supposed to be a “simple little story” and (although I shouldn’t have been) I was astonished to find so much more in it. In the forward to the 2018 publication by Virago Press it reads; “In a time when children’s books… featur[ed] idealized, two-dimensional protagonists, Little Women was revolutionary, peopled as it was by relatable, flawed, fully-realized characters”—and that was the impression I got as well. All of this is timely because the turn of the year is a time when many people reflect on what they might like to change for the better, what they might like to cherish more in the coming year, and what dreams they might like to tend to (I’ve never been much into making New Year’s resolutions, but I do like the idea of having a wish-list of things that I’d like to accomplish in the coming year, including things that are hard work—it’s basically the same, but it just feels a little bit different to frame it that way). All of these themes are very much alive in the story of the March sisters, so if you are looking for a motivational boost heading into the new year, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women may be just the book.
To end, I have never seen a feature-length adaptation of Little Women—ever (gasp!)—the closest I’ve come was a dubbed Japanese Christmas special that I liked very much, but that (being a Christmas special) only showed a tiny glimpse of the larger story (and it was so long ago that it is still only available on VHS). Suffice to say, I am enormously excited to finally see the book brought to life in a full-length feature; Little Women (2019) stars Eliza Scanlen as Beth, Saorise (pronounced Sir-sha) Ronan as Jo, Emma Watson as Meg, and Florence Pugh as Amy.
I can already taste the popcorn.