Little Women: Or, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy

“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.

© Columbia Pictures

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, 2019yet 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?).

© Columbia Pictures

A couple of observations, from someone who had a much less enthusiastic understanding of what the Little Women series was before actually reading it:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”

© Columbia Pictures, Regency Enterprises, Pascal Pictures

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 featureLittle 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.

See the source image

© Columbia Pictures, Regency Enterprises, Pascal Pictures


Victoria Murgante

About Victoria Murgante

Victoria is always looking for something good to read. Her claims to fame are taking guitar lessons from a friend of Raffi's (he was a great teacher!), contributing a three-word spoken part to a hard rock album in the early 90s, and owning a pair of pants that were hemmed by Michael Cera's aunt.

6 thoughts on “Little Women: Or, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy

  1. I have a confession to make: I actually have not consumed Little Women in any complete form as of yet, and only encountered it as referenced in articles, reviews, and books. Really, the reasons I am so looking forward to the new adaptation on film are: 1) Timothée Chalamet, 2) Saoirse Ronan, and 3) Greta Gerwig. The trailers also look quite enticing, of course! My decision to either read or not read Little Women will likely depend on how I feel about the movie, though I realize the novel likely has merits the movie will not…

    On the other hand, I definitely agree that before making any definitive pronouncements about a book, one should actually read it in full first instead of relying only on reviews, its interpretation in popular media, and other people’s opinions. There are certain titles (or, well… one in particular published recently) that I feel like I have reason enough to hate on without having read them, but part of me still wonders if I should be devoting some of my time to at least hating on it properly by having read it, thus allowing me to tear it all down systematically rather than just as a straw man. My experience more generally regarding drawing my own opinions after reading titles instead of relying on reviews and the like is actually the opposite, though: I’ll read a title that was supposed to be good and wonder what all the fuss was about. “Perhaps I’m not reading it right, perhaps I’m missing something – I’m just not reading it well!”, I’ll think. And it’s at these times in particular that I wonder whether it wouldn’t be better to avoid as much as possible reading any review before embarking on your own reading adventure (sometimes I also think this about movies, as I’m also often disappointed after glowing reviews…).

    1. I’m sure I’ve had that experience too, of being disappointed by a book or a film that just didn’t live up to expectations, but a lot of times for me it seems to have gone the other way, which is always a treat. Usually, it is a case of me thinking it wouldn’t interest me, or would just be boring, rather than feeling that I would be diametrically opposed (and then I discover that it is interesting and sometimes wonderful, and certainly NOT boring). I wouldn’t worry that you’re ‘not reading it well’ in the case where your own impression of a book or a film does not line up with the reviews (and so forth)—your experience is individual and needn’t be predicted by what others thought of it! 🙂 In fact, I think it’s great if a person’s feelings about a book or a film are sometimes completely different from what might be expected; there might be some valuable insights there that perhaps others have missed?

      And I did see the film just last night! I thought that what Gerwig did with the timeline was clever; whereas the text is almost strictly linear, in the film she coupled the past and present very thoughtfully, pairing certain events to heighten them, popping back and forth in time throughout the film. She also places the beginning of the book somewhere in the middle, which I also thought was interesting, to give the story a completely different arc. And what she did with the lighting and the colour, to strike a contrast between past and present times, made an impression also. I’m interested in checking out some of the other full-length adaptations to see how they approached the story, probably starting with the one with Winona Ryder in it. 🙂

  2. Chiming in to say that though I’ve never read the book (shame), I grew up watching the 1994 movie adaptation, and have now seen the new Greta Gerwig version twice! The ’94 is cozy and Christmassy and doesn’t really challenge the viewer in any way, but the new one is a whole different beast. Having watched the Winona Ryder one so many times, I didn’t really expect to see the story in a different light with this new version, and like Karen I was mostly excited by the reunion of Greta, Saoirse and Timothee, all of whom I adore. The new one is like…..a revelation. The way it jumbles the timeline gives the story this intense urgency that I would NEVER have expected from it. The structure highlights some themes that I never really paid attention to, like how often economic safety is stressed. These girls are just out here trying to survive and make money, in whatever way comes naturally to them. The portrayal of Amy March is also so different than normal, in that instead of just being a spoiled brat she’s portrayed as a hustler who knows what she wants. I really cannot stress how much I loved this film haha. I sobbed through it both times.

    One thing I really noticed in this version is how the men interact with the girls, particularly Laurie. He sees how the girls are with each other and desperately wants to be part of that. When he’s welcomed into their circle, it’s as an equal—almost like another sister. I can’t think of many other examples of a man longing to be part of a group of women in that way. The other men interact with the March girls similarly; always admiring the way the girls take up space in the world without ever trying to put out their flames (well, Laurie kind of does, I guess, but they always call him on it). I think this speaks to what you said about the story being so encouraging. Everyone is allowed freedom to be artistic, creative, ambitious, whatever.

    And to your point about Jo’s story matching Alcott’s, what did you think of the ending? I thought it was such a cheeky, meta way to frame the story, and a clever way to make it more palatable to modern audiences. I always thought the Professor Bhaer stuff came out of left field (because Alcott literally made it up on the spot lol) so that ending always annoyed me. I really like this new interpretation.

    1. “These girls are just out here trying to survive and make money, in whatever way comes naturally to them.”

      This is one of the things I really liked about the story, how they all have distinctive talents and how those talents really shine through into what each girl does. Later in the story, Meg’s daughter pursues acting as a serious career and Meg herself gets to perform in a play that Jo and Laurie write together (I believe I am recalling that correctly), and it’s so satisfying to see—Meg was amazing in that play. And Amy’s daughter, like Amy herself, loves visual arts and is talented in them. My favourite element of that corner of the story is that it really becomes a place of mother-daughter bonding, as they often engage in artistic exploits side by side and spend a lot of time together this way.

      “Everyone is allowed freedom to be artistic, creative, ambitious, whatever”

      ABSOLUTELY. It was encouraging for this and many other reasons! I LOVE the part where Laurie gets to join the club. He lives such a lonely, almost isolated, life before he meets the Marches and so it is beautiful to see him more and more fully absorbed into the shenanigans of these lively, vibrant young women.

      The “point about Jo’s story matching Alcott’s”:

      I did lead with the parallel between the literary successes of the two authors (Alcott and Jo). After a lot of so-called “sensation stories”, Jo’s eventual masterpiece is a simple story like Little Women and not a soaring, high fantasy epic or a gruesome murder mystery or anything like that (not that I don’t love soaring, high-fantasy epics—I do—but I liked the idea that sometimes it is the simplest of stories that mean the most). One thing that impressed me when I read about it was just how FAST Alcott wrote all of these books, especially considering their magnitude and longevity: that each book was whipped out in a matter of months!

      The ending of the new film (I’m not sure if this constitutes a spoiler, but for those concerned, do not read below the line!):

      I also felt kind of like Professor Bhaer was an unexpected romantic partner for Jo, not bad (he is actually such a wonderful person, fictionally speaking), but not like Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet—there wasn’t enough build up or energy or something. If I am to understand the ending of the film correctly, I don’t think the romance between Professor Bhaer and Jo proceeds—it’s a little confusing, what really happens, but after some deliberation, I don’t think that the romance moves forward—there is that scene in there, interspersed with discussion over Jo’s book being published, where they might have started something, but as a fiction within a fiction (I wasn’t sure at first, but I now I’m almost certain it’s no more than a fiction within a fiction in Gerwig’s retelling). I understand why she made that choice, but having read the whole series, this also means that Robin and Teddy Bhaer, their two sons (Teddy, named after Laurie), would not exist in the story to come, in “Little Men” and in “Jo’s Boys” (the part of the story where we also meet one of Alcott’s most ambitious characters, Annie Harding). So I can’t say I was completely sold on the ending, but a lot of that has to do with imagining how it would play into the other half of the story.

      1. Thanks for the thoughtful reply! I loved hearing your thoughts on the ending. As someone who hasn’t read the books, I have no concept of what happens beyond what the movies show us! So I never thought about what it means for the rest of the books if Jo and Bhaer never get married. You make a good point! I think maybe I am too harsh on Bhaer simply because in the ’94 version, the movie does not try to make the relationship make sense, whereas the new film actually does more work to make him seem like a (better?) alternative to Laurie. So I’ve got years of bias which is probably not fair to the novel!

  3. I loved all the Little Women books, Little Women, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. So I was excited to hear last year that there would be another movie of Little Women. I saw the movie around a week ago and while I enjoyed it I found the timeline confusing. I think it would have helped if they had had captions when the timeline went forward or backwards like ‘3 years ago’ or ‘4 years ahead’ or ‘1865’ or ‘1870’. My favorite movie version is still the 1949 one with June Allyson, Margaret O’Brien and Elizabeth Taylor, probably because that was the version I saw first when I was a child.

    Perhaps the reason that LMA was reluctant to marry Jo off is the reason that Jo and Friedrich Bhaer felt a little flat to me. Jo and Laurie probably would have had a tempestuous marriage but, to me, they still had more chemistry together that Jo and Friedrich did. Amy and Laurie also felt flat to me as well. As for what would happen if Jo and Friedrich hadn’t married, there’s always fan fiction!

    By the way, years ago I visited the real Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts.

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