Little Women
by Louisa May Alcott

Review by
Carol Kalescky

Roberts Brothers: Boston, 1868 & 1869
341 & 359 pages

October 2011

Surprises in a classic

When I was a young girl, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) was a highly regarded book — for girls, especially. It has remained a classic for 150 years. With its plot and its progression from adolescence to adulthood, educators must have felt that many readers could relate to it, and they could. It has been adapted for film four times, each time with major stars of the period. Today, it is something of a touchstone for women of all ages, with its well-beloved characters.

In grade school, I bought a copy through Scholastic Book Services, a program that made available low-cost books for the elementary grades during the 1960s and early 1970s. I adored the novel, especially the character of Jo, the second eldest, who is independent-minded and a tomboy. My edition was abridged, which I knew meant that there were cuts, but I didn't truly know their extent.

Earlier this year I found Little Women on Project Gutenberg, and moved by nostalgia, I downloaded it. I was eager to read an unabridged version. I was surprised by the contents. There was a great deal cut to make the edition I was so familiar with — in fact, I'd say my abridged edition was hanged, drawn, and quartered. The original version is a much richer book.

The four March girls featured in Little Women represent four types of young woman. Meg, the eldest, is the leader and is rather vain; then follows the aforementioned Jo; next is Beth, the most devoted to home (she's a little Vesta); and last, Amy, the most troubled by the March family's genteel poverty, the most vain, and initially, the most pretentious of the girls. Their mother is nicknamed "Marmee". She is full of motherly love for her daughters. At the beginning of the novel, the father, Reverend March, is serving as a chaplain to Union troops, and is away from home.

The book is episodic, without any interleaving of scenes such as a contemporary novel might contain. Each girl has a chapter or more devoted to a problem brought about by a characteristic foible of hers. (There are longer-range plotlines as well, which hold the book together.) The moral of each set-piece is frequently brought forth at the end of the chapter by one or more of the girls having a talk with Marmee about those events and their reactions to them. Marmee is unfailingly full of stories relating to each individual's experience based on Marmee's own experiences, as well as wise counsel drawing on her lifetime of New Testament study and her close reading of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.

As the four mature, their characters develop and their lessons change. Meg marries first, and Alcott uses her to put forth advice on the desirability of marrying a poor but virtuous man, on attaining a congenial marriage, and on child-raising. Jo moves from being a curmudgeon into a deeply loving woman. Amy evolves from a "funny hat" characterization full of malapropisms and resentment over her social class, into a gracious, well-spoken young woman who marries well.

This leaves Beth, the penultimate daughter, and Reverend March. Alcott fails to develop their characters as fully as the others. Aside from one voiced complaint about housework at the beginning of the novel, Beth is the model of behavior for her sisters. She appears to exist to fulfill this function, and to serve as a focus for Jo's devotion. I found Beth unsatisfying, trapped into being an impossibly "good" girl. Her ultimate fate, to me a failure of Alcott's craft, is not surprising. Reverend March remains, even after he returns home, a distant, albeit loving presence. By contrast to these two, Alcott devotes much time and energy to Jo and Theodore "Laurie" Lawrence, her most fully drawn characters.

I was surprised at how pious and moral Little Women is. Alcott's messages are never far from her mind. The characters think nothing of teasing or out-and-out lecturing each other about each other's defects of character. Pilgrim's Progress, published in 1678 (while Little Women is set in 1863, initially), is explicitly called on throughout as a model for the way the March family lives. Every incident has its moral.

The moral lesson I found the most moving was the depiction of the struggle Jo has to accept a very great loss in her life. In part, it's about Jo's acceptance of her own role in society, but more importantly, her struggle ushers in a profound ripening of her character, setting her up for a very great gain.

I found the moral content of Little Women uplifting once I overcame my initial shock and distaste at encountering it. Novels like this are not common in our culture anymore. They have been relegated to the Christian market, by which I mean "ghettoized". I think Little Women is worth reading today for adults as well as children, as unsubtle as it can be at times, for its lessons could be of help, especially if the adult comes from a background of faith but has fallen away.


© 2011 Carol Kalescky

Project Gutenberg online versions:
Little Women (1868-9) by Louisa May Alcott — all formats

Little Women (1868-9) by Louisa May Alcott — html


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