Personalizing Louisa through the reading of Little Women

Little Women

Responding to my request, I am pleased to present a guest post by Jillian author of the A Room of One’s Own blog. Jillian is exploring the classics and using her blog as a journal, sharing her reactions and insight. As a new student to the classics, I depend heavily on Jillian’s blog to guide me to good reading, and she has never let me down. I know you will appreciate her unique point of view on Louisa’s most successful and far-reaching work, Little Women.

Reading Little Women – a guest blog by Jillian
A Room of One’s Own

When Susan asked me to write a guest blog for her lovely Alcott site, I wasn’t sure what I could possibly talk about — though I was keen to contribute a few words, since I’m all about spreading the Alcott love.

Anyone visiting this blog has either read something by Louisa May Alcott or is curious to meet her. That’s one of the things I truly love about literature — that potential to unite us. Those of us who have read Little Women share the experience of it. We can exchange glances and know that Jo, that Meg, that Amy and Beth lived their lives within our souls for a while. Louisa’s Little Women has been a shared memory between strangers from all over the world for over a century.

I can’t tell you anything about Alcott that Susan hasn’t already said better. (Indeed, when I have a question about Alcott, I generally seek her out.) I’m certainly no expert on Louisa, or her family, or her century, or Transcendentalism. I’ve read one biography and a couple of her shorter works: Hospital Sketches and “Transcendental Wild Oats.” So I can’t even give you a very thorough review of her library.

But I can tell you who my Louisa is.

Before 2010, I had barely heard of Louisa May Alcott. I didn’t care about Concord, though I was fascinated by the Civil War. My interest pulled to the South, though. To Tara and the searing apart of Atlanta — action and all that. (My favorite book is Gone With the Wind.) I certainly never intended to read Little Women. I was a busy, on-the-go 21st century person, more inclined to enjoy the movie than the novel. I added it to my classics project list more as an “I should read this” item than a wish list book that I yearned to explore. It seemed like something I should have read as a little girl, and having not read it felt like a gap. I’d enjoyed the 1994 movie and figured Little Women was a good enough place to start with the classics.

A lot of people have expressed irritation when they read Little Women – not only for a certain turning point in the story which makes me chuckle and applaud Jo March (if you’ve read it – you know!), but for the very “littleness” of the book. I don’t mean that it is itself little, for my copy weighs in at 502 pages. I mean that this century seems to yearn for action, adventure, a snappy opening, a protagonist with an excrutiating decision to make at once, and LOTS of tension.

Little Women isn’t like that. More, it’s a window into the world of women in nineteenth century New England. The book is quite didactic – something that bothers some people. Especially in the early chapters, the book seems to focus on how to be a proper little woman and grow up to be a proper wife. But what people miss, I think, is Marmee. A woman who pulls to her daughter Jo early in the novel, sharing with her an inexplicable anger and desire to fight that the other sisters, and Jo’s father, don’t understand. Just like one could read Pride and Prejudice as a love story and miss the side story about Charlotte Lucas, I think one can read Little Women as a didactic novel and miss the nuance in the Jo story.

Little Women is separated into chapters that read like short stories: days in the lives of the March girls and what they faced in 19th century Concord. The stories aren’t so much about plot – as they are warmth and love and survival as women in a world that wanted women to be quiet, be useful, be relatively ornamental, and well… be little. See, that’s what I remember most about Little Women: as much as it felt didactic, there was Jo. Awkward, cranky, boisterous, clumsy, loud Jo who wanted nothing more than to live up to those didactic standards and couldn’t. She is a contrast, and so too, is Little Women. It’s a foundation of who one “should” be as a proper New England woman, written through the eyes of four sisters: an artist, a wife, a musician, and a writer. And oh, that writer — how she doesn’t fit! She loves her sisters, and as slow-rolling as the story is to start, it gets to you, when you realize that this world was Louisa’s, and that sweet Beth was her sister, and that this didactic outpouring is the very world she lived in, and that the writer produced the very book laid open on your 21st century lap.

The title itself gives me shivers. One could read “Little Women” as a commendment of littleness, or one could read it as the very world into which Jo, and likewise, Louisa, had been sat. She adored that world, I think. But she wasn’t quiet, she wasn’t predictable, and she wasn’t little. So the novel reads as a sort of tribute to the place Louisa couldn’t make her own: a world of giving sisters who laugh and hug and dream and try to stay alive while Jo sits insolently gazing out the snow-crusted window, her willful chin working as ardently as it can to stay small and proper and level while her ravenous soul pulls to war and Laurie and running and loudness, and Marmee.

The thing about Little Women is – it stuck with me. Not just the lessons, but the story, the sisters, the sense of comfort and safety and snugness that is Louisa’s novel. I’ve read over sixty books since then, and still I pull to Alcott’s work. Still I count it as a favorite.

My Louisa is a fighter — not so very different from me or Scarlett O’Hara or Mr. Dickens’ Oliver Twist (which surely Louisa read by night in lamplight.) She’s a product of her century and all that she read and all that she lived. While Atlanta was being ripped apart by fire, Louisa was in Massachusetts — writing. She lived that world that I find so fascinating. She lived it from the Northern side, sat between Thoreau and Emerson, under the roof of Bronson Alcott, surrounded by sisters. Little Women is her side of the story — how she coped, and how her three very different sisters faced the same world.

I read that publisher James T. Fields dismissed her work as insignificant once, and advised her to, “Stick to your teaching, Miss Alcott. You can’t write.” Oh, that makes me angry. I remember learning, as I explored her world, that while she is certainly didactic in Little Women, she is that way because she was told to do it. Apparently books about being a proper wife were what sold, in the nineteenth century, by women writers. And that’s what was expected of Louisa. She wanted to write about ghosts and mystery and thrilling stories, but the men of that world wanted her to write about how to be a proper little woman. What absolutely endears me to Louisa — is that she gave them that. But within it, she gave them Jo March — herself, her soul, a little woman who could not fit into that world, and who desperately yearned to be good enough.

That girl is my Louisa.

This March I intend to re-read Little Women to see what more I can ring from it, and to enjoy alongside it Geraldine Brook’s March and Alcott’s own sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boy’s.

I don’t think I’ll ever again be satisfied with “just the movie.”

Jillian blogs at A Room of One’s Own, where she journals her exploration through classic literature.


10 Replies to “Personalizing Louisa through the reading of Little Women

  1. It is interesting that you came to Little Women as an adult. I read it as a child and have reread it since then. Yes, it is didactic, but most children’s literature is, one way or the other. My childhood was shadowed by the ideal of the well-adjusted child, and for a girl that meant being submissive and cooperative and not particularly ambitious. Submissive and cooperative I was not, and I suffered for it. It didn’t even occur to me to be ambitious. Jo March was an inspiration. I overlooked the life-lessons offered to the “little” women in my appreciation for Jo, who knew what she wanted.

    1. That’s a great point about most children’s literature being didactic. I think I forget sometimes that Little Women is a children’s book — perhaps because I came at it as an adult. A lot of the people who I’ve seen critique Little Women as “too didactic” also read it as adults for the first time.

      There’s a part of me that wishes I could go back and read this book as a little girl. I think having this story, these sisters inside of me would have changed me — filled me up, or something. Jo March would have been such an inspiration to me.

      Isn’t it incredible how literature can do that? Get inside of you and inspire the best parts of yourself? My mother is the one who encouraged me (rather tenaciously!) to read Gone With the Wind when I was very young. That squaring of shoulders, that leveling of the chin that is Scarlett? It is seared in my memory and did, I think, become a part of me.

      I love books. 😀

      “Who knew what she wanted.” Yes. Exactly that.

  2. Beautiful, thoughtful post! To me, Little Women is not nearly as preachy as some other “female fiction” authors I’ve read from both the 19th and early 20th century. I enjoyed the book both as a child and an adult. As an only child, I enjoyed situating myself in a family full of sisters, at least in my head 🙂 As an adult, I love how Louisa makes Jo, the “different” sister, the most sympathetic character and how her writing spurs me to investigate areas of American history that receive little attention these days.

    And here’s a question – what character do you like or identify with most, after Jo?

    1. I love all of that about it too, Mel. I can’t wait to read her other books! For the holidays this year, I hope to read some of Louisa’s Christmas stories aloud with my mother. 🙂

      I identify heavily with Beth — perhaps as equally as iddentify with Jo, though there are elements of all the sisters in me, I think — particularly Amy as a little girl. I’m very much a homebody and rather shy in person. As a child I would hide my head from strangers, and I too wonder why everyone “wants to go away.” (A quote from the 1994 film! I can’t recall if it’s in the novel, but I will know next month.) 🙂

      Anyhow, I understand Beth and identify strongly with her, but I also very, very much understand Jo.


    1. Thanks for the kind words! I’ll definitely be following along on your Louisa project. 😀 (Do you mean February 13?)

  3. I love your interpretation, Jillian. I’ve reread Little Women several times since I’ve read it in school. I’m endeared to Jo March because she represents a strong woman who knows her mind but continues to make sense of the things around her. She is like a 20th century woman in a 19th century world. I totally agree with this line: “the men of that world wanted her to write about how to be a proper little woman. What absolutely endears me to Louisa — is that she gave them that. But within it, she gave them Jo March — herself, her soul, a little woman who could not fit into that world, and who desperately yearned to be good enough”

    1. It’s interesting to think about how the writers we love might have led different lives, if they’d been born into a different century. I wonder what would have become of Bronson and his daughter if they were our own contemporaries? Would we have heard of either?

      Thanks for the kind words, Nancy. 🙂

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