Reading Little Women as a writer

Recently I was asked by my writing tutor analyze the beginning pages of books I’ve read to see how the author set up the story. I  immediately thought of  Little Women’s first chapter as it is so iconic. Louisa did a masterful job of introducing the four sisters and giving the reader a sense of who they were in a very brief bit of dialogue. A specific and important characteristic of each sister was introduced; in fact in a sense, these were the identifying characteristics.

Let’s take a look:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug,

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

“We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contently from her corner.

What do we see about the sisters?

  • The fact that Jo is grumbling hints that she is ornery; this is a trait that comes up again and again in the story, climaxing as all-out violent anger in Chapter 8, “Jo Meets Apollyon.”
  • Meg is complaining about being poor, showing how much she loves and wants pretty material things. Throughout the book she has to battle with this tendency, especially in Chapter 9, “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair.”
  • Amy’s complaint shows  that she feels entitled to nice things just like other girls (in her world, everything ought to be “fair”). The “injured sniff” is a hint as to how spoiled she is. This absolute need for fairness gets her into trouble and when she is denied, she can act out of vengeance, doubling the trouble, again shown in Chapter 8.
  • Beth shows she wants for nothing because she has her family which is most important to her.

Dialog sets the stage

Louisa continues to carefully and succinctly lay out who the characters are and what makes them tick, much of it through dialog. The setting of the story is also set out that way:

The four young faces on which the firelight shone brightened at the cheerful words, but darkened again as Jo said sadly, “We haven’t got Father, and shall not have him for a long time.” She didn’t say “perhaps never,” but each silently added it, thinking of Father far away, where the fighting was.

This sets the stage. As Little Women was written shortly after the Civil War, readers of the day would know which war Jo was referring to. It sets up that Father is away, making this is an all-female home. It also shows the love for Father.

The heart of the story

The moral nature of the story is first revealed here:

Nobody spoke for a minute; then Meg said in an altered tone, “You know the reason Mother proposed not having any presents this Christmas was because it is going to be a hard winter for everyone; and she thinks we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army. We can’t do much, but we can make our little sacrifices and ought to do it gladly. But I’m afraid I don’t” and Meg shook her head, as she thought regretfully of all the pretty things she wanted.

This shows a sample of the desire to be virtuous and how difficult that can be for each character, a key element of the story.

Sisters, sisters

from Bette's Movie Blog

The dialog continues to tell us about the sisters including how each spent their day and how they related to each other. This piece of dialog is such a perfect example of the dynamic between the sisters:

“Jo does use such slang words!” observed Amy, with a reproving look at the long figure stretched on the rug.

Jo immediately sat up, put her hands in her pockets, and began to whistle.

“Don’t Jo. It’s so boyish!”

“That’s why I do it.”

“I detest rude, unladylike girls!”

“I hate affected, niminy-piminy chits!”

“Birds in their little nests agree,” sang Beth, the peacemaker, with such a funny face that both sharp voices soften to a laugh, and the “pecking” ended for that time

The sniping back and forth between Amy the younger and Jo the elder is so typical of how sisters relate. Hopefully every household has a Beth as peacemaker!

Reading through a new lens

I realize that some of you are writers and that this analysis is pretty elementary. As a beginning writer learning the craft, I find this “reading between the lines” to be great fun.

I have always maintained that Louisa had a methodical way of setting the stage for whatever was to come. These few lines tell us so much that I find it frankly disruptive when she inserts herself into the story to describe the physical features of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. It’s one part of her writing I don’t like (and I will never forgive her for the way she inserted herself so cynically into the end of An Old-Fashioned Girl).

Reading Little Women a second time through the lens of a newbie writer is proving to be great fun. Having it on the Nook and being to highlight and make notes to my heart’s content is fabulous too!

It sounds like I need to “get a life.” Sorry, I already have one. 🙂

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8 Replies to “Reading Little Women as a writer”

    1. It just amazed me how much information she packed into those 4 opening lines of dialog! And she didn’t want to write it. I think sometimes people work better when they’re assigned a task. Some of my best songs were written that way.

  1. I laughed at your last line — because, yes, this is just the sort of life I love! It is amazing how much LMA gets onto that first page.

    It’s interesting re the insertions. Most of my students are fond of the way the C.S. Lewis narrator comes into the Narnia books, but his comments do tend to be lighter than LMA’s, almost as if he couldn’t repress them, whereas LMA’s are a bit too conscious of being the wise one. He’s got so much action, but when he stops to describe for maybe a paragraph, it has an impact.

    Some of my favorite first pages, packed with hints of theme, are from Charlotte’s Web (the master!), Bridge to Terabithia (Katherine Paterson’s wonderful novel for those about 12… and older) and The Secret Life of Bees.

    1. Ooo, I’ll have to check those out, thanks!

      What killed me about An Old-Fashioned Girl is that it was so obvious that she was not pleased that she was pressured to marry off Jo in Little Women. So she marries off Polly and to the guy everyone wanted. It was obvious Tom and Polly were going to eventually get together but her comments at the beginning of that last chapter totally spoiled the ending! It also showed a cynical regard for her fans. Not her best moment!

  2. I’m loving my reread, and you know I struggle with reading like a writer. (I actually prefer to read like a reader, though I’m only just learning how!)

    This was really fun to read. You point out some things I hadn’t noticed, because I am trying not to read like a writer. Very interesting!

    1. I actually really enjoy reading like a writer. I’ve listened to music as a musician for as long as I can remember and it always enhanced the experience. I analyzed beginnings of two other books for my tutor, one of them being Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. I had no intention of re-reading the Harry Potter series because it was time-related – I read it when my kids read it and they were the first generation of Harry Potter fans. I didn’t think it was worth trying to recreate it. BUT, I found Rowlings’ beginning to the story so intriguing that I’ve changed my mind. I want to find out what the heck she’s doing with point of view!

      So far if I just want to read as a reader, I’ve been able to do that. So far. 🙂

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