Thoughts on Little Women the second time around–seeing Jo in a new light

I have just finished my second reading of Little Women. Both times I have listened to the free audio book on Librivox.com. The first time around wasn’t too bad until I got into the crux of Jo’s relationship with Professor Bhaer in chapter 46. The reader unfortunately had such a loud and grating voice that it totally ruined that chapter for me.

A dramatic reading

This time around I found a dramatic reading of the book which was done almost to perfection. The narrator (who also took on the role of Jo) was superior in every way. All the main parts were done well although it took awhile to accept Laurie’s voice.

Never fails to please

It is amazing how much this book yields in multiple readings! It’s a different book each time. But then you long-time fans know that already, don’t you? For some of you, it’s a yearly habit. I can certainly see why.

Changing view of Jo—her rite of passage

WinonaJoMarchThe first time I read Little Women I was put off by Jo and favored Amy. Jo was frankly rude, obnoxious and self-absorbed at times (part of being a teenager) and because I had spent so much time with her real life counterpart, Jo seemed a shadow of Louisa.

From this second reading I have a much better sense of Jo. Her rite of passage from the awkward teenager who never wanted to grow up to the mature and more sober woman of twenty-five moved me. Louisa did an outstanding job of tracing Jo’s journey to maturity and revealing some of herself in the process. Her grief over the loss of Beth and how she carried on in the aftermath transformed her heart, making it ready to love someone beyond her immediate family.

A perfect match

jo marchMany readers see her capitulating to marriage but I don’t see it that way. I still maintain that Professor Bhaer was the perfect match for her (and I’ve often entertained the idea that he was Louisa’s ideal for a husband who for her, did not exist in real life). Jo grew to be a better writer for having grown within herself, writing from that true place in her heart. (Oh, and by the way, Jo mentioned a few times that Laurie disapproved of her writing).

A quiet revolution

jo and professor bhaerShe and Fritz lived the companionate marriage that Louisa dreamed of and wrote about in Work A Story of Experience. Jo and Fritz shared everything, from meaningful work to family life. This in and of itself was a quiet revolution, illustrating a marriage between equals. I had missed the fact in my first reading that Jo actually was the one to plant the first kiss! Loved that. How like our Jo!

Ever present spiritual guide

jo and bethLittle Women began to shed light on a burning question I have entertained since I got interested in Elizabeth Alcott. Louisa often mentioned that her late sister Lizzie was her “spiritual guide” but she never detailed any of that in her journals or letters. I wondered then how that idea manifested itself in her life. Of course her books provide the answer. From chapter 40 on when Beth dies, I began see how real life Lizzie influenced her older sister. And I intend to go over those chapters carefully (especially 40 and 42) to find out more.

A treasure trove

little women in the garretThere is so much treasure to unearth between the lines of this book. And many universal themes, themes that do apply to today if you work at it a little bit. Thank goodness for places like Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House where the spirit of Little Women is kept alive for generations to come.

Speaking to you and me

little women 190I am late to Little Women, very late. Most of you are probably saying, “Of course! Duh!” This book has spoken to you throughout your lives. In my late fifties, it is now speaking to me.

That’s the mark of a true classic. Little Women is no mere “children’s” book. It’s a book for every age.

Your thoughts?

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47 thoughts on “Thoughts on Little Women the second time around–seeing Jo in a new light

  1. Emerald says:

    Hi – thanks for posting your thoughts! You mention “Oh, and by the way, Jo mentioned a few times that Laurie disapproved of her writing.” As someone who’s read LW several times (thought honestly its been awhile), I find this very curious. Can you provide more details as to which chapters Laurie disapproved of her writing? I just remember him being always supportive of her as a writer, but maybe I missed something. Thanks!

    • susanwbailey says:

      Oh man, nailed! 🙂 I listened to the book so it will be hard to find but I will find it. I thought I heard it twice. I just remember it caught me by surprise. I will get back to you!

      • Emerald says:

        Lol, if you happen to remember the general scenes; maybe I can get out my copy of LW and look for it…no worries if its too much of a pain. I’m just intrigued 🙂

  2. susanwbailey says:

    The latter half of the book … I would start with the chapter when Laurie tried to propose. And then I would try the chapter when she and Laurie meet again after he returns from Europe with Amy and they have a heart-to-heart. Let me know what you find. 🙂

    • Emerald says:

      Thanks, I quickly glanced at those scenes and didn’t find anything of note. In the Chapter Heartache, Jo herself states “…I shouldn’t like elegant society and you would, and you’d hate my scribbling, and I couldn’t get on without it, and we should be unhappy, and wish we hadn’t done it, and everything would be horrid!” But this is her take on why their marriage wouldn’t work, though Laurie I’m sure disagrees. In the Chapter Surprises, when they have their alone time after Laurie gets back from Europe, I didn’t see anything. Ah well, do let me know if you find/remember other instances…

  3. SilverSeason says:

    Thank you for reminding us that a truly classic books reveals more each time you read it. In part, that is because you bring a slightly different self to the experience.

    • susanwbailey says:

      Totally true. That’s likely what makes it a classic, that you can come back to it at different stages of life and get something brand new out of the book.

      • Jill says:

        I agree! Each time I read a “classic” like Little Women, something else stands out to me or affects me, usually depending on my season of life and past experiences. The last time I read Little Women, I read it out loud to my husband. He had never read it before and he ended up loving it. I’ve always been a fan of reading out loud but I highly recommend it for Little Women- nuances of dialogue and tone really come to light when you’re reading it that way. Great post, Susan!

  4. susanwbailey says:

    How cool reading it out loud to your husband! And yes, reading it out loud would definitely change the dynamic. I only hope someday I will have grandchildren I can read it out loud to.

  5. Elizabeth Hilprecht says:

    I pretty much agree, although I could see from the start that Laurie wasn’t right for Jo; he thought he was ready and she was not, and both needed some tweaking. I just know that I always did love that book, always will, and it speaks to me throughout all the changes of my adult life, even now in my 60s. The passages appropriate to the moment are always running across my mind. It’s. my guidebook, like Pilgrim’s Progress was the Little Women’s. I always said: Little Women and the Bible. Those are my books.

  6. Elizabeth Hilprecht says:

    Interesting that, while Jo was supposed to be very tall, short women always want to play her and often get the part. Were both Louisa and May really 5’9″?

  7. Elizabeth Hilprecht says:

    You’re right, Laurie definitely didn’t like all that writing Jo did, because she was always when he wanted to fool around

    • susanwbailey says:

      Ah, he was jealous of how her writing took away his playmate!

      • Emerald says:

        See, I always remember Laurie being 100% supportive of Jo’s writing, even in a way Bhaer wasn’t (he found her writing trashy). So that’s why I’m intrigued if there are passages which show that Laurie wasn’t supportive of her writing…Jo does give up her writing in LW to become a full time mother and care giver to the boys in her school, though she writes a family novel in the sequel (Jo’s Boys I think).

      • susanwbailey says:

        It’s true the professor did not like the pot boilers but Jo herself admitted they were trash. And it was her poem about the 4 chests that brought Fritz back to her. I think he did support her writing but felt she hadn’t been living up to her potential.

    • Emerald says:

      About whether the Bhaer supported Jo’s writing – I think one’s view on this is based on how one sees Bhaer. If you aren’t such a fan of the Jo and Bhaer match, then you’ll see him as stifling her creativity and being a tad judgmental. But if you like his character and believe he was right for Jo, then I think you’ll feel that by being critical he supported her writing and encouraged her to reach her potential. I think its all part and parcel of the whole who (if anyone) should Jo have married debate…

      • susanwbailey says:

        Jo admitted that she wrote the “trash” for money and while she might have enjoyed the thrill of indulging in that kind of writing, I think it just tapped the surface of her true creativity which Bhaer was able to see. If he were not moved by her writing, he never would have been drawn back to her because of her poem about the four chests.

      • Emerald says:

        Whether Jo was truly writing “trash” or not is of course debatable. The stuff she was writing might have been considered trashy by prevailing Victorian morality of course. But the descriptions of what she wrote in the chapter Friend, sound very much like the adult thrillers that Alcott herself wrote. So while Alcott might have had describe what Jo wrote “trashy” in LW , I’m not sure she truly felt that way about such literature, given her own sensationalist writing. In fact she seemed to prefer her adult thrillers to her moral books for children.

        All this brings me back my original point on the connection between how one sees Bhaer and whether he was supportive of Jo’s writing. I’m not a fan of Bhaer. Not that I think he’s a bad guy, but I do believe Alcott used him as a conduit for infusing Victorian morality into Jo. So of course he’s against her “trashy” writing and doesn’t encourage her to embrace her dark side and explore aspects of herself and her writing that would have truly stretched her creativity. Ultimately Jo does give up her writing for a good long time before she writes again, but only because she needed the money.

      • susanwbailey says:

        You make great arguments! Louisa herself, while she enjoyed indulging in the lurid (as Madeleine B. Stern would say), recognized these stories were not great literature. She often referred to them as “rubbish” which would explain why Jo said the same.

        You make a great point about Bhaer acting as a conduit of morality for Jo. He was not the only one though; Beth played that role as well, perhaps even more so than Bhaer. He specifically pricked Jo’s conscience about her lurid tales while Beth’s influence made for more of a transformation in Jo’s life where she placed the needs of others over herself. In both cases they were trying to appeal to the better side of Jo and encouraging her to develop and embrace that part of herself. The maturing, the transformation of Jo which took place during her grief journey served to open her heart to love outside of the family. I believe that writing was as much an escape from embracing real adult life as it was in expressing her true self. In the end, as we see in Jo’s Boys, Jo is able to incorporate writing into her life.

        Looking forward to your comeback. 🙂

      • Emerald says:

        Lol, I don’t really have much to add. Other than considering whether it was such a positive for Jo thing that Bhaer and Beth (and of course Marmee and Mr. March) were such conduits of morality. I found all these characters could get a bit tiresome and preachy at points. And they prevented Jo from exploring some dark and fascinating sides to herself, which could have made her more like Louisa. But since LW was required to be a moral book for young women, it couldn’t be any different and of course I still loved it overall 🙂 Thanks for your wonderful comments and insight!

      • susanwbailey says:

        And thank YOU! You know, my problem with Jo has always been that I dove headfirst into Louisa’s life long before I read Little Women which made the Jo character seem incomplete, a shadow of the real person (of course, all the characters have that problem, more or less). Yet in this second reading, I saw a lot more that I had not seen before which gave me greater insight into Louisa herself.

  8. Mer says:

    I find LW speaks to me in different seasons of my life, having read and re-read it several times in the past…wow, I guess that would be 25+ years. I’ve always thought of myself as a Jo, but I’ve come around to the others. Meg was boring until I got married and had to learn how to share a life. Beth didn’t move me until I cared for a gravely ill family member. Amy didn’t find me until I had to gracefully maneuver the discovery that talent wasn’t genius. As a mother, I really get Marmee now. Still haven’t found an “in” on Aunt March, but I’ll bet crotchety old age is coming!

  9. Corinne says:

    Elizabeth Klett is fabulous. She’s my favorite reader on Librivox. I’ll have to remember to listen to this Little Women reading. I’ve read the novel in snatches three times (though I can’t recall if I ever completed the third read!!) — but I’ve never listened to it. 🙂

    Also, Jo couldn’t marry Laurie! He’s practically her brother! He would have wanted to do right by her, but he doesn’t have the same passion for education that Professor Bhaer shares with Jo. He’s an excellent match, I think. I really like their relationship in Little Men.

    • susanwbailey says:

      What other books does Elizabeth Klett read? More Alcott I hope?? I just started Rose in Bloom and while the reader is good I am spoiled by Klett. 😄

      • Corinne says:

        I believe this is her list of solo reads. I haven’t looked to see if she’s got more Alcott, but it wouldn’t surprise me. 🙂 Karen Savage is another great reader at Librivox. Just search her name, top right of the Librivox screen, and then choose “solo” under project types, top left of the screen. 🙂

      • susanwbailey says:

        Thanks for that!

  10. Elizabeth Hilprecht says:

    I got interrupted by “Aunt March” during my last comment and had to drop what I was doing and leap into service. Jo wad always writing when Laurie wanted to fool around or Amy wanted to have company or make calls…I enjoy the chapters Artistic Attempts, Calls, and Consequences, although not as much on first reading as in later ones up through today. 😊

    • Emerald says:

      Yes, you are right others (including Amy and Aunt March) did criticize Jo that she was always writing. I just don’t remember Laurie doing so, but of course I could have missed something. Let me know if there’s a particular instance you remember. It could of course be that we just see Laurie’s character very differently…

  11. rachel says:

    Wonderful comments. I am one of those that re-read Little Women every year (because “Christmas won’t be Christmas…”…without reading it 😉
    I definitely find myself understanding each character more/differently whenever I read. I find Beth in the later chapters a much fuller character than the young Beth (over here, the book was published as two: “Little Women” and “Good Wives”) Same with Amy. It is lovely to trace how the grown up women spring from the girls of the early pages.
    And despite still having a soft spot for Jo and Laurie, I agree that Professor Bhaer is the right match for her. His and Jo’s courtship is one of my favourite bits of the book (the fact that everyone else in the family seems to know exactly what’s going on except for dear Jo!)
    Have you read An Old Fashioned Girl? That’s another of my favourite LMA books, and the Librivox reading of it is good.

    • susanwbailey says:

      I agree about Beth and Amy. Meg kind of disappeared in the second half except for those chapters devoted to her, John and the babies.

      And oh yes, I have read An Old Fashioned Girl and have it marked on Librivox for a second read. I enjoyed that book very much except for the last chapter when Louisa spilled the beans in the first sentence about Tom and Polly! Oooo, was I made about that! 🙂

  12. Wonderful review! Loved it.
    As many times as I’ve read Little Women, I’ve never read it aloud or heard it being read. I will do that soon. I think hearing a story gives it a different dimension. Perhaps it is more that implied than written that Laurie disapproved of Jo’s writing. The “scribbling” comment Jo makes when Laurie proposes has always given me the sense that Laurie was at odds with Jo’s writing. A waste of time to him, and others; yet Jo plods on with her writing. Thanks for these insights.

    • susanwbailey says:

      Hmmm, yeah, maybe it wasn’t stated outright but hinted at as you say. All I know is that that “hint” jumped out at me! And how many of us have received such “hints” from people we love? They can be harder to overcome than outright suppression or disapproval.

  13. Emerald says:

    I guess it just surprised me because there are several examples of Laurie being so overtly supportive of Jo’s writing and thrilled for her when she gets published. But its true that Jo could get obsessive over her writing and probably everyone, including her family, at times thought it was too much. Certainly I agree if Jo and Laurie had gotten married, this would have been an issue they would have had to negotiate through and find a balance.

    • susanwbailey says:

      Perhaps Laurie would have resented “sharing” Jo with her writing as it so consumed her.

      • Emerald says:

        I can see this happening, but I think Laurie would have understood that her obsession with writing was similar to his obsession with music and they would have negotiated through it all and worked it out. In canon, Jo gives up her writing for quite awhile. But had she not, and continued writing obsessively to the exclusion of her family, I think Bhaer would have called her out on it.

      • susanwbailey says:

        I wonder if Laurie was as consumed by music as Jo was by writing. While she pursued it whether convenient or inconvenient, Laurie only pursued music when there were no obstacles in his way, only to find out he didn’t have what it took for genius.

        I do agree that Bhaer would not have allowed for Jo to write to the exclusion of all else. in light of what I just wrote, perhaps it would not have been healthy for Jo to do that. While it may have expanded her creative life, it might have stunted her growth as a well-rounded adult woman, open to many possibilities, such as the school at Plumfield, and having a family of her own.

      • Emerald says:

        You make an interesting point about Laurie’s music. I can certainly see this in LW, where perhaps Jo is more obsessive with her writing than Laurie was with his music. But by the end of LW she had stopped writing and we found out in Jo’s Boys she only did so when she needed money. And Laurie had kept up with his interest in music by sponsoring young musicians and the like. Interesting turn for both characters.

        I fully agree though that had Jo continued to obsess about her writing to the exclusion of living her life, it wouldn’t have been good for her growth as an all round person. Balance in everything is key, which is what I agree that Jo did end up discovering…

      • susanwbailey says:

        I have yet to read Jo’s Boys but it’s on my list (After Rose in Bloom which I am halfway through and have two posts in the can). I have an original edition of Jo’s Boys which makes the reading extra special. 🙂

        Sometimes I wonder if Louisa discounted her writing because she did it for money. Nothing wrong with making a living from something you love to do (even if often you can’t follow your own rules but those of someone else). Where I haven’t read Jo’s Boys yet, I can’t really comment, but it just seems to me she discounts the writing a little too much perhaps from the guilt of knowing she did it for mercenary reasons. Whatever the reasons, she wrote some great stuff that has passed the test of time. Nothing to be ashamed of there!

  14. qnpoohbear says:

    I strongly identify with Jo; hotheaded, passionate about literature and not wanting to grow up was me when I first read the book at around 10-11. I identify so strongly with Jo that I would have preferred her to remain a spinster like her creator. I think she would have been more fulfilled if she wasn’t so distracted. She could have written what she wanted if that Professor hadn’t interfered. I do not care for him – plus he was old – ewww. What little girl wants her hero to marry an old man? I think Louisa caved in to pressure to marry Jo off and did it in a way that was acceptable to her so I admire her for that but Jo turns out boring. She’s not half as boring as Anne Shirley grows up to be but she didn’t appeal much to me as a grown-up/

  15. I, like Emerald, am a bit confused by the statement that Laurie didn’t support Jo in her writing, or hated her scribbling – as I too thought that Laurie had always supported her, and shared her joy and secret when she was published, celebrating her as “a great American authoress.” But that was from Part 1 of Little Women, where Jo and Laurie’s friendship is articulated as something of an ideal relationship (both characters have their teenage immaturities sure, but they are both accepting of and appreciative of each other nonetheless, and become willing to repent of their faults and learn from them), and Part 2 (beginning with Meg’s wedding) shows quite a starkly different Laurie, who seems a bit of a coxcomb – apparently college does a number on him, and he becomes quite flirty, flighty, fashionable, interested in fuss and feathers though he’d claimed to despise this in Part 1.

    I think Alcott deliberately did this with Laurie’s character so that we would buy into a different pairing to Jo-Laurie. Who wants to see Jo with a dandy? No one – we want to see her with a grown up version of her boy best friend who accepted her and loved her as she was, or some mature man who was going to push her in her writing and in her growth as a person, or single and fully realising her ever elusive tantalising and scandalous castle in the air (a woman financially independent of a man in 1860s achieving success as an author?! Wow). I do think Emerald is right about the debate depending quite a lot on how we view the characters of Laurie and the Professor. Those who look at Laurie in Part 2 and how he goes about flirting about and proposing, then throwing his life away in Europe when he is rejected, I think are quite justified in saying that Jo was better with the more grounded and mature Professor. And those who look at Laurie in Part 1 and remember the loyal, fervent, adventurous and creative best friend, with such potential to become a great man, lament that Jo missed a marriage to a man of such qualities.

    • susanwbailey says:

      Brilliant! Anyone who has sent kids off to college knows how much that experience changes them. And I agree, making Laurie less than perfect makes the match-up with Professor Bhaer justified.

      • Personal experiences do really come into our reading experience don’t they? 🙂 I married my best friend, and have a hard time imagining Jo not marrying hers; my college years were ones of refining and refocusing, so I’m baffled by how Laurie’s character degenerates instead of matures. Understanding more now how there can be such debates on how characters develop and books end!

      • susanwbailey says:

        It might be because for the first time Laurie was among mainstream peers. And don’t forgot how very different the upbringing was for the March sisters– he partook of that. But he wasn’t strong enough to keep a hold of it. He needed Amy to keep him on the straight and narrow.

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