I could not leave this book without revealing a few of John Matteson’s wonderful insights into Little Women and Louisa May Alcott. I will begin with the introduction, “Little Pilgrims.”
Reflecting real life
“Little Women retains its importance in part because it recognizes that many of our most potent enemies lie within us and that life is far more likely to call us to vanquish our vanity, selfishness, or ill temper than to battle actual evil wizards and slay physical dragons.”
Right away Matteson reveals the true value of Little Women—that it is a story about each of us; this is the foundation of the book’s enduring popularity.
Matteson cites complaints from critics about that realism, beginning with a famous quote from The Ladies’ Repository: “It is not a Christian book. It is religion without spirituality, and salvation without Christ.” He also notes the offense of a reviewer for Zion’s Herald at the “dis-spiritualizing of Bunyan’s great allegory [The Pilgrim’s Progress],” citing the epic symbolism of Christian’s battle with Apollyon as being reduced to a common “conflict with an evil temper.”
This reminds me of a scene from Milos Forman’s academy award-winning film, “Amadeus” where Mozart is arguing before the Emperor regarding the value of an opera in the vernacular (German) about everyday people: “Come on now, be honest! Which one of you wouldn’t rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules? Or Horatius, or Orpheus… people so lofty they sound as if they sh*t marble!” If you notice in the movie, the regular folks are singing Mozart’s music while the “loftier” compositions of the court composer Salieri are long forgotten.
Thus it is with Little Women: Louisa May Alcott tapped into the hearts and lives of her young readers, winning over generation after generation.
Reflecting Alcott’s overall optimism
Matteson asserts that Little Women, unlike other famous coming-of-age stories (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye), maintains an optimistic outcome after growing up for the March sisters despite the difficulties of getting there (not unlike in The Pilgrim’s Progress): “Each has found the position, more, importantly, the work that will lead her to a life well lived.”
He goes on to write,
“Indeed, even the demise of Beth can be seen not as a succumbing to death, but as a transcendent triumph over it. Because of the quiet courage and grace with which she faces the end, her passing feels less like a defeat than an apotheosis.”
Little Women reflects Louisa’s persistent optimism in the face of her own difficult life: despite grinding poverty and ill health, life can still be good.
Creative solution to a difficult character problem
One last nugget: Louisa’s ingenious solution regarding the inclusion of her father into the story.
Many have theorized as to why Bronson (aka Mr. March) was not in the forefront of the story along with the rest of the family: Bronson was too difficult a personality to include. The relationship between father and daughter was too complex (some even surmise that Louisa resented her father). The story was meant to be about women directing their own lives.
Some or all could be true. Matteson maintains that Bronson was very much included in Little Women through the clever use of The Pilgrim’s Progress, the book Bronson most cherished:
“Alcott wanted to keep her father’s values—his love of self-sacrifice, his transcendence of earthly appetites, and his belief that the goal of life is spiritual purification—very much in view. A key device for doing so was to use The Pilgrim’s Progress as a leitmotif in Little Women. Observing both the hellish trials and heavenly potentials of human existence, The Pilgrim’s Progress is a fatherly book: one that teaches, cajoles, sets high standards, and demands the best of those it would instruct. It is, in all these features, similar to Bronson Alcott himself. In the same ways, it resembles Little Women.”
I’ve just scratched the surface of this introduction—you’ll have to dig out the rest yourself. You can find The Annotated Little Women on Amazon (don’t forget to leave a review after you read it!)
In my last post on this book, I will highlight some of the biographical information.
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2 Replies to “Unearthing some golden nuggets from the Annotated Little Women edited by John Matteson”
Oh, I love what Matteson was saying especially the bit about Beth. While it is tragic, and I cry each time, she does seem to overcome it with the dignified way she accepts it. And I love the messages in this book. This book is my favorite one from childhood. It stuck with me from the first time I read it and each time I re-read it, it impacts me. It is a book that I also find highly comforting when stuff in my own life is difficult as I suffer with chronic health issues. In a lot of ways, I’ve resonated with Jo who is my favorite March sister and who inspired me, along with Louisa herself, to write.
I admit it took me a while to warm up to Jo. What really did for me at last came in the second “read” (listen really, through Librivox). Chapter 42, “All Alone” made Jo real to me. The nuanced way in which Louisa wrote about Jo’s grieving over Beth and how it changed her, enlarging her heart to embrace people outside of the family, really moved me. Jo became a real person to me the day I heard that chapter. Isn’t it so wonderful to have a companion like Louisa with us, walking with us through the trials and the victories of life?