Sherwood Smith's Reviews > Little Women

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
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bookshelves: fiction, history-19th-c

There will be spoilers.

Now, if she had been the heroine of a moral story-book, she ought at this period of her life to have become quite saintly, renounced the world, and gone about doing good in a mortified bonnet, with tracts in her pocket. But, you see, Jo wasn't a heroine; she was only a struggling human girl, like hundreds of others, and she just acted out her nature, being sad, cross, listless, or energetic, as the mood suggested.

I first read this book as a tween, and had a real love-hate reaction to it, love of the first half, and I pretty much hated the last half. Beth's death made me cry, and I loathed sad books passionately, but most of all I loathed Professor Bhaer, for two reasons. The minor one was that he was ugly and forty, which was utterly disgusting to me, as my grandparents then were in their forties. Euw! But the real reason I felt utterly betrayed by Alcott was because my own limited experience laid a palimpsest over the story, distorting Alcott's meaning. Well, but even if I hadn't been twitted by the well-meaning adults in my life to stop writing silly fairy tales and concentrate on Real Life if I must scribble stories, I could not have taken her meaning, as my lack of life experience was exactly what she was talking about in those scenes.

I read the book again at another period of my life when I probably shouldn't have, as the sorrowful parts overshadowed the rest.

Then I recently reread it, and hey, it was a completely different book from the one I'd read as a kid. Funny, that, how much a text changes over the decades. To me, that is the sign of a great book.

The first thing I noticed was the humorous skill of the narrator, who sometimes, in true nineteenth century fashion, comes right out and talks to the reader, then vanishes again, and lets the characters talk and think for themselves.

I saw this time how skillfully Alcott set up Amy's and Laurie's romance. How splendidly Alcott painted Laurie's and Jo's friendship, and her courage in maintaining that hey, a man and a woman really can be good buddies. Yeah, Laurie goes through some heart-pangs, but he gets over it, and finally gets some emotional growth while being thwarted for the first time in a life of getting pretty much what he wanted all the time. There were occasional falters that showed the author's hand. Like I found it hard to believe that Laurie, as a teenage boy, would moralize quite so much over Meg prinking at her first party. I could totally see him being uncomfortable, but that's a small thing.

As a kid I'd been bored stiff by Amy's and Laurie's courtship, but this time, I loved the images of Europe, and appreciated how skillfully Alcott had brought the two through the years to their shared delights. I found their courtship one of the strengths of the book.

And then there was Professor Bhaer. The scene where he rejoices in Jo's giving up her writing after her humiliation over his opinion of trashy stories that I took as such a betrayal as a teen read utterly differently to me now. What he resented was Jo pandering to the modern taste for sex, violence, and melodrama, especially when she knew so little about sex and violence. Jo was perpetrating cliches, empty calories, because it was easy money, and he thought she could do better.

I had to laugh when I recollected that not so long ago I critiqued a teenage-written manuscript, suggesting that that writing about forty-year-old married people might wait until more was known about what marriage actually meant. What I had taken as a tween (because sex went right over my head) was that Professor Bhaer was anti-fantasy. Wrongo, but I didn't have the life experience to see where he was going about lack of life experience.

As for his being forty, that seems to have been a nineteenth century tic. Hello Mr. Knightley! And not just in fiction--just a couple days ago I was reading Horatio Nelson's dispatches. In winter of 1800 he is smirking about Sir John Acton, well into his sixties, marrying his thirteen year old niece. Smirking, not exclaiming in horror and disgust, the way we would now.

In short, Jo and the Professor's romance took on all the charm that had completely passed me by.

Meanwhile there were all the old scenes I'd remembered so well, still funny, and poignant, and beautiful. Alcott does get preachy, but she's aware of it; at one point, after encouraging young people not to make fun of spinsters, she gets on with the story after wondering if her audience has fallen asleep during her little homily.

These homilies all point toward love as well as acceptance, faith as well as resignation. Caring for one's fellow-being, whether it be a poor person, as the dying Beth made little gifts for poverty-stricken children and dropped them out of the window just to see smiling faces. There is so much beauty in this book, and so much appreciation of beauty, as well as illustration of many shades of love.

It was also interesting to get visual overlays, for last autumn I'd visited Orchard House, where May (Amy) had drawn all over the walls in her room and a couple of other rooms, carefully preserved, where Jo's room was full of books, overlooking the garden; between two tall windows was the writing desk her father had made for her. Beth's piano. You could feel wisps of the love the family had for one another, which Alcott had put into the book, along with her personal struggles to be a better person; she gave her alter ego, Jo, a happier ending than she actually managed to get. (And though she didn't know it at the time, a happier ending for her artist sister May, as well.)

I won't wait so long for my next reread.
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Reading Progress

October 18, 2008 – Shelved
May 9, 2013 – Shelved as: fiction
May 9, 2013 – Shelved as: history-19th-c
May 9, 2013 –
page 144
May 9, 2013 –
page 248
38.57% "I'd forgotten how funny Aunt March is."
Started Reading
May 10, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-25 of 25 (25 new)

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message 1: by Rachel (new)

Rachel Brown I didn't like Professor Bhaer because I thought Jo should have married Laurie. Ironically, the one thing I did like about him was that I figured that his advice to her to write what she knew meant that she went on to write Little Women.

I love the comedy of the book. Especially the plays the girls put on.

message 2: by Sherwood (new) - added it

Sherwood Smith This reading, I just didn't see the chemistry between Jo and Laurie--but I absolutely loved their friendship. I loved how Alcott could demonstrate such a friendship with all its moods, while acknowledging that you cannot predict attraction. Jo was never going to be attracted to Laurie. She stayed true to her convictions. And he was the better for it.

message 3: by Rachel (new)

Rachel Brown Back when I first read it (age 11 or so), I think I found it impossible to imagine that a 40-year-old man could ever be attractive. I was picturing the equivalent of a long white beard.

What sold me on Professor Bhaer was seeing the movie in which he is played by Gabriel Byrne. Now I imagine him like this:

rather than this:

message 4: by Sherwood (new) - added it

Sherwood Smith LOL! Yes! I do like Gabriel Byrne a whole lot, though I kind of miss the beard, it's such a part of his personality in the book. (And so very, very 1860's.)

message 5: by Francesca (new)

Francesca Forrest Hahaha--LOLing here, too. Yeah, as a kid, 40 just means *old*

message 6: by Francesca (new)

Francesca Forrest What a wonderful write-up; thanks so much. You really have persuaded me to give the book another try. When I tried to read it as a child, pretty much *nothing* about it interested me. I remember thinking that I wanted to be good like Beth, but rather feared I was more like Amy (in the sense of putting on a show of being good while actually being self-interested--at least, that was my child-self's judgment). I wasn't interested in romance *at all*, and as the characters started growing up, they moved outside my orbit altogether.

Now seems like a good time to try again.

message 7: by Sherwood (new) - added it

Sherwood Smith Oh, do. It is so very warmhearted, and even slyly gets in some digs against racism, though obliquely. (Alcott's father, a superb teacher, was fired by the city council for daring to accept a black student, and insisting he had a right to an education, too.)

message 8: by Sherwood (new) - added it

Sherwood Smith It is very worth a reread, I think! It maybe extolls the domestic virtues a tad much, but it's so warm-hearted.

Katharine Kimbriel For a book of its time, it doesn't hammer domestic virtues and such too heavily. I didn't dislike it as much as you did, in my youth, but I wasn't wild for it, either. Clearly it's time to re-read the book.

And if that is how the professor looks in a recent incarnation, it's time to see another movie adaptation!

message 10: by Susan (new)

Susan I am probably overdue for a reread. I share many of the same impressions of how sad the outcomes for the women were as they grew up and faced 19th c. reality (but at least generally happier than the Bronte sisters real lives). I thought I had gotten the impression that Jo and the Professor were essentially platonic which led to them running a boys school and the whole Little Men and the Cousins book. Nowadays we wouldn't think of men in their 40s as no longer interested in sex or "romance". In real life Louisa wrote scads of sensationalist pulp fiction and made her living at it, that and journalism, so maybe she was processing that in the book with her dialogue between the couple. The family were "transcendentalists" weren't they? Which sort of implies a longing for the Ideal. Definitely due for a reread. It seems to me that in the book all the girls who survived ended up "compromising" their girlish dreams for tough reality and they made the "best of it"

message 11: by Sherwood (new) - added it

Sherwood Smith I think if you read it now you'll gain a different impression. For one thing, Jo has two boys with Bhaer, so it wasn't platonic, and indeed, Alcott makes it clear that Jo is quite attracted to him: his emotions transform him into handsome in her eyes.

There is some interesting stuff about genius, inspiration, ambition, and the reality of the artistic life. I wouldn't say the girls compromise their dreams so much as gain a sense of the real world? Anyway, at the end, it's pretty clear that Jo still believes she'll write her great book.

message 12: by Susan (new)

Susan This book also makes me always think of a nonfiction book Complaints and Disorders that I read a long while ago (70s) by Barbara Ehrenreich about the cult of invalidism among women of the 19th century, a reaction to powerlessness. It appears it has been rereleased in an inexpensive new edition. "From prescribing the "rest cure" to diagnosing hysteria, the medical profession has consistently treated women as weak and pathological. Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English's concise history of the sexual politics of medical practices shows how this biomedical rationale was used to justify sex discrimination throughout the culture, and how its vestiges are evident in abortion policy and other reproductive rights struggles today"

message 13: by Susan (new)

Susan Sherwood wrote: "This reading, I just didn't see the chemistry between Jo and Laurie--but I absolutely loved their friendship. I loved how Alcott could demonstrate such a friendship with all its moods, while acknow..."

I thought I remembered though she struggled with the loss of him as her best friend when she refused to marry him because at the time she couldn't imagine a marriage based on friendship which LOL is what she finally selected with the Professor, felt "betrayed" by Amy and resented both of them for their self-centeredness, and became resigned by the time the Professor wooed her because a single woman had so little place in society of the time (still did when I was growing up in the 60s) and she gave up her tom boy ways, except in that they made her an excellent boys school manager. Definitely need a reread.

message 14: by Susan (new)

Susan Sherwood wrote: "LOL! Yes! I do like Gabriel Byrne a whole lot, though I kind of miss the beard, it's such a part of his personality in the book. (And so very, very 1860's.)"

Yes looking at the photo of Gabriel Byrne one could totally get it although the Professor is not portrayed as a Byronic hero in the book

message 15: by Susan (new)

Susan I will be sure to read it soon and come back to you with a more current impression on my part.

message 16: by Susan (new)

Susan Sherwood wrote: "I think if you read it now you'll gain a different impression. For one thing, Jo has two boys with Bhaer, so it wasn't platonic, and indeed, Alcott makes it clear that Jo is quite attracted to him:..."

That sounds really great. I definitely have to reread. I always identified with Jo which might be why I am rather hard on her projecting my own life's compromises onto her. There were four of us sisters, my youngest sister was definitely an Amy but sadly she is the one that married the Professor and has been always take care of. My second youngest sister we had several life threatening health scares as a young teen and we sisters really feared she was so "good" that she was going to die like Beth. My older sister is incredibly bossy still 50 years later her being the "successful" doctor one probably doesn't help with that LOL but otherwise not a real Meg. Me I married a poor facsimile of a "Laurie" although not the one we grew up with as marrying my 1st cousin/best friend was barred to me, and my marriage was a complete fiasco. I don't think I was really ever in the "team Laurie" but I thought he saw her and might have let her be herself and had the means to indulge her (in the 19th century). On another note, I also remember enjoying the Wynonna Ryder/Gabriel Byrne Little Women movie as did my teen at the time daughters.

message 17: by Me (new) - rated it 4 stars

Me I actually thoroughly enjoyed the courtship when I first read it. It was wonderful to know that chivalry actually existed. My favourite is one in the last book. Oddly enough my copy only has the first half and not the 'Good Wives'. Everyone was expectantly waiting for Beth to die, so we were confused when it didn't happen.

message 18: by Sherwood (new) - added it

Sherwood Smith I saw it with my teen daughter, and she loved it, too.

message 19: by Sherwood (new) - added it

Sherwood Smith Susan wrote: "I will be sure to read it soon and come back to you with a more current impression on my part."

Please do! There are so many books that do not hold up to a later reading, but I think this is one of those that just get better. (Another thing I missed as a kid was all the Dickens references!)

message 20: by Amy (new) - rated it 5 stars

Amy S Orchard House is wonderful! I went a few years ago and it made such an impression on me.

message 21: by Sherwood (new) - added it

Sherwood Smith Oh, I highly recommend it to anyone who is able to travel to that area.

message 22: by Lesley (new)

Lesley Sherwood wrote: "Oh, I highly recommend it to anyone who is able to travel to that area."

I made a special pilgrimage there the time I was staying with a friend who was teaching for a year at Harvard! (around 1990 I think)

message 23: by Sherwood (new) - added it

Sherwood Smith Cool!

message 24: by Karrie (new)

Karrie i luved the book

message 25: by Antu bala (new) - added it

Antu bala She is very beautiful book

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