Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (Part One)

Fiction — print. Grosset & Dunlap, 1999. First published 1880. 643 pgs. Gift.

In 1999, my mom gifted me a beautiful, illustrated hardback copy of one of her favorite childhood novels – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I thought for sure this read for Reading Buddies would be a reread for me as I distinctly remember turning the pages and looking at the pretty illustrations by Louis Janbor. Now, I know that is about all I did because I was completely unfamiliar with the Marsh sisters when I started this book late last month. (Other than, of course, that Jo is a tomboy and bookworm, and my mother wanted me to be just like her.)

Little Women was originally published as two separate novels: Little Women, which I will talk about today, in 1868 and Good Wives in 1869. The two were first combined into one piece of work titled Little Women in 1880.

Part One introduces readers to Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy Marsh – four sisters living with their mother, Marmee, and servant, Hannah, in Massachusetts during the American Civil War. The girls (minus Amy) must work outside their home in order to help out Marmee and their father, Mr. March, who is a chaplain in the Union Army and away fighting in the war. An introduction and, later, friendship with the grandson of their neighbor named Laurie dominates most of part one. But there is also the issue of each girls’ folly – vanity, rashness – that they must confront during this difficult time.

It’s been a little over two years since I read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, yet I could not help but draw parallels between her novel and Alcott’s classic. A bit of North vs. South, I guess. The Marsh sisters spend much of Part One whining about the loss of the family’s money and how poor they have become. Scarlett O’Hara did much of the same, if memory serves me correctly, but I felt more pity for her than for the Mash sisters. I almost wanted to slap the, to be brutally honest, because I just could not stand their complaining for one moment longer, particularly when Marmee forced them to give up their large breakfast spread to a family with no food. They may not have the latest fashions, but at least they have food and did not watch their city burn to the ground.

The action in Gone With the Wind, despite lengthy passages about a particular green dress, managed to sweep me away with the story. In comparison, not much appears to happen in Part One of Little Women. There are sicknesses and balls and pranks and mean-spiritedness amongst sisters, but I cannot help but feel like I have caught brief moments in the life of these four sisters. Rather than be immersed, I have merely dipped my toes into this tale. A hard feeling to have when one is 307 pages into a book!

I am still hopeful about part two and would like to have it read by August 14 so I do not have to lug this 643-paged chunkster on the plane with me. I have the book downloaded on my iPad, but I’d really like to finish out the novel with my printed copy simply because the illustrations are so beautiful.

Others’ Thoughts:

Reading Buddies:

Hosted by Erin of Erin Reads, Reading Buddies was born out of Erin’s 2011 reading goal of tackling books on her TBR list. She put out a call to find out if anyone was interested in reading some of the same books along with her. Since she and I shared several books between our two lists, I jumped at the chance to cross books of my TBR list and read along with her. Little Women is the selections for August. September’s selection is Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh.

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5 thoughts on “Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (Part One)

  1. I love this book and read it for the first time immediately after reading Gone With the Wind last year. I too, compared.

    Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott, was one of the Transcendentalists (like Thoreau and Emerson.) He was forever leaving his wife and daughters alone to go off on money-making schemes that never produced anything.

    Alcott, her sisters, and her mother were dirt poor, often starving, and told by Bronson that this was their proper place. He believed suffering and self-sacrifice made them holy.

    Some think the absence of the father in Little Women was reflective of Bronson’s relative absence in the youth of the Alcott sisters.

    (I) think that all of the complaining the girls in LIttle Women do about money was really Louisa battling the self-sacrifice question, in her own life. She’d been told over and over and over to sacrifice. On her birthday, when she was (5, I think?), her father made her divide up her birthday cake and give a piece to everyone but herself. She was to learn to do without.

    For her other birthdays, pretty much all her life, he would gift her with a list of all the ways she could improve. (And only this list. Nothing suggesting he also valued and celebrated her birth. Just a list of her shortcomings.) She was too passionate, too outspoken, too volatile. He reminded her daily, and annually in letters.

    But she loved him, and wanted desperately to live up to his ideal. She wanted to sacrifice of herself, yet now and then she craved the things other girls had — and believed her father when she was told that this longing was selfish.

    I think Little Women is in great part a struggle about all that. A struggle about becoming a woman, in that environment. Alcott was asking questions, but doing it in the guise of a proper female book for children.

    She said while writing Little Women: “I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls, or knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.”

    She was told by a publisher (and her father) that writing an inspiring story that teaches little girls to become proper wives was her “proper” outlet as a female writer.

    She wanted to write adventure stories.

    Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, Marmee, and Father are Louisa’s family: Anna, Louisa, Lizzie, May, Marmee (Abba) and Father (Bronson.)

    Jo’s questions are Louisa’s questions.

    I think I would have really, really liked this book if I’d read it as a child. But, I really, really like it as a woman too. In great part because I can see Alcott’s feminist spirit broiling beneath the surface. She thinks there’s something wrong with craving freedom — that it’s “wrong” to question her place as a woman, and her father, even. That there must be something more for women, that they can’t really be all slotted for what her father claims is ideal…

    And Gone With the Wind is my favorite novel. 🙂

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    1. First of all, thanks for the reply, Jillian. I had no knowledge of Alcott’s life and how it reflected in her writings, and I appreciate you giving me a crash course in her life. I guess this is the difference between how you and I approach literature — you learn about the author and their motivations while I choose to ignore them. In this case, I think I probably should have learned something about Alcott because I’m sure it would have illuminated my reading. (I know I will approach part two differently after reading this comment.)

      *spoiler warning*

      So far, though, I really don’t see Alcott’s feminist spirit, as you put it, simply because Jo (whom I consider the most feminist of them all) ends up changing and becoming more inline with the female ideal at the end of part one. Her father remarks that he will miss his wild girl and she has matured into “a strong, helpful, tender-hearted woman” (pg. 288), but he also comments that “the shearing sobered our black sheep” and insinuates that her shaving her head (decidedly not feminine) caused her to become more feminine. At the end of part one, I am more inclined to think that she caved into her publisher (and her father) and did publish a book meant to tell little girls to be proper daughters and wives. Maybe this will change with part two…

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  2. I found that I struggled with this book at the beginning. The children were just so….I can’t describe it. They were so perfect at the beginning that it was difficult for me to get through. But I struggle with classic literature for some reason. In the end I liked it, but it took me until about half way to get to that point. I’m reading Gone with the Wind right now, too! :]

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    1. Exactly! The Marsh sisters are just so perfect that it’s difficult to read about them. They make me feel bad! I struggled for a long time with classic literature, too. I’ve found that for some of the more difficult books (Dickens, for example), it’s much easier for me to listen to the book on CD and readalong at the same time. I seem to comprehend much better. I hope you end up liking Gone With the Wind.

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