Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Two different books unfolding in Little Women

Little Women cover

Somehow my American girlhood went by without a single reading of Little Women. So for the Classics Club Challenge, I read it. I can't react to it anymore the way I probably would have as a teen, though I know I would have strongly identified with Jo and enjoyed the book as a whole.

What struck me, reading it now, is how throughout the book there's a tension between two authorial voices. It's almost as if there are two different books in Little Women, one of them brighter, more picturesque and calling more attention to itself, and the other one a subtle, shadowy book that adds disquiet to the story.

The vignettes in the lives of the four sisters - Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth - often get wrapped up neatly. Though Alcott's characters come across as real and not like cut-out figures serving as moral examples, there's a tidy lesson from many of these episodes. It's what you'd expect in a 19th-century book geared towards a younger audience; the girls need to become proper little women. On the other hand, throughout these vignettes there are some darker currents and some sources of tension that persist even after the tidier resolutions. Sometimes the text is sentimental, even verging on treacly; other times there's a surprising wry humor and unease.

Let's look at Jo, for instance. While capable of great devotion and care towards others, she's also the most spirited and unladylike of the girls and wishes she could have enjoyed a boy's greater freedom. Like Alcott, she's a writer. Jo settles into a more conventional role at the end (mothering boys, when she can't travel much or go to school like one) - though at the same time she keeps her ambitions to write. The resolution to her story is complicated; she has made major concessions to what's expected of her as a proper little woman, but her old restlessness and dreams are by no means entirely tamed (what will become of her dreams is left open-ended).

Death, poverty, the conflict between what you want or need for yourself and what's expected of you - all of these the novel touches on, in a more tidy way front and center, but with the rawness at the edges, unexplored territory on the margins. Alcott was deeply familiar with all of these themes and with the messiness of life. And the fact that she lets this untidiness into her book to varying degrees, and gives her own strong personality some room to play throughout the text, keeps it from being only charming or sentimentally affecting in a simple way.


Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary on this book.

I think that the undercurrent you allude to hear sometimes will distinguish a great work from a book that is just good. Perhaps that is one reason that this novel has been so popular for so long of a time.

Nan said...

I haven't had enough time to visit in the past year, but now that my daughter is working part-time and we'll be taking care of our dear granddaughter only two days a week, I hope to read your posts more often. I loved this. Funny, I just picked up my girlhood copy the other day, and thought it may be time to read it again. It seems most every woman likes Jo. But I was fondest of Beth, and still can't believe she died. Every time I read it, I think, she won't die. Unbelievable, isn't it.

HKatz said...

@ Brian Joseph - thanks, and I agree that this undercurrent is what makes the book more memorable and is an important part of its long-standing popularity.

@ Nan - Thanks, and I'm glad to see you :) I was fond of Beth too (I think many readers are, and I think Jo was also closest to her from what I remember). Her death was wrenching.

The Bookworm said...

I read this one as an adult too, and feel I missed out on reading it as a young teen.
I feel like Alcott wrote Jo after herself. Like you mention, there are issues the book touches on, especially with Jo's character. I like how she never settles and follows her dreams.
Hope your summer is going well!

HKatz said...

From what I remember reading elsewhere, Alcott modeled the four sisters after herself and her own sisters (with her being Jo). Unlike Jo, Alcott never got married (and I think with Jo she might have wanted the same, only readers had different demands). In one way, Jo settles to what's expected of her, and in other ways not. She hangs onto her dream; also, her husband is in some ways unconventional.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

Nan said...

there's a wonderful sequel about Jo and her fella - Jo's Boys.