Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” (1868) holds a unique place in the literary annals. It has enjoyed popularity from the time of publication until today and has even inspired numerous interpretations for the stage and silver screen. On the other hand, it is discounted by some as juvenile and preachy—“only” a children’s book. It doesn’t get even a mention in Wikipedia’s “American Literature” entry, and is only briefly listed under its “Children’s Literature” entry.
“Little Women” also evades the canon of “The Great American Novel,” a term coined by novelist John William De Forest in his essay written the same year as “Little Women.” De Forest defined the designation as “the picture of ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.” Considering academics include on the list “Moby Dick,” which is about a revenge-crazed whaler, we can’t help wonder why “Little Women,” which portrays exactly the ordinary picture of emotions and manners found in American family life, does not!
It was publicly vindicated in the 2003 BBC survey “The Big Read,” which polled three-quarters of a million readers. “Little Women” ranked 18th in the list of the UK’s best-loved novels, coming fourth among American novels.
What makes Louisa May Alcott’s work inspire such differing responses among critics? It may be its seeming ordinariness that causes it to be overlooked by academics, yet beloved by generations of readers. Perhaps Alcott does have something truly unique to offer, which the academics have missed.
Lemonade From Lemons
Alcott’s bestseller is often described as an autobiographical work because the author lifts from her own experience much of what we see in the story: a family of four sisters living in New England, guided in their growth by loving parents. The March family has fallen into difficult financial means familiar to the Alcotts. The identities of the story’s March sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy) line up with the Alcott family (Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May).
Alcott certainly based many of the events in the story on the doings of her actual family, but her story is far from an autobiography. Doubtless, she and her sisters enjoyed putting on plays, composing newspapers, and doing general household tasks as did the March sisters of the book. However, her real childhood was not quite the cozy, rooted existence enjoyed by the March family.
While the Marches remember more prosperous circumstances, the Alcotts were sadly accustomed to humiliating poverty and even outright penury and hunger. Their family had to move time after time as Mr. Alcott experienced one failure after another. This upbringing nevertheless provided Louisa not only with material for her stories about a family living in poverty but also with an impetus for writing: making a decent living.
A Time of Change
During her lifetime, Louisa May Alcott witnessed a period of head-spinning growth and change in America and the world. Locally, her parents were members of the Transcendental Movement, which arose in New England at that time. Its adherents grappled through a philosophical fog toward an understanding of human anthropology better than those who followed the tradition of Puritanism or the Rationalism of the Industrial Age, which were then at odds.
A far from exhaustive list of changes in the United States from her birth to the book’s publication includes the ongoing acquisition of territory and creation of new states, the growth of railroads, the founding of universities, hospitals, libraries, banks, and publishers, wars for territory in the frontier, the temperance movement, a cholera pandemic, industrialization, the gold rush, a surge of immigration, and clashes among abolitionists and proponents of slave labor culminating in the American Civil War, which ended just three years before the publication of “Little Women.”
Alcott’s characters apparently experienced little of this. Mr. March was away from home, having volunteered as a chaplain to the brave men fighting at “the front.” We are only left to assume, for lack of explication, that this is the Civil War, which would be in the forefront of the minds of her readers, but it is left vague.
Vagueness, rather than vogue-ness, is employed by Alcott and contributes to the book’s appeal over so many generations. It is not definitely tied to any particular time or set of beliefs but speaks to transcendent human qualities. Its center and focus is the family home and the human heart.
The beliefs of the March family are not explicit. Reference is made to John Bunyan’s Puritan classic, “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” as inspiring games of play-acting in the girls’ younger days. Mrs. March later exhorts Jo to find consolation in her “ever-present Father above” when Jo appeals to her mother’s aid in conquering her volcanic temper. Amy learned the benefits of solitary meditation aided by a beautiful image of the Madonna and Child, from her aunt’s French servant, a Catholic.
However, the struggle to grow in virtue and self-control is central to the book. While the Civil War may be somewhere in the background of the story, the main battles are fought within the hearts of the March girls, under the gentle tutelage of their wise mother. “Marmee,” as they call her, never scolds or nags, but leads and encourages her daughters toward virtuous decisions as they face their individual temptations.
The Marches’ genteel poverty grates on each of them in different ways. Meg desires the nice things other girls have. Quick-tempered Jo wants to make a name (and fortune) for herself, doing something big. Beth, who is naturally virtuous, feels her little part is not what it should be. Amy wishes to be esteemed as a lady.
Each girl comes face-to-face with her temptation, teeters, and ultimately overcomes it. Meg finds herself among wealthy, fashionable friends and succumbs to the allure of vanity, being dressed up in borrowed fineries and behaving frivolously. Her disgust with herself returns her to the realization that integrity and the regard of those she loves is a greater good than pretty trifles.
Jo battles her choleric temper, which flares up at Amy when the younger sister destroys months of writing work (the pride of her heart) in an act of resentment. Jo’s disdain for Amy nearly ends in tragedy when she allows her younger sister to fall through thin ice while skating. The occasion brings Jo to dedicate herself to working to control her passions, the free run of which brings only sorrow.
Beth’s frontline of temptation is more subtle than the others’ because she is naturally virtuous and sweet. The shy sister’s victory is the realization, on her deathbed, that her contribution to domestic happiness is, in fact, enough.
Amy, the pretentious youngest, seems to achieve all her outward desires. Her ambition was to become the best she could aspire to. Through prayerful meditation on the good and beautiful and constant adjusting of her tendencies to a closer approximation of her aspiration, she actually does become a fine lady, with all the attendant luxuries.
A Unique Vantage Point
Alcott had had some small publishing success when her publisher suggested she write “a girl’s book.” Whether or not her heart was in it as she wrote, she certainly hit the bull’s-eye with “Little Women.” It was right on target at the time and has remained a hit in the hearts of succeeding generations of readers ever since.
Having spent her life within the sphere of influence of intellectuals and writers at a time of rapid change in philosophy, technology, education, and women’s rights, among others, Alcott was well-placed to see back along the path from which American society was emerging and forward toward the direction in which it was headed. She was smart enough to make something of this pivotal position. Her book embraces traditional goods as well as the changes that allowed for a greater development of the person than had been acceptable in the strict social atmosphere of the time.
Today’s reader finds more that is familiar than is outdated in this work written over 150 years ago. Much of the Transcendentalist thought and theory became the foundation of the educational system that is now standard in the United States. While Alcott bore little resemblance to the feminists of today, she supported women’s suffrage and increased opportunity for women to excel in their area of talent beyond what was common at the time. She endorsed literacy in the arts and wholesome exercise. These newer views are woven (sometimes unevenly, sometimes didactically) through her book, all the while remaining pinned to the traditional and enduring goods of virtue, integrity, and domestic happiness.
“Little Women” is a bright and attractive refuge of familiar domestic life, realistically rendered. G.K. Chesterton suggested that Alcott’s book “anticipated realism by twenty or thirty years.” The success of Alcott’s little women lies in the development of their characters, rather than merely their happily-ever-after marriages. As in real life, marriage is not the end, but one of the events that help shape the person.
Louisa May Alcott gathers into “Little Women” the goods common to people of all times, and builds newer ideas onto that foundation in a natural way that was not shocking to her contemporary audience. Nor do they seem dated to today’s readers. Her subtle insight into the enduring truths of human nature may have been overlooked by academics, yet Alcott deftly navigates the rapid current of change in her time to produce a valuable piece of literature that refuses to be relegated to the nursery as “just a children’s book.” She has produced a gem of American literature.
Susannah Pearce holds a master’s degree in theology and writes from her home in South Carolina.