Some groundwork for Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. It is actually or at least once was two books, Little Women, or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy published in October 1868 and a sequel with the same title plus Part Second, published in 1869. The second book is a genuine sequel in that its existence was determined by the success of the initial book, as Alcott threatens in the last lines of One:
So grouped the curtain falls upon Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Whether it ever rises again, depends upon the reception given to the first act of the domestic drama, called “LITTLE WOMEN.” (Ch. 23)
That sounds almost extortionate, which reminds me that I should mention that I now refer to the two parts of Little Women as One and Two, exactly like the mobsters in The Sopranos refer to the different parts of The Godfather. An English publisher, unknown to Alcott, solved the problem by calling the second book Good Wives. Two is its own book, a worse book, unfortunately, an aggravating book in places, but I will save that topic. They’re different.
Little Women is a didactic novel for children, explicitly improving. I do not think that current readers have lost their taste for didactic novels, but the kind of didacticism we tolerate or even like has certainly changed a lot, and it does not look much like that of Little Women. It is amazing, given its open agenda and homiletic passages, how well the book has survived, how beloved it is.
But we love the characters, the sisters, not Alcott’s wisdom. Perhaps we even love their weaknesses more than their virtues. I assume most young readers simply ignore the improving sermonettes, just racing past them. I would guess that I did thirty years ago – no, it must be longer – when I last read the novels.
Most readers seem to pick a single sister with whom to identify, although since the people most likely to write about their favorite character are bookish sorts, the bookish Jo is over-represented in the written record. Readers can divvy the sisters up, too – another ingenuity – identifying, for example, with Jo’s ambition but Beth’s quietness and Meg’s unquenchable thirst for champagne (that is in the text, Ch. 9 – she even has a hangover!).
Alcott’s didactic strategy is to trick the reader into transforming sympathy into self-examination. If I share Jo’s best qualities it is likely that I also have some of her worst, that I sin in the way she sins. So even without direct intervention by the narrator or the girls’ mother, I may find myself learning from Jo’s struggle against anger or Meg’s against vanity. Or I may enjoy a virtue from Sister A but need to work on a problem from Sister B.
It can be amusing to see readers call Little Women a “comfort read.” The novel is supposed to be a discomfort read, a quiet undermining of my complacency, a gentle call to reform my wicked ways. Adult readers, though, are mostly perfect, so I suppose we are comforted by the memory of our old childhood struggles against Apollyon and the Slough of Despond, now that we reside in the Celestial City.