Monday, January 7, 2013

Buy Little Women or else - Alcott's discomfort read

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 WivesTwo 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.


  1. I like the notion that LW (p1 and 2) is a discomfort read rather than a comfort read. I never read it until recently, so don't have the childhood baggage to contend with, but I was surprised to find the characters were as flawed as they were--mostly what I read about LW was the home and hearth values and none of the struggles the various characters face. It prompted me to read Pilgrim's Progress, which also was more interesting than I expected.

    You are right in that LW provides ample characters for disparate readers to relate to. I was surprised to find Jo so annoying and a combo of Amy/Meg was my lightening rod.

    Interesting post--makes me want to read Marmee & Louisa even more!

  2. First: Jane on Little Women. I should refer back to your Pilgrim's Progess post, too.

    I might have guessed that a four-handed juggling act would be too awkward, but it is not. It is rich, rather, as the pros and cons of each sister bounce off of each other in interesting - and more to the point useful and exemplary - ways.

    You are right, many descriptions of the book emphasize its warmth and good feeling over its frictions.

  3. The striving toward moral goodness disappears in the second book, though, which is just less-than-brilliant romance. The Jo/Bahr story never convinced me. The first half of the book is deeply concerned with overcoming personal shortcomings. "frictions" is a good word for it.

  4. I haven't read this since a well-meaning aunt pressed it upon me too early in life, but isn't the "Which Little Women character are you most like?" question some sort of institution? I have vague recollections of playing this game, even as a boy-child in the South. Interesting that the characters' characteristics are so mix-and-match.

  5. Scott G. F. B., you are clearly suppressing the memory of married Meg's chapters and the important lessons they impart, like patiently letting your husband bore you to death with financial news, and I do not blame you, because they are tedious chapters and insipid lessons.

    And what about the chapter in which the both the narrator and growly Prof. Bear condemn immoral literature? Or Laurie's temperance pledge? The moral goodness does not disappear, it just becomes artistically negligible.

    You are right, Prof. Bear is a fantasy figure of some sort. I will leave that to Alcott and her therapist.

    seraillon, exactly, it is built in. You should identify with a character, and then you should work to correct the faults you and she share.

    The bad readers are the ones who condemn the behavior of the character's not like themselves. I may just want to improve other people, the ones with the faults I do not happen to have. This is a little flaw in Alcott's method.

  6. I had mistakenly put Meg's purchase of gray silk (wasn't that it?) and the making of the jam (a fabulous bit, really) in Book 1. It's the best part of Book 2, if it's really that far into the story. Meg's husband is a stiff, a smug block of wood.

    I discount all dialogue between Jo and Bahr as an artistically negligible bad dream. "Perhaps he, too, will come down with scarlet fever," I kept wishing. I seem to be getting caught in that flaw of Alcott's method you mention.

  7. That's a good point, that a lot of the domestic detail of married Meg's life is quite good. It's the moralizing that follows, Marmee's Household Tips, that is deadly.

    I believe your desire is to correct character's virtues rather than their vices, which is perverse, but something different.

  8. I think I must have skipped right past the sermonettes, as you call them, the first time I read Little Women (One and one-half), since I don't have a memory of the moralizing, but I'm noting it a lot as I'm making my way through my reread. (Currently on chapter 13.) It's not really to my taste now, but the realism of the characters makes up for it, at least for me, for now. Even as I was reading ch. 11, "Experiments," I was thinking that the message was coming on a little strong (especially when Mrs. March added in her lesson), but at the same time, the action was so true to life--especially if you've ever tried to take on a cooking challenge above your abilities, with people waiting eagerly for what you're about to serve. (What me? No.....errr....)

  9. "Experiments," good example. The action is charming and meaningful, the sisters behave in interesting ways, and then at the end Alcott has to have Marmee tell us do our housework. "Then youth will be delightful, old age will bring few regrets, and life become a beautiful success, in spite of poverty."

    My biggest surprise about the novel, actually, has been how little personality Mrs. March has outside of a key moment in the "Telegram" chapter, coming up soon for you, so I will say no more.

    1. Oh! You're right about Mrs. March's lack of personality--I hadn't even noticed until you mentioned it. She's just a sort of non-presence (outside of moralizing), which I suppose has become rather standard for the parents in children's novels.

  10. My impression is that Mrs. March's model had plenty of personality, but that would not suit Alcott's book.

  11. I so enjoy reading your thoughts, Tom, as you always illuminate an aspect of a book in quite a different light than I bring/brought to it. I am only 2/3 of the way through Little Women, for the 80th time in my life, but I am determined to complete it. I think you are so right in the way that readers, or more particularly I, take the qualities of a certain sister and examine my own through that lens. I see Meg's vanity in me, and some of Jo's impatience and not enough of Beth's meekness. For me, this novel is a huge teaching tool in virtues, ultimately asking, "How than shall we live?" A comfort? No, not as much as a book which pokes and prods me to self reflect and improve on what I find.

    That said, can I still slap Amy?

  12. p.s. I was so hugely offended by Geraldine Brooks' novel, March, in which she portrayed Mt. March as involving himself with prostitutes on his way home from the war. First of all, how dare she presume to follow in Alcott's footsteps? More importantly, how dare she show such blatant disregard for the essence of Alcott's characters?

  13. No kidding, Brooks lays into Alcott \ March for hypocrisy? She had a score she wanted to settle, I guess. Or maybe some "truth" to rub our noses in.

    Are you 2/3 through the first book? Then the part that is coming will definitely work well for you, unless it is so scary that you have to put the book in the freezer. That is a specific, directly relevant reference to Friends, for those who do not know.

    I have danced around that part of the book, but your question, "How shall we live?", receives a moving answer.

    I do not think the Marches are believers in any sort of capital punishment, but they also would likely turn the other cheek - so slap away!

  14. I have just begun Chapter 36 in which Jo takes Beth to the seaside after denying Laurie his hand in marriage. I hope to finish this weekend. And, I think I will be brave (or foolish") enough to attempt an answer to how I feel Alcott advises us to live.

    I'm greatly interested in the posts you have written after this, but I will read them more carefully and comment when I have finished the novel. Such fun to read with you, Tom, even though I am the tardy one!

  15. Oh, you're way ahead, then. I thought you were still in One. The moving, scary part is in One. Not that the end of Twodoes not have its moments.

    Thanks for putting the book on your list way back when!

  16. I believe your desire is to correct character's virtues rather than their vices, which is perverse, but something different.

    This is me. Jo was never my favorite, I was a Meg/Beth girl (just like I preferred Mary Ingalls to Laura), but while Jo's impatience and temper bored me in general I absolutely hated her when she was "good," especially with regard to Amy, whom I also hated. I still think Jo should have disowned her, between the skating incident and then marrying Laurie. I really do have it in for literary youngest siblings, don't I?

  17. I didn't even have a favorite until Meg started hitting the champagne.