Structure. I thought the most interesting thing in Little Women – I mean in One – was the layer of structures Louisa May Alcott used to construct the book. There are at least three.
1. The year and seasons, roughly Christmas 1861 to Christmas 1862, with time passing at what feels like a natural rate. “One July day she came in with her hands full…” I read at the beginning of Chapter 12, while Chapter 13 begins on “one warm September afternoon,” and “the October days began to grow chilly” at the head of Chapter 14. Time moves differently in the sad, stressful November and December, so those months need more chapters.
2. Episodes. Many chapters belong to a single sister. All four get their share. All four have virtues to emulate and vices to expunge. Sometimes we work as a group, sometimes we work on our own, so to speak. The girls are always working, even while playing.
3. Pilgrim’s Progress. Alcott employs John Bunyan’s 1678 allegorical novel, and also its 1684 sequel, as a structural device throughout her own novel, both within the novel – meaning the characters read the book and refer to it – and outside of the novel, so to speak, in chapter titles and in the novel’s epigram, so that the first words of the book are actually Alcott’s adaptation of a poem from Pilgrim’s Progress: “Go then, my little Book” and encourage the “little tripping maids” to “choose to be \ Pilgrims better, by far, than thee or me.” Alcott immediately blends her own novel with her model.
On that first Christmas, in Chapter 2, the girls all receive new copies of Pilgrim’s Progress, hidden under their pillows during the night, with each sister getting a different colored cover. Which is great, right? Those were the days. These are the “little books” that the sisters are always reading for comfort and instruction. The fictional characters are again modeling behavior for the actual reader engrossed in his own little book, as seen as Chapter 16 opens:
In the cold gray dawn the sisters lit their lamp and read their chapter with an earnestness never felt before. For now the shadow of a real trouble had come, the little books were full of help and comfort, and as they dressed, they agreed to say goodbye cheerfully and hopefully, and send their mother on her anxious journey unsaddened by tears or complaints from them.
The Pilgrim’s Progress takes the place of the Bible for the March sisters. I may well have missed a reference, but I believe the Bible is directly mentioned only once, in Chapter 33 – now we are in Two – where it is found in the possession of the 1848 revolutionary Professor Bhaer who keeps his edition of Shakespeare “with his German Bible, Plato, Homer, and Milton.” In other words, the Bible is kept in the company of literature, not religious texts. The fact that almost no one in the novel can even read this Bible is an additional irony.
Two unfortunately loses much of this overlaid structure. The sequel becomes, as the passage about the books suggests, a kind of Bildungsroman for Jo, with the other sisters sidelined in one way or another, a functional but less complex way to organize the story.
Jane GS was inspired, when she read Little Women, to read The Pilgrim’s Progress as well, which more Alcott readers should do. Bunyan’s book is sectarian and narrow, but also one of the great pieces of English prose, and I find that reading it in the context of Little Women softens its Calvinist harshness, which by itself is a debt I owe Alcott.