Book Review: ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women is a novel written by Louisa May Alcott which has captured generations of readers as they read about the lives of the four March sisters as they grow up – although unremarkable their tale; their starkly contrasted personalities form instant connections with the reader.  I plead guilty to some serious spoilers ahead.

At the beginning of the novel these ‘Little Women’ are of extraordinary grain and each different to one another, with their willingness to live and be a force within the circles that they moved within..  

“There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully, that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind”

Beth, the youngest, is a wallflower and her sweetness is adorable and yet completely relatable – sneaks into Mr Laurence’s house to play the piano quietly in order not to disturb although she had his permission to play. Yet, Beth’s force was in her peace of soul.  Beth had accepted that she was dying with such grace in a way that most of us cannot fathom today. Are are not ill and do not die in such ways.  We take drugs which fight when our bodies cannot, we are radiated, and scanned, and operated upon.  We do not have that certainty of death anymore, we fight until we cannot.

Jo is rather the opposite of little Beth.  She is opinionated and unafraid to step outside of the traditional feminine boundaries placed upon her – pays little attention to her attire and would gladly be found outside, roughing it with their wealthy neighbour Laurie.  It is Jo’s ‘demise’ that made me rather want to light a match and set the book up in flames.  Although I had just seen the film, it hurt quite a bit more when reading it. The younger Jo is wild and temperamental and these ‘faults’ are slowly moulded away to form a generic ‘angelic’ figure.  These traits are what make us human, what sets up apart from one another but the elder Jo has conformed to what was expected of her. The younger was quite against marriage and thought that such relationships were…perhaps ‘beneath her’ is not the right phrase, but was not in her vision of the future.  However, to a huge disappointment, Jo becomes like every other girl and is found to be a blushing desperate figure who marries Professor Bhaer. To further worsen the dire situation which has been thrush into the reader’s mind, ‘Mrs Bhaer’ opens a boarding school for boys– Jo, who would have thrived at being given the same opportunities as her male counterparts, could have excelled at University where she could have met other women of the same substance.  Mrs Bhaer becomes a wife and a mother and is lost.

Amy perhaps had one of the best attempts at freedom and independence, regardless of her attitude towards marriage.  Amy was unabashed in the knowledge that she wanted to marry for money, but not in a selfish way but in a way that if she married for money, she knew that she would have some sort of independence.  Money can in fact, buy happiness on occasion.  This is perhaps said better in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation which was released in 2019 in a conversation between Amy and Laurie:

“I‘m just a woman.  And as a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money.  Not enough to earn a living, or to support my family. And if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine.  They would be his property.  So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is.  It may not be for you but it most certainly is for me.”

I admired Amy’s persistence in trying out new art forms in an unabashed way that some individuals can try their hand at new things without fear of judgement.

“…talent isn’t genius, and no amount of energy can make it so. I want to be great, or nothing.”

I deeply admire this attitude of trying out new things but I also sympathise with her.  The more you try things there will be a part of you that hopes that there is something out there that you will be a natural at it and each new attempt brings a fresh wave of quiet disappointment that you, like everyone else, are just ordinary and must persevere in order to become great.

I don’t have much to say about Meg only perhaps that her situation is more comparable to ours. Meg remembers the luxury that the family once had and on occasion is swayed by it all by simple hedonism that plagues us today.  She allows herself to be dolled up in rich fabrics and her face powdered…only to be made felt ludicrous.  As a generation, we are shaped by social media, whether consciously or not.  We want the newest iPhone and a plain white t-shirt from a high-end brand just to show that we can afford it.  This toxicity is putting a rather large dent on our aim for authenticity (can’t believe that I’m referencing positive psychology but here we are). 

I have loved reading about the March family, especially about the early years of their lives, yet the ending ruined it for me and so I possibly won’t be re-reading it for quite a few years.  Or until I have sufficiently calmed down from the whole ordeal that perhaps I, like the March sister must resign and marry and bear children and die.

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