Little Women (Part One)*
Louisa May Alcott
“We never are too old for this, my dear, because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another. Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City.”
Mrs. March, Chapter 1
It has been many years since I’ve read Little Women, so long in fact I almost don’t remember the act of reading it. But I remember enough–indeed, I have been surprised at details that have jumped out at me as those I remember–the description of Jo in Chapter 1, her reading perch in the apple tree, Camp Lawrence–for they are details that come from reading only, not my viewing of the 1994 film–that I recognized quickly something that surprised me a bit: Part one of Little Women is structured around John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. I remembered that the Bunyan book was referenced, but not that it acted as a structure to Alcott’s novel. However, a quick look through the chapter titles (“Playing Pilgrims,” “Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful,” “Amy’s Valley of Humiliation,” “Jo Meets Apollyon,” “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair,” etc.) alone indicates the importance of Pilgrim’s Progress.
I’ve never properly read the Bunyan, only a children’s adaptation of part one of his tale, and so many years ago that I don’t fully remember it–just a giant, burdens that roll off, a city named Vanity Fair (from whence Thackery finds his title)–but enough that I spot some references. A quick skim through the Wikipedia article shows me more–and more importantly, that Alcott does not merely take titles or reference points, but that as best I can tell, she puts them in the same order as Bunyan’s original. Little Women becomes a children’s version of Pilgrim’s Progress. Where Christian journeys from the “world” to the “Celestial City,” the March girls journey not just from girlhood to adulthood (in Part One, Meg is really the only one to make the full leap) but also travel a road of self-improvement–Christian’s allegorical path. While in chapter 4, “Burdens” each identifies her own particular trial she doesn’t wish to bear, they are selfish burdens: Meg longs for the ease of the Kings, Jo to escape the tyranny of Aunt March, Beth to set aside the difficulties of housework and broken piano, and Amy wishes most for an aristocratic nose and nicer things. Each will leave her burden behind, not out of any great fortune (perhaps excepting Beth’s piano), but because they grow as young women, learning to appreciate what they do have, and to recognize that their longings are not so very important after all.
Amateur Reader (Tom) at Wuthering Expectations has suggested that, rather than a “comfort” read, Little Women should be a “discomfort” read. It is quite plainly moralizing, a didactic work, including some outright sermons (see, for example, the end of Chapter 11 “Experiments”)–something that I believe I missed when I was little, but impossible to overlook now. Sins of vanity, indolence, temper are explored and condemned. And if we start to look too closely, we realize that we may find these in ourselves–humanity does not change so much over time that the faults of generations past are no longer present in our own (though we may no longer judge so harshly faults we once condemned). Little Women may be read simply for the nice little family scene of four sisters growing up, but when we do so, we overlook–perhaps willfully; who wants the discomfort of self-condemnation?–that it really acts as an instruction book itself. Improve yourself! Beth, the quiet and obedient, is held up as the standard–and of the girls, she most strongly longs for the Celestial City. Jo may perhaps run wild and free, but she longs to be good. Laurie, their friend, a boy (and so has greater freedom), desires to join their ranks, to better himself, and, for now at least, consents to his grandfather’s plans for his future. There are rebellions: Mrs. March does not wish her girls to behave like the silly rich girls only seeking husbands, for instance, but the morals remain. By the end of Part One, we recognize that all four sisters are not just older, but better–the implication is that we are to grow so as well.
The relief for the casual reader is that the characters are so realistic–or at least the children are–the adults seem mostly out of sight–that we can believe in them. Their little problems and woes, their joys and good times: we can recognize these. While the message of “Experiments” may be so strongly demonstrated as to become an irritation (Marmee, do you really need to tell us what we already can see for ourselves?), the little events are familiar. Who hasn’t grown irritable after a day or few of too much time on our hands? Or attempted a project beyond our abilities? How often do we fail to recognize what others do for us until they do so no longer, only appreciating them in retrospect? The story rings true, which I suspect is why so many of us still so enjoy Little Women even while its moral tone is out of fashion.
*The publishing history of Little Women is perhaps not uncommon–popular first book creates demand for a sequel–but, in the U.S. at least, it is often forgotten that it was originally two volumes. This is no doubt because they have been under the same title since initial publication, with Part Second added to the second volume, and not many many years later began to be published as one book. An English publisher provided a new title, Good Wives, for the second book. Regardless, as they were published separately at first, and as two books looks better than one on the year-end list, I’ve chosen to divide up my reading and blogging about Little Women looking at each part individually. I write this first post without having yet reread Part Second.