Classic Children's Literature · Reading

Completed: Little Women (Part One)

LittleWomen

Little Women (Part One)*
Louisa May Alcott
1868, U.S.

“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.

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20 thoughts on “Completed: Little Women (Part One)

  1. The piece I just put up is not so much analysis as mockery. Mockery is a kind of analysis , right? It is all about Second Part, so you might want to save it. Then tomorrow, there will be a special treat. Special for me, at least.

    Now: I was wondering if I should try to line up the episodes in Bunyan and Little Women! I am not at all surprised by your discovery but I did not look for myself.

    In a sense different than the one you or I wrote about, the novel can be an enormous comfort, I mean as a consolation in the face of death. When the episodes begin to cohere into a more straightforward story in the last third of the book, it is a difficult, meaningful test of the lessons the sisters have learned. There is only one way, after all, for Christian to enter the Celestial City,

    Thanks again for hosting the Classic Children’s Lit Challenge!

    1. You are welcome! I’m having fun hosting and I’m glad that your reading of Little Women matched up to the time frame.

      Well-done mockery is a kind of analysis, I suppose, on the assumption that the original must be understood to be (properly) mocked.

      I didn’t look closely enough to be certain there’s complete alignment between Bunyan and Little Women, but a quick glance does make it appear that everything is in the same order. I’m actually surprised I haven’t (in a really brief, half-hazard search) found anyone talking much about these connections–perhaps we readers just don’t know Pilgrim’s Progress anymore?

      The idea of LW as a “consolation in the face of death” is one I hadn’t thought of until you mentioned it here. I don’t think that’s what most people mean when they call LW a “comfort read”–I’m guessing that the “cozy home” aspect is more often meant, but perhaps that is because we aren’t confronted by early death with the same frequency Alcott’s original readers were. I guess it really has been too long since I last read Little Women–I dind’t realize there would be quite so much to think about!

  2. What a wonderful look into this fantastic novel. The moral tone of Little Women never bothered me, perhaps because it shares most of my own values, but I see how it can be perceived as a “discomfort read”. Personally, I enjoy the droplets of wisdom spread throughout the tale of the four sisters.

    I also love the analysis you make regarding the relationship between LM and TPP. I knew the first was influenced by the latter, but I didn’t know to what extent. It’s a very interesting way to look at Alcott’s work.

    1. Thank you! The moral tone didn’t bother me when I first read it–I didn’t even notice it–and I’m not sure it bothers me that much here, other than I at times find it very noticeable or a bit overkill. It’s not that there is a moral–which morals I agree with–but the manner in which they are included. The reason I mentioned “Experiments” is because the message was very plain and included very naturally–but then the “sermon” from Marmee was added on top of what we already could see and it just felt unnecessary. But then I believe that was the style at that time. I think that what is “discomfort” could also become comfort: if we look too closely at ourselves, we may find the same faults the sisters have, but when we see the sisters grow and overcome them, we may have hope that we too may become better people, so long as we take the effort.

      I’m surprised I haven’t seem more comment in posts on Little Women about the influence of Pilgrim’s Progress. I wonder if that means that no one reads it any more?

  3. I loved the ending of “Experiments” because although I consider myself a hard-worker and should remain so for the sake of my sanity, I tend to forget how important and how happy working makes me. I know it is moralising, but I liked it as a funny reminder of my own “faults” (which are not such since we all need some rest, probably more than the March sisters get) and luckily it never brought me down.

    1. As I mentioned to Caro above, I don’t mind the moral or the reminder, so much as I felt that the manner in which it was presented was on the redundant side–the behavior of the girls made it perfectly clear what the lesson was. I’m not sure even they needed Marmee to tell them the same thing as well. But I think it was the style of writing at that time. My complaint, if you can call it that, is really about the style rather than the message.

  4. Thanks for your interesting review, Amanda! I still need to read “Little Women” (only saw the movie with Winona Ryder years ago). Now, I’ll definitely look out for the sermonizing. 😉

    1. I’ve seen the 1994 movie many times and have a better memory for it than the book, so I guess it was about time I got back to the original. 🙂 It’s a good read, too, which makes it all the better.

  5. Great thoughts on the didactic nature of the novel! And I love that you included discussion of Bunyan in your analysis. I remember reading Little Women as a teenager and being confused by all the references to Pilgrim’s Progress. It wasn’t until we discussed it as an undergrad that the light began to dawn. Being more familiar with it now, I’d like to go back and trace all the connections.

    Fabulous! 🙂

    1. Thanks! If you’ve studied Pilgrim’s Progress, you would probably be able to follow the connections in Little Women much better than I can. I’m relying on a really rusty memory of a children’s adaptation of PP and a Wikipedia summary–but I’ll definitely be turning to Bunyan as I have time in the next month or two.

  6. Dear Amanda,
    Thank you for your thoughtful blog.

    My suggestion is that you read Pilgrim’s Progress… and the sequel as well which was his wife Christina’s journey.
    It is one of those books that I sometimes wish I hadn’t read so that I could be reading it all over again from the start.
    There’s another book called Hinds Feet in High Places which is a similar allegory!
    God bless you on your personally progress towards the “Celestial City!”

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