Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

So what happened was, I decided to reread Little Women. Actually, I decided to read it, in its entirety, for the first time. I read my copy of Little Women to death, over and over and over, when I was a kid, and didn’t realize till years later that it was an abridged edition — the very same abridged edition pictured here, in fact. It was the complete story (originally published in two volumes as Little Women and Good Wives), but it was trimmed all round, shorter and tighter. Yes, my decision to finally read the unabridged version was connected to me not bringing enough e-books on vacation and starting to rifle through the free “classics” on the Kobo, but once I started I got just as absorbed as when I was 12 and couldn’t put it down.

It’s great stuff, even more sentimental and preachy than L.M. Montgomery (to whom I will be comparing L.M. Alcott a lot in this, so prepare yourself), a lovely moralistic period piece salvaged from the ranks of pious 19th century children’s books by some truly great and memorable characters. And it has two great, unavoidable climaxes that have been provoking a strong reaction in readers since the second volume (where it all goes down) was published in 1869. Beth dies, and Jo refuses to marry Laurie — a crashing romance failure made even worse when he happily settles for her sister Amy, and Jo marries some middle-aged German guy.

Having read this and absorbed it like a sponge in childhood, it’s time to return to it with a dispassionate adult brain and see how the things that bothered me so much as a young reader strike me now.

Oh my. Where do I begin?

OK, I’m going to look at three “problems” with the book here. You all realize this is not really a review, right? Because it’s a little late to be reviewing Alcott. Let’s call it a reaction. An adult reaction to one of the books that shaped me (and so many of us) as a kid.

Problem #1: The Stuff that’s Not in the Book

This didn’t bother me at all when I was a kid, because I was unaware that there was stuff not in there. I’m not talking about the stuff that was left out of my abridged edition — I’m talking about issues and concerns that would have been huge at the time historically, but never made it onto the pages. Turns out they’re not in the unabridged version either. Slavery and abolition is the big one — Mr. March is away fighting in the American Civil War, but for all the talking Marmee and the girls do about slavery, he might as well be fighting for the South as for the North. This is weird when you realize that Alcott based the story largely on her own family, and that the real-life Alcotts were big-time abolitionists. I didn’t start thinking about this until I read Geraldine Brooks’ excellent novel March,  in which Mr. March returns wounded from the war, as he does in Little Women, but returns with an escaped slave for the family to hide (The Alcott family harboured an escaped slave for a week when Louisa May was 15, the same age Jo is when Little Women opens). I mean, I’m not saying that should have happened in the original book, but given the generally moralistic tone of the book, the emphasis on helping the poor, and the degree to which Mr. March is at least somewhat modeled on Bronson Alcott, I think it’s strange that the slavery issue is not addressed at all in the book. The sequels, Little Men and particularly Jo’s Boys (I’ll get to those in a later review) have a bit more of a social conscience than Little Women, but it’s addressed much more towards the early stirrings of feminism than towards racial issues. It’s dumb, I know, to criticize a classic book on the basis of what it doesn’t contain, but I still think if the Alcott family’s abolitionism had been a more obvious part of the March family, it would have been more interesting.

Now I’ll get on to talking about the two things that do happen …

2. Beth dies. (Sorry, big spoiler). The fact that Beth dies in Little Women is probably the best known spoiler in American literature, and is the basis for a hilarious Friends episode where Rachel makes Joey read her favourite book, Little Women, and he completely falls apart when Beth dies. But seriously, rereading the book with the eyes of an adult, especially one familiar with nineteenth-century literature, isn’t it blatantly obvious Beth is marked to die from page one? It’s not just that she’s based on Alcott’s own sister Elizabeth, who died at age 23. You don’t need to know that (I didn’t) to recognize that Beth is too good to be true, her virtues exist primarily as foils for her sisters’ vices, she is loved by all and is, after her bout with scarlet fever, perpetually fragile. She has no ambitions as her sisters do, and she is completely asexual, with no interest in men or marriage.

But the strongest proof that Beth is narratively predetermined to die is that nobody does a darned thing to stop her from dying. In fact, the family takes a pretty fatalistic attitude to Beth from the beginning. She’s 13 when the book opens, and she doesn’t go to school because she was so shy it was torture for her, nor is she expected ever to earn a living outside the home. From a twenty-first century perspective, it’s obvious Beth suffers from severe social anxiety, and it says something about mental illness in the 19th century that the solution was not seen to be “find a way to fix Beth” but “find a way to adjust Beth’s environment so she won’t have to be placed in situations that make her anxious.” Interesting. But when she contracts scarlet fever (by helping a poor family, while all her sisters are too engaged in their own selfish pursuits to bother) at least they do call in medical help. Beth is under a doctor’s care until she recovers — a recovery which forms the happy climax of the first volume of the book, but leaves her fatally weakened in the second volume.

What does Beth actually die of? Nobody says. Does she develop heart trouble as a result of the scarlet fever? Does she get tuberculosis? Her death is very like the typical nineteenth-century fictional consumptive death, with her simply fading away and growing weaker and weaker, but still staying pretty much intact and attractive to the end. It doesn’t really matter. Beth dies of Authorial Intent. It’s very telling that, while they called in the doctor for her scarlet fever as an early teen, when as a young adult (19) she confides to Jo that she knows she is dying, the focus is entirely on Jo and the parents coming to accept this. Never at any time does anyone suggest Beth should see a doctor or receive any kind of treatment. Her time is up. Beth is in the book so she can die. You may not like it when you first read it, but it’s narratively right — everything, from her first appearance in the book, has been building to this moment. Beth does what Louisa May ordained her to do.

The same, I would argue, cannot be said for the book’s most egregious and commonly-cited problem, i.e.:

3. Laurie and Jo don’t get married (and he marries Amy instead). First of all, if you’re one of the tiny unfortunate group of people who has never read Little Women (in which case, why are you still reading this post? I’ve already spoilered you on the only two plot developments that matter), I should explain that Laurie and Jo aren’t a lesbian couple, though they sound like one. They are male and female, and perhaps surprisingly, Laurie is the boy and Jo is the girl. Laurie is the March’s wealthy neighbour, Theodore Laurence. Jo calls him Teddy and everyone else calls him Laurie (you can see from that alone why he wanted to marry Jo).

Jo and Laurie are about 15 when they meet; they are very much alike — strong-willed, imaginative, free-spirited — and they become best friends. Laurie seems to figure out early on that he’s attracted to Jo, but as they get older it becomes clear that the attraction is one-sided. Jo is very definite that she is not ever going to marry Laurie. They are meant to be best friends forever, and romance would only spoil that.

At this point, anyone who’s been around the block and read a book or two knows where this is going. It’s Anne and Gilbert from Anne of Green Gables  all over again, minus the slate/head incident (and not really “all over again,” since Little Women came first by quite a long way, but for modern readers they tend to appear as contemporary books despite the 40-year gap between them). I’m pretty sure every young girl who’s ever read this book has assumed that Jo will eventually overcome her resistance, realize that her best friend is really her true love as well, and marry Laurie, just as Anne Shirley does with Gilbert Blythe in the L.M. Montgomery books. Anne refuses Gilbert because he’s “just a friend” and she has a romantic ideal which has to be shattered before she can see that the boy next door is the right one after all (something he’s known all along). For Jo, Laurie/Teddy is literally the boy next door, and she has no romantic ideals about finding a tall, dark, handsome stranger — she simply isn’t attracted to Laurie and agrees with her mother’s assessment that they are too much alike to make a good married couple; each needs to find someone who will complement their strengths and weaknesses rather than duplicating them.

Jo refuses Laurie; Laurie takes off to Europe in a snit (oh to be rich; I wish I’d gotten to go to Europe every time one of my young-adult romances didn’t work out as I planned); there, eventually, he hooks up with the youngest March sister, Amy, the one with whom Jo is most often at odds. Alcott goes to great pains to tell us how Amy and Laurie are good for each other, far better than Jo and Laurie could ever have been, but I think few readers have ever gotten completely over the disappointment, which is compounded rather than lessened when Jo marries, not  a tall dark handsome stranger, but a stout middle-aged German professor, whom she supposedly loves (he’s clearly a father figure, not to replace but to supplement her own — Jo must need a lot of fathering, despite her independence).

Even in the later books, when all the principal characters are grown up and married, the only real spark of energy in the adult protagonists comes when Jo and Laurie, now brother- and sister-in-law, are together, joking, teasing each other, or collaborating on a project. Amy and Professor Bhaer remain shadowy background characters by comparison; the adult Jo and Laurie only come alive and retain something of their youthful selves when in each other’s presence. It’s as if Alcott created two characters who were destined to be together, decided to keep them apart, but could never quite separate them, despite her own sternest good intentions.

And her intentions are good, that’s the thing. I’ve heard speculation that Alcott based the Jo-Laurie relationship a bit on one of her own unsuccessful romances (unlike Jo, she never married) and that by having Jo reject Laurie, Louisa May was taking back the control and agency she wished she’d had in that relationship. That may be so, and I’m the last one to denigrate writing as a way of working through your own little issues, but I think what she’s trying to do here on a real-life level counteracts what she did perhaps too successfully on a narrative level.

In real life, Marmee and Jo may be quite right: Jo and Laurie might make a terrible couple, each too stubborn to compromise, and Laurie might be much better suited to Amy. And it’s also admirable, again bringing in the Anne/Gilbert comparison here, that when Jo refuses Laurie, she is not a silly little girl with false ideals of romance who just needs to be awakened by The Right Man, as Anne Shirley is. Jo is exactly what she appears to be — a woman who knows her own mind and acts accordingly. From a feminist perspective, Jo’s choice is a triumph, and from a realistic perspective, it may well be the best one.

But from a narrative perspective, it’s a complete disaster.

I’m not saying that books have to be predictable and can’t contain surprise endings or twists. Of course they can. But there are narrative conventions, and when you set things up a certain way, readers are going to have certain expectations. Expectations that you, the author, have created your own self. And you’re responsible for that.

If you create two healthy, attractive young heterosexual characters of the opposite sex, and put them together from the time they’re young, make them best friends and show an obvious “spark” between them, you also create the assumption that they’re going to end up falling in love. If the book is a happy, moralistic family/coming-of-age story, you expect a happy ending, and if you’ve created characters with as much chemistry between them as Jo and Laurie, a happy ending means they fall in love and marry.

I think the discontent readers often feel with the ending stems from the fact that Alcott set up expectations of romance in the first volume of the book, then imposed a realistic ending in the second. As I said, Jo and Laurie might not have been a great match in real life, but they have been introduced and established as the hero and heroine of the romance, and it’s impossible for most readers to get past that expectation. You just can’t pull the rug out from under romance and replace it with a nice solid foundation of realism, without annoying at least a few thousand people.

Fellow writers, it is a lesson to us all.

23 Comments

Filed under Children's, Fiction -- historical

23 responses to “Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

  1. What a wonderful post!!! I have long loved Little Women, but I have to say that the Jo/Laurie romance/non-romance remains a bit unsatisfactory to me, too. Amy indeed! Sheesh. On the other hand, I disagree that because Alcott set us up for the romance that, narratively speaking, she must follow through. I think one of the strongest morals I took away from the book was romance doesn’t always look or work out the way one thinks or wishes. I suppose I’ve been willing to believe that the unsatisfactory feeling is part of the point (perhaps giving Alcott too much credit? Or forgiving her too quickly/blindly?). At any rate, this post makes me want to read the novel again, that’s for sure! :)

    • You may be right, Inkslinger. Maybe the unsatisfactory feeling IS intentional. I know that in the little bit of research I did for this post, I found that after the first volume of the book was published, Alcott got floods of letters from young girls asking for another volume and begging her to have Jo and Laurie get married when they grew up … and apparently she declared that whatever she wrote in the sequel, she would NEVER marry Jo to Laurie! Which proves, I think, both how successful she was in setting up the expectation that they would end up together, and how intentional she was about not fulfilling that expectation.

  2. Cheryl

    I’ve always loved Little Women and have always had a niggling itch for Jo and Laurie to be together. But when I read Little Men and saw the relationship between the Professor and Jo and realized that she needed the freedom of an understanding heart I(in her spouse) to be true to herself I began to be more OK with how the relationships worked out. Laurie and Amy were certainly well matched in the things they wanted out of life.

    I think the best lesson learned here is that first love isn’t always right love and that one can lose a prized relationship and still move forward to have a happy and satisfying relationship with another person.

    • That is a very true and good lesson, and certainly one I’ve learned in real life. I’ve ever appreciated other works of literature (check out my reviews for Anton Myrer’s “The Last Convertible” and Wilton Barnhardt’s “Emma Who Saved My Life”) that carried that same message. But with “Little Women,” I’ve never reached the level of acceptance with Alcott’s authorial decisions that a lot of readers seem to have done. That was really the reason I decided on the reread, and decided to read not only the unabridged book, but the sequels as well. If anything, this reading made me MORE convinced that she had set up Laurie and Jo as the perfect romantic couple, and LESS accepting of the eventual resolution. I think Laurie would have given Jo the freedom to be herself, too, and perhaps with their mutual fiery nature they might have challenged each other to be and do even more. Certainly they would have had more fun than either Jo seemed to have with old Fritz, or Laurie had with Amy (who, after her enjoyably spitey nature in the original book, had so little personality in the sequels she might as well have died in childbirth, as in fact did Alcott’s younger sister on whom Amy was based). Like I said, in the later books, every time Jo and Laurie were togther, for me they just came alive again as people, while otherwise they were more like cardboard cutouts. But, as with everything in literature, it’s so subjective …

  3. I always got the feeling that Laurie mostly wanted to be a part of the March family, and that Amy wanted to marry money. They both got what they wanted, in part. But I felt that if there was any passion at all in their relationship, Alcott never indicated so to any believable degree. Laurie was always so “in Jo’s corner” that I always wondered what it felt like he and Amy got in the carriage to drive home together. But after my initial shock of Laurie and Jo not ending up together, I never minded much. Especially after the idiotic line in the movie, “I’ve loved you since I first clapped eyes on you,” – for which I ALSO would have refused ANY man! As a teenager, I was put off by Alcott’s picture of Friedric, but as I’ve grown older and closer to his age (haha!) I’ve come to really appreciate the attraction of an older man – maybe you should try and think of him more as a German Sean Connery! Haha! I don’t know if I agree that the comparison of Anne and Gilbert holds – Anne detested him so much for so many years – she felt so passionately about how much she despised him that love could be the only outcome…I always felt that Jo simply was not interested in a relationship, and that Laurie had an unrealistic idea of what life with Jo would be like….more that he was in love with the idea of Jo…..
    I still love the books – read them so many times as a kid..I didn’t mind their preachiness – some of Marmee’s wise words helped me from time to time, and they were written in a time when there was greater emphasis placed on the formation of one’s character, right?

    I was thinking about Meg yesterday as I was making jelly – remember the day her jelly wouldn’t gel?

    • Ahh yes, I remember Meg’s jelly. Can’t empathize since I’ve never tried that particular domestic trick.

      As for the “preachiness,” I like it — it has a real old-fashioned feel to it. I like that there was a time you could get away with that in novels, though you couldn’t today. My main reaction to Marmee reading it this time was, “Wow, I wish my kids would sit still long enough for me to deliver those kind of long, improving lectures full of good morals!”

  4. As a young girl I was quite upset that Jo & Laurie didn’t get together, but as I get older I understand that sometimes love doesn’t always “make sense.”
    Sometimes the right one for you isn’t the one everyone else thinks is the right one. And, maybe Alcott was trying to make a point of surprising us by intentionally having Jo end up with someone else, she chose not to follow the normal formula for books?

    • She probably was trying to make that point … it just didn’t work for me. I’m glad so many people have gotten over their initial disappointment and accepted the Jo/Laurie non-matchup, but I don’t think I ever will.

  5. Martha

    I was very happy Jo did not marry Laurie. I actually thought he and Amy were well suited to each other. They were both rather vain and shallow. I also could never forgive Amy for burning all of Jo’s stories. As for Beth, her death could not compete with Ruby Gillis in the Anne stories. Ruby was a real character. Beth was a plaster saint.
    (comment copied from Facebook)

    • I’m glad to hear at least somebody was happy how things turned out, Martha! Yes, Ruby’s death in the Anne books was, IMHO, more affecting than Beth’s, because LMM didn’t choose the “saintly” girl to die, but the vain, frivolous (tho’ good-hearted) flirt, who was (as she herself pointed out) least prepared for Heaven.

  6. Jennifer

    I agree Trudy. I reread Little Women after reading March by G. Brooks. I was shocked to realize how much, as an adolescent, I had modeled my view of myself after Jo. And, after having married a man 11 years older than myself, I was surprised to find myself thinking of the professor as attractive. He sure looked great in the movie.
    (comment copied from Facebook)

    • Professor Bhaer definitely got a Hollywood upgrade for the movie, as is so often the case with book characters who are not conventionally attractive (since nearly all professional actors ARE).

      I, too, modelled my self-image on Jo, and I think I was always, as a young person, looking for a Laurie/Teddy — someone who would be the boy next door, always there to laugh and have fun with me, but also be unconditionally adoring of me. I don’t think I realized in my youth how useful it would have been if he’d also been filthy rich like Laurie …

  7. I’ve not read Little Women since my early teens, and I remember loving it then, despite being confused by the Laurie-Amy marriage, which I definitely thought was NOT OK. Beth’s death was tragic, but I didn’t really see the whole thing from page one – maybe a re-read will make that evident?

    I still do love the book – specially the first half. It’s beautifully written.

    Lovely post :)

    • I don’t think Beth’s death is obvious from the beginning if you read it as a young reader. I think if you read it as an adult and you’re familiar with the kids’ literature of the period, then it becomes pretty obvious. I certainly didn’t see it coming when I first read it.

  8. Robin-Taine

    I had this exact edition of Little Women as a girl. I had the same reaction to Beth’s death as well as Jo/Laurie/Amy as so many others have had. I read at least one of the sequels and loved the 1995 movie version, but have not read the book in many, many years. I will have to get out my Kobo this winter just for it!

  9. My memories of Amy in Little Women are that she burned Jo’s stories, and got in trouble at school for … eating limes? I will have to re-read!!

    I also remember being confused and upset with Laurie marrying Amy – I think I then expected there to be Issues because of it, but there never seemed to be.

  10. Pingback: Mentor Yourself, Book Review/Summary, Little Women - Louisa May Alcott

  11. Zara

    Wow! Great comments here! I really enjoyed reading all these replies, but could anyone solve my dilemma over Laurie’s explanation to Amy when she asked why you are proposing to me when you declared your love to Jo? He did some philosophical speech which seemed to answer the supposed concerns would have been raised by readers over the Jo- Laurie- love – amy- marriage !! At the time. If I could understand that speech??

  12. Keneta

    Zara, I’m trying to find Laurie’s explanation. Which chapter is it in?

    • Zara

      Keneta,
      I watched the film and there was a scene where Laurie proposed to Amy shorty after they meet abroad, and made a remarkable phylosophical speech, but then I flipped through the book to find the speech, it does not exist! And what a shame, cause the book makes a perfect sense for these two to be together, but not the movie.

  13. Meg

    When I read the book and watched movies– dozens of times- as a child and as a young woman- such ideas as “androgynous, lesbian, social anxiety disorder, asexual” etc. etc. etc. NEVER entered into my mind. Boy, maybe I’m just naiive, but I find it disgusting to try to project such terminology on a good old, wholesome (I thought!) girl’s novel. While I agree with some of your observations, I respectfully and wholeheartedly disagree with others.

    • Whatever works for you, I guess. The only reason I referenced lesbians was that “Laurie” is exclusively a girl’s name today, so people who haven’t read the book might assume Laurie is a female character. As for social anxiety disorder, I find it really interesting to read older novels with modern eyes and think, “How would this person be diagnosed today, when we’re so eager to stick a label on everyone?” It fascinates me in re-reading the book to notice that the family bends over backwards to accommodate the fact that Beth is so “shy” she can’t go to school, hold a job, or interact with anyone she doesn’t know outside the family circle. Changing attitudes towards what’s “normal” have always fascinated me, and I don’t think that makes the book any less “wholesome” — it’s just interesting to me from a historical perspective. But if it’s not to you, that’s cool too. Everyone reads differently. (I work with a lot of young people who have social anxiety disorder so that’s probably another reason why that aspect of Beth’s story was interesting to me).

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