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.