Louisa May Alcott, 1868 and 1869
~500 pp. (varies by publisher)
Book Review by Molly Lundquist
Louisa May published her beloved classic 145 years ago, and while at times dated—its homiletic style and emphasis on female duty—Little Women still has much to say about the modern condition.
There's nothing—at all—old-fashioned about the concept of virtue: generosity and compassion, forgiveness, self-restraint, wisdom, and living with intention. These are the values that Marmee teaches her four daughters and which they come to see as the path to a good life. It's far too easy to overlook those values in the 21st century.
Little Women can also be placed within a feminist framework. True, the book is traditional in exalting womanly domesticity; it nevertheless champions the ideals of female individuality and self-determination. Jo (Alcott's alter-ego) has ambitions as a writer and Amy as an artist, while Meg chafes in anger at a woman's lot—waiting around for a man to marry her. Finally, at the head of the family is Marmee; husband/father is absent for one-half of the book, leaving Marmee as the sole authority—a role in which she is brilliantly competent.
Reading this work again after so many years, I feared I would find it naive, even childish. How mistaken! Once again, I fell under its spell, taking delight (especially in Part 1) in the Pickwick Club, the theatricals, Jo's disastrous dinner, and Amy's malapropisms. How can one not ache for the death of the Hummel baby and later Beth? It was a reminder of how difficult life was during the Civil War years, what people sacrificed and suffered...but most of all, how family can hold body and soul together.
Unfortunately, the novel's second part tends to sag: chapters are long-winded and the structure more episodic, losing some of the original energy and coherence. With the sisters dispersed, the humor tapers off, and story takes a more didactic turn. Still, the wonderful Professor Baher comes on the scene, and we ultimately learn the fates of characters we care about.
Dear Book Clubs, do choose this work as one of your reads. Discuss the book and watch snatches of various film versions: 1994 (Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder), 1949 (June Allyson, Peter Lawford and Liz Taylor!), and 1933 (Katherine Hepburn and Joan Bennett). Dress up and serve yourselves Jo's terrible dinner—complete with salted strawberries.
See our Reading Guide for Little Women.
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