Two days ago I checked out Little Women from the library, and yesterday I spent the whole afternoon finishing it (quite literally–I started the second half, technically entitled Good Wives, while eating lunch around 12:30 and finished it around 4:30). And crying over it, obviously, because that’s my new thing. I was going to say I have THOUGHTS about Little Women, but the plain truth of it is, I have FEELINGS about Little Women.
(This is the cover of my childhood copy, which I read at age 9 and stayed up into the wee hours to finish. The image isn’t particularly accurate–since when do any of the March girls have red hair? Since never.)
Little Women is an interesting phenomenon for me, because I was not really that into it growing up. Actually, this is a bit of a trend with me. In recent years I’ve read the first five Anne of Green Gables books (see below) and all of the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace.
(Again, this is the copy of the first three Green Gables books that I read. Awww, Megan Follows and her Canadian accent!)
These are all books that, I believe, are meant to have a huge impression on readers in childhood. And maybe they did on me, but upon re-reading I found that I remembered almost nothing. Sort of. There are parts of Little Women that I can recite verbatim. “I detest niminy-piminy chits!” I remembered that Jo’s copy of Pilgrim’s Progress was red and Amy’s was blue, and Beth’s was “dove-colored.” I remembered very clearly Laurie’s reaction upon meeting Meg’s twin babies, I remembered Beth’s sweet little contribution to the Pickwick Papers (which, by the way, are way more fun now that I’ve actually read The Pickwick Papers). But I remember nothing of the emotional experience of having read it as a child, or even as a college freshman, when I saw the opera by Mark Adamo and re-read the book for the first time in years.
The tricky thing about Little Women is that you’re supposed to identify with Jo. I mean, you’re supposed to love all of the March sisters, and Marmee, but Jo is the real protagonist, Jo is the autobiographical one, the creative one, the one Laurie is in love with, the tomboy. And I realized this time through that the reason Little Women didn’t stick with me is that as a child, I was not at all a Jo. Well, okay, I liked books a lot, and I did a lot of creative writing, but I wasn’t a tomboy, I didn’t feel rebellious, I was more or less comfortable in my own skin, as a girl in the world. And Jo is sixteen when the book starts. I was nine. I was too young to have a crush on Laurie, and wayyyyy too young to have a crush on Professor Bhaer, who is my current Little Women gentleman of choice.
But guess how old Jo is at the end of the book? Almost twenty-five. I may not have identified with the flyaway, impetuous Jo of the early chapters, but I was astonished by how exactly Alcott’s portrait of Jo’s early twenties mirrored my own experience. A book for children? I beg to differ.
Jo finds herself at loose ends as an adult–not only professionally, though she does give up writing for a while and pick it back up after Beth dies, but personally, and it’s the personal part that hits home with me. Meg tells Jo in the chapter “All Alone,” “You are like a chestnut-burr, prickly outside, but silky-soft within, and a sweet kernel, if one can only get at it. Love will make you show your heart some day, and then the rough burr will fall off.” I’ve never been as prickly as Jo, or as adamantly anti-relationship, but it’s only now, at nearly-twenty-five and after a year abroad, that I’m starting to feel ready to share my heart and my life with somebody.
I know a lot of people see Jo’s about-face on the subject of marriage as kind of a betrayal of her earlier sentiments (and there are definitely readings of the novel that portray her as being asexual or gender-ambiguous), but I don’t think it’s that unusual. Jo realizes that there are more kinds of love than she had previously been aware of. She rejects Laurie’s proposal when she returns from New York not because she doesn’t love him–he accuses her of not having a heart, and she says, “I wish I hadn’t!” Of course she loves him, he’s “her boy,” but she can’t marry him because her heart tells her it’s wrong, even though it hurts her to hurt him so much. But later on, in “All Alone” (again), she has this exchange with Marmee:
“…only I fancied it might pain you to learn that your Teddy loved any one else.”
“Now, mother, did you really think I could be so silly and selfish, after I’d refused his love, when it was freshest, if not best?”
“I knew you were sincere then, Jo, but lately I have thought that if he came back, and asked again, you might, perhaps, feel like giving another answer. Forgive me, dear, I can’t help but seeing that you are very lonely, and sometimes there is a hungry look in your eyes that goes to my heart; so I fancied that your boy might fill the empty place if he tried now.”
“No, mother, it is better as it is, and I’m glad Amy has learned to love him. But you are right in one thing: I am lonely, and perhaps if Teddy had tried again, I might have said ‘Yes,’ not because I love him any more, but because I care more to be loved than when he went away.”
Oh, Louisa May, you sneaky thing. Forget reading in the garret, forget wearing boots and saying inappropriate things and being careless about clothing, forget the quick temper and the detestation of niminy-piminy chits. THIS is the part of Jo that speaks to me, the lonely, unsettled, grown-up Jo, ready to love and be loved but uncertain of how to start, watching those around her have what seems like a much easier time of navigating this particular area–Meg with her John and her children, and Amy with her natural charms and understanding of men, whose marriage to Laurie turns out to be exactly right. There is a moment in one of the very last chapters when Professor Bhaer, who turns up one night and becomes a household fixture, stays away for three days, and Jo convinces herself that he doesn’t love her after all, that there is clearly something wrong with her appearance or her character that has actually repelled him. Jupiter Ammon, the accuracy, it breaks my heart! Jo spends the whole book unsure of why she’s supposed to want the love and companionship that it seems like everybody else wants…until suddenly, she wants it too.
This time through Little Women, I was also thinking a lot about the four sisters. As I said, I’ve always had the impression that we’re supposed to relate to Jo, to see Jo in ourselves. But what I really think is that there’s a little of all four of them in all of us, and that’s what really makes this an enduring work of literature. I’m the oldest child, the good girl, with a good singing voice, like Meg. I am a total homebody who would probably be okay with never leaving home, like Beth (though of course without the cats and the scarlet fever)…and yet I want to travel, like Amy, and do astonishing things, like Jo. I have a little of Meg’s envy of people who have beautiful homes and clothes, and some of Amy’s priggishness; I cherish my solitude and live a lot in my head, like Beth, but I also love lively straightforward company, like Jo. I could keep going, but you get the gist.
When I get back to the States, my plan is to buy myself a new copy of Little Women to add to my little traveling library. Softcover, so I can take it wherever I go, like the March sisters and Pilgrim’s Progress.
(From Mark Adamo’s operatic adaptation of the novel.)