#18. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Little Women is a novel by American author Louisa May Alcott, and was written and set in her family home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts. It was published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. The novel follows the lives of four sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March – and is loosely based on the author’s childhood experiences with her three sisters. The first volume, Little Women, was an immediate commercial and critical success, prompting the composition of the book’s second volume, entitled Good Wives, which was also successful. Both books were first published as a single volume entitled Little Women in 1880. Alcott followed Little Women with two sequels, also featuring the March sisters: Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886). Little Women was a fiction novel for girls that veered from the normal writings for children, especially girls, at the time. Little Women has three major themes:” domesticity, work, and true love. All of them are interdependent and each is necessary to the achievement of a heroine’s individual identity.
Little Women itself “has been read as a romance or as a quest, or both. It has been read as a family drama that validates virtue over wealth.” It has been read “as a means of escaping that life by women who knew its gender constraints only too well.” Alcott “combines many conventions of the sentimental novel with crucial ingredients of Romantic children’s fiction, creating a new form of which Little Women is a unique model.” Elbert argued that within Little Women the first vision of the “American Girl” and that her multiple aspects were found in the differing March sisters.
When Little Women was published, it was well received. During the 19th century, there was a scarcity of models for nontraditional womanhood which led more women to look toward literature for self-authorization. The story was written during an era that showed women’s status in society was slowly increasing. This is especially true during adolescence. Little Women became the paradigmatic text for young women of the era and one in which family literary culture is prominently featured. Adult elements of women’s fiction were in Little Women, such as “a change of heart necessary” for the female protagonist to evolve in the story. However, even with much critical acclaim, there were criticisms. Some felt that Little Women was the beginning of a decline in the radical power of women’s fiction, partly because women’s fiction was now being idealized with a hearth and home children’s story. Both women’s literature historians and juvenile fiction historians agreed that Little Women was the apex of this so-called downward spiral. Elbert argued that Little Women did not “belittle women’s fiction” and that Alcott stayed true to her “Romantic birthright.” While the books more popular audience was responsive to ideas of social change as they were shown within the familiar construct of domesticity, the perception of a modern-day woman is that the characters were mostly portrayed as “goody two-shoes” and unrealistic for the present time period. Despite this opinion, Alcott’s main heroine, Jo March, became a favorite of many different women, including educated women writers through the 20th century. One reason Little Women was vastly popular was because it was able to appeal to different classes of women along with different nationalities. Through the March sisters, women could relate and dream where they may not have before. Both the passion Little Women has engendered in diverse readers and its ability to survive its era and transcend its genre point to a text of unusual permeability. Through the four sisters, Alcott shows four different ways to deal with being a woman bound by the constraints of 19th century social expectations.
One thing the story did address was social perception that marriage was to be the end goal of young girls. This was evident after the publication of part one of Little Women when girls wrote Alcott asking her “who the little women marry.” The unresolved ending added to the popularity of Little Women. Sicherman said that the unsatisfying ending worked to “keep the story alive” almost in hopes that if the reader read it enough times the story would conclude differently. “Alcott particularly battled the conventional marriage plot in writing Little Women” Alcott did not have Jo accept Laurie’s hand in marriage, rather when she finally married Jo, she picked an unconventional man for Jo’s husband. Alcott used Friederich to “subvert adolescent romantic ideals” because he was much older and seemingly unsuited for Jo. This ending was not only more appropriate but also expected, considering the path of the story.