I hate spoilers. I know that this is rich from someone who ends up writing them in their blog, but I (as a rule) hate spoilers. Why mention this now? Well, Friends ended up spoiling one of the central plot lines in this book. It actually meant I shed a few tears before it happened… but still the impact was lost. Bah!
Anyway. Little Women is one of those books that I think is read far more often in its native United States than over here. As in, I don’t think I know many (if any) people that have read it. When I mentioned at work I was reading this the look I got seemed to say “but you’re a grown man”. The phrase “so what” comes to mind considering that this appears at #38 on my top 100 list.
So what is it about? Well, Little Women is a coming of age story about the four March sisters: Jo, Beth, Meg and Amy. We start the series with all four sisters as children and we finish it 10 years later as some of them start to have children of their own (and so the circle becomes complete).
At the heart of this book are the relationships between the four sisters and their mother. Some male character so appear, such as their father and neighbour Laurie, but they feel somewhat peripheral to the central five women – especially in the first of this two volume book.
Due to the complexity in some of the sisters characterisations in comparison to others in the book it is rather apparent these are based on real people – namely Louisa May Alcott and her own three sisters. The character of Jo (who is easily the best character) is the author’s proxy within this world.
I say complexity because these girls do feel like real people. Amy, for example, really embodies that youngest sibling feel due to her being the more selfish of the bunch, but she is also the one who is most keen to perfect her artistic talents and is easily humbled when seeing the genius of others.
Jo is the archetypal tomboy of the sisters. She has a gift for writing and actually carves out a living for herself by selling her stories to journals and newspapers. She is ambitious and doesn’t want to conform with what society says a woman should be. Which leads me to the question I was asking myself as I was reading this: is Little Woman a feminist novel?
The answer: yes and no. For the time these strong and independently minded girls would have been incredibly inspirational. Two of them turn down marriage proposals from rich beaus, you have characters like Jo trying to make their own living and, on average, these girls are as tough as nails. In this way, yes these are fantastic role models for teenage girls.
The problem I had, however, was when marriage happened. Specifically many of the later chapters involving Meg and her husband John. So much of what made her a March sister is lost in this marriage and the advice that her mother gives her about looking after her husband (keep in mind Meg has twins to look after all day) made me cringe.
The thing I had to keep in mind is that this book was written in the mid-19th century. There is this pull towards feminism and independence that has to be filtered through what society expected of women at the time. What can, at times, feel like a rather shallow book has layers of depth (until that chapter about Meg’s kids… that made me roll my eyes on the train).
It’s a really good read and one that I would encourage young girls to read. It’s not a romantic book, but one about actually trying to make the best choices for you and being happy despite not having much or marrying into wealth. It’s like the anti-Kardashians and don’t we need more of that?