Rereading Little Women

I had been nervous to reread Little Women.  Many of the books I loved as a kid hold up for me. I still believe Anne of Green Gables (and most of the rest of the series) is brilliant and I reread the Betsy Tacy and Harry Potter series all the time. Why the nerves about Little Women?
It meant a lot to me as a kid. I admired fiesty, literary Jo and wanted sisters to write newspapers with and put on plays with and talk about our castles in the air with.  My husband and I travel over to Concord fairly often, home of The Orchard House, and I have to stop by every time, even if it’s just for a quick walk around the house.
I knew, though, that I might have issues with the book on a reread.  I was curious to see how knowing more about Louisa May Alcott might color my reading and how the treatment of Jo might bother my feminism, history aside.
What did I end up thinking?

I ending up having a mixed experience.  By the end, though, I did still like it. Actually, I was surprised to find that, for me, what is actually the second book (Good Wives) is very good and that the first, while home to some of the most memorable moments, is not so good. Allow me to explain a little.

What I mainly think doesn’t work are the parts where Louisa May Alcott seems to need to assert herself in some way at the sacrifice of her story, which seems to occur more in the first book. A good editor would have removed these and a more experienced writer might have spotted them, particulary if she had taken longer than TEN WEEKS to write it.
What do these parts look like?
  • The constant authorial digs at Amy in the first book.
    • I don’t have any issues with the butting of heads between Jo and Amy. It feels real and reads realistically and I, probably like most of you, couldn’t stand Amy when I was younger. What is odd, and what I didn’t notice as a kid, was how often Alcott puts in little comments about Amy that are unnecessary.  Also, Amy is 13 in the first book. Come on!
    • An example of these is when the girls and Laurie are talking about their castles in the air, which are their ambitions. Four out of five of them (cough, Beth) mention things that are certainly big dreams. Amy states her ambition and, even though it’s very similar to everyone else’s, Alcott closes it with “was Amy’s modest desire.”  Uncalled for shade exhibit Q.
  • The excessive preaching that feels like it’s coming from her parents.
    • Fun fact: You probably knew that Louisa May Alcott did not want to write for children. When she finally did give in to her editor’s wish, she did so with the agreement that her father’s book would be published, too.
    • I don’t have a problem with morality in books and know that it was very in keeping with the time. It is extremely heavy-handed, though, in a way that seems to fall very in line with Marmee’s way of moralizing. There is still morality in the second book, but it’s not nearly as all consuming, which may be because she was writing that part for the fans, rather than writing something she thought might please her parents?  Just a theory.
  • The Marmee idolatry.
    • I’m sorry, but Marmee actually sounds pretty awful. Marmee let their pet bird, Pip, DIE in order to teach the kids a lesson about laziness. Because, you know, they don’t do enough already.
  • Beth’s sweetness.
    • Okay, ‘fess up. Does anyone like Beth that much? As a kid, I think most of us find her a little boring and then maybe cry when she dies because we’re fools who don’t notice the constant foreshadowing. I certainly don’t mind a character who is good, but there is nothing more to Beth. It’s as if she was never alive anyways. “You’re a dear and nothing else” Meg tells her in the first chapter. Why did Alcott not make her a less cloying and slightly more rounded character?
    • Apparently Lizzie, who Beth was based on, actually had a lot of rage at the end of her life. Is it possible that Alcott was trying to rewrite those memories in some way?
Those are my over-the-top rants, when, as I said, I ended up liking the book.  I particularly enjoyed the letters home from Amy and Jo and I think that the ending of Jo starting Plumfield is perfect.  I know some people view the book as saccharine, but I’d really challenge them to look again at the second book and look at the moments where, again, it seems like Alcott isn’t trying to follow an agenda (plus, let’s take history into account and the fact that there was a good bit of ground-breaking going on here).  When Alcott just let the moments be, the book can be lovely. I think that’s why it works so well as a movie and that’s why so many of us love it as kids.
I’d love to hear about your experiences reading the book as a child, or if you read it for the first time as an adult. I’m also very curious to hear about the experiences of those of you who have reread it.
Thanks to the Library of America, I received a review copy of March Sisters: On Life, Death, and Little Women, which I read after my reread. I  recommend it if you’re a fan of the books,as it will give you a good bit to think about. It’s a short and interesting read in which four different authors write essays on the four very different sisters, which is such a smart concept.  My personal favorite was the Beth essay, written by Carmen Maria Machado, and her questioning of “How do you keep other people from making you a Beth? How do you stay out of other people’s stories?”. Wow. Doesn’t that strike such a deep chord?
If you had been thinking about rereading Little Women before the new movie comes out, but don’t want to take on so many words or are worried about protecting your childhood memories, this book or one like Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters might be a good solution. I do think the reread was worth it, though!
Are you rereading the book before the movie comes out? For that matter, are you going to see the movie? The trailer looks fantastic to me, although, in the words of Johnny Depp’s tattoo, I’m tempted to think Winona forever.

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