I recently stumbled across a beautiful new edition of Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women, and decided to reread it. I had read it two or three times before, but the last time was in my early twenties (now a fond memory). In my recollection, the book was pleasant but a bit shallow, and of course a major tear-jerker in the second half. This time around, my impression was decidedly different. It’s not a shallow book. The writing is beautiful and the story lines are engaging. But the book cannot escape its firm setting in 1860s America, and doesn’t even try. It’s racist (though there aren’t many African-American characters, the few there are are treated with ridicule and condescension); sermonizing (and not in the gentle, allegorical manner of The Chronicles of Narnia–this is straight-up Lessons on Being a Better Christian); and weirdly chauvinist (every other nationality is feeble-minded or arrogant, but Americans represent all that is good in the world). None of this is intentional or malicious–I believe it is the natural consequence of the deification of the March family. They are presented as a perfect unit–not individually perfect, but balancing and correcting one another until their little estate operates as smoothly as a Christian commune. They eschew the company of others, admitting only those who commit to joining the March clan and living in the immediate vicinity. Any mention of non-March friends serves as a negative reflection of the outsider: the poor Hummel family, whom Beth aids with charity and attention, is responsible for infecting her with scarlet fever. Their own baby dies, but Alcott extends no sympathy–only mocks their German accent. Meg’s friend Sallie Gardiner, who pops up numerous times, offers a parallel life to Meg’s–what Meg might have been, had the Marches not lost their fortune. But Sallie only exists to show off Meg’s virtue, and despite never doing anything very bad, comes off the worse at every comparison. It’s as if Alcott couldn’t conceive of a happy, fulfilled life outside of the March cult. When I read that the March family was loosely based on the Alcott family, this made more sense.
That said, I managed to enjoy most of the book. As I mentioned above, it is beautifully written, and the characters of the four sisters are deep and complex. They flatten out a bit at the end, when they have all become grown women, but the boisterous energy of their youth lingers in the memory. Recommended with caveats.
Read if you enjoyed: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett