Great Book: Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women is on the list care of Bloom's Western Canon and Jane Smiley's 100 Novels.

It was one of my childhood favorites. I haven't read it in a decade, but I must have read it a thousand times between the ages of 6 and 16.

I've seen the movie adaptations over and over again - the Hepburn version, the Elizabeth Taylor version, the Winona Ryder version (the Hepburn one is the best).

I have three sisters. There aren't a lot of big families like that now. Especially after we moved to Europe. All the people we knew had one kid - maybe two. We gravitated towards large fictional families. Little Women was one of the books we took for our own, with Little House on the Prairie and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. I read and re-read the Boxcar Children and the Bobbsey Twins. I'm just glad The Waltons wasn't available in Italy, or I'd probably have glommed onto that too.

I still have this fascination with finding my childhood reflected in print remains. I swallowed up Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. Even Big Love has an old feeling of familiarity about it. There's something about living with that many women....

I felt a special connection for another reason as well. When I was three, my little sister was born, and I became fascinated with the naming process. My mom told me that I was named after Beth in Little Women because that was her favorite character. This immediately motived me to learn to read, and a short three years later I was plowing through this book to figure out just who I had been named after. Then I found out that Beth dies.


I bear a grudge to this day.

I came out of the first half of Little Women feeling a little superior. My god, these March girls are so.... bourgeoise. None of them have passion, or genius, or ambition. They're just regular, ordinary people. Their little troubles are very, very little. I don't need explosions or sex scenes, but couldn't there at least be a great moral crisis? Meg goes to a party and borrows someone's clothes. That's the big scandal.

And oh, the guilt! Amy commits an unforgiveable sin against Jo. Really. Unforgiveable! You tell me how quickly you'd forgive someone who burnt the only copy of a manuscript of short stories you'd worked on for months. 'Never' is my answer. But at the end of the chapter it's Jo who regrets that she didn't forgive Amy. Amy gets to make injured remarks about people who don't forgive others, and doesn't apparently, get punished AT ALL. How does that make sense?

Nonetheless, a few chapters later, I was crying like a baby. My namesake, Beth, gets sicker and sicker, and finally dies. And I wallowed in it.

In the end, I couldn't disentangle my adult judgement from my childhood love. The Marches are still my dream family. The sisters quarrel with each other, but they are genuinely friends. Their parents never have fights, and every family gathering is surrounded by a golden glow. I want to crawl right into the book and have dinner with them. Though the conversation might be a little dull unless Professor Bhaer was present.

Who cares if they're just regular people?

So am I, after all.


Maxine said...

My experience is uncannily similar. I was one of four sisters, like the March girls. As a child I suppose I was like Meg (I am the oldest) though I strongly identified with Jo and was totally a tomboy like her (still am, I am 50 now and have never worn make up, or conceded anything to style and fashion).
My next sister Avis was like Beth in many ways and tragically died young in a not dissimilar way to Beth. I have never recovered from that, it happened 16 years ago now and I am still frozen from it. My younger sister is quite a bit younger than the rest of us and I suppose does have elements of Amy but not her vanity.
I feel very dominated in my internal life by all of this, thougn my childhood was all so long ago now and I don't see my sisters very much. I am close to my youngest sister even so, but not very much with the third sister. I don't think she is like any of the March girls.

mapletree7 said...

You've put some of my thoughts into words exactly. I know exactly what you mean by the effect on your internal life.

Sister #1 (I am the oldest, she's second) said to me once "Isn't it funny that in Little Women and Little House on the Prairie it's the second sister who ends up as a writer?" Needless to say I didn't think it was funny at all - I was really threatened. The sense of near-panic I felt is still pretty vivid.

And I'm so sorry to hear about your sister. I don't know how I could deal with losing one of mine. Above and beyond the love I feel for them, there's still so much unfinished business between us. It would feel like limping.

Annie said...

I was one of five sisters ( I am the oldest) and two brothers. I planned to have one child - but had two. Still my sisters are my best friends and though I am now in my fifties, we still act like playful children when we get together (much to the chagrin of our own children). Cherish them.

Maxine said...

Yes, Beth, you are right, it is like having lost a limb. Thanks for the sympathy. I don't usually tell anyone about it but your post really resonated for me.
Annie, I am so pleased for you and Beth that you are close to your sisters. I have two daughters and although they are quite far apart in age (4.5 years) (not intentionally), I am sure they will grow up to be lifelong friends. They also have an older half sister and I think they will also always be close.