Monday, November 10, 2014

Little Woman, by Louisa May Alcott

I have been working on this post for a while, and I wonder if it will ever be complete.  This book was a long-anticipated read, and I finally enjoyed it.  It was an absolute breath of fresh air.  Alcott makes me long for simpler times.  (Well, maybe it wasn't simpler, but it felt that way.)

The plot covered all ranges of emotions: I laughed, cried, shouted in agreement, and joyfully underlined countless memorable and wise quotes.  All of the characters were believable and each portrayed most unique personalities that human beings can possess.  (I easily identified with Jo. Oh, yeah! That's me!)

I loved Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress theme woven throughout the story.  I also enjoyed the Pickwick Club newspaper and post office. (Mental note: What an excellent idea for a future home school year!)

Most of all, I was surprised by the presence of traditional roles of wives and mothers in such an exemplary light because I have not read much literature that esteems accustomed roles of women like Little Women does (or like The Little House series).  I had to ask a friend of mine if Alcott was mocking such traditions, and another told me she thought Alcott was being cynical.  I will need to do some research to understand better what her intentions were.

There is a chapter where Mrs. March instructs her newly married daughter Meg how to fix her marital situation because Meg had neglected both her husband and domestic duties.  My modernized worldview caused me to laugh and react: "Whoa! Feminist alert!
...that a woman's happiest kingdom is home, her highest honor the art of ruling is not as a queen, but a wise wife and mother.
But let us say Alcott was not mocking wives and mothers, then I believe that the author was effective in honoring the work of women in a gracious light, which is really pleasant because most literature I have read focuses on the helplessness of women, especially in these very roles.  And that is unfortunate because I do believe a woman's work as wife and mother is the most important matter in her life, in my radical opinion.  (This is coming from someone who hardly esteemed marriage or motherhood in her earlier years and still struggles in these roles today.  I don't even care for domestic work.  Blah!)

Anyway, after reading Little Women, I regretfully admit that I am dreadfully deficient as a wife and mother, especially in light of Mrs. March.  What a gracious, patient, self-composed woman!  What a teacher she is for her girls!  She is correct in her estimation of a woman's highest honor.  It is not lowly work.

Personally, these are the most challenging jobs I have ever had.  Sometimes I think a labor job or demanding career would have been better suited for me than to manage a home, raise up children, and be my husband's helpmate. My independent rebelliousness and introverted personality often get in the way, too.  If only I can be more like Mrs. March...or Caroline Ingalls (Laura Ingalls' mother). Women such as these put me to shame.  I could gain from their examples.

I think I need to reread Little Women in the future, and maybe do a lesson on being a wise wife and mother.  Of course, the Bible is always the best manual on how to do anything, so it is no wonder that Mrs. March is a perfect, genuine, and fulfilling example of a Christian wife and mother.  I just hope that Alcott intended to portray her that way.


Heidi’sbooks said...

I need to read Little Women. I can't believe that I haven't. There are a lot of classic books I have in that category. Anyway, it must seem like a breath of fresh air to have the life of a wife and mother esteemed in a book. Mommy-hood is such a difficult job!

Jean said...

Yes, I think Alcott was perfectly serious in her portrayal of the March family.

I also think it's difficult for us to really wrap our heads around the world they lived in. Alcott wrote Jo as a real rebel--Jo was shockingly awkward and ambitious and tomboyish. Nowadays, everyone identifies with Jo because the other girls come off as being so extreme, but only 60 years ago, only tomboys identified with Jo. The other 3 were ordinary girls, though in a special family.

As far as I can tell, Alcott was all for women being ambitious, but she really envisioned them doing Good Works and assumed that being keepers of home was also important work. She wasn't happy with the tight straitjacket of societal expectations for women (which were too worldly and materialistic as well as being too narrow), but she was still a Victorian. Read some of her other books for girls--An Old-Fashioned Girl, Eight Cousins, etc. and you'll get a better idea of what she aimed for.

Lois TinĂºviel said...

Such a good review of one of my favorite novels. :)
Thank you!

Jillian said...

I don't think Alcott was mocking the role of wife and mother. But I've always sensed a bit of tragedy in the story. Meg is happy in her role as a domestic woman because it's who she has always been. Jo makes herself be happy because she believes it's who she should be. I think both LMA and Jo believed in the beauty of motherhood, and the power it offered a woman to "teach the world" by teaching the seeds of the future. But I'm not sure LMA ever really reconciled that she was not a pariah in the world -- that her disinclination to have children, her longing for work, her creative mind and ambition were not inherently wrong. I think in Little Women she explores different types of girls, including Marmee, and finds herself wanting. She writes herself a happily-ever-after but I'm not sure she really believed it. She probably didn't realize so many would identify with her bewilderment & share the quiet frustration that seems to scratch at the joyful pages of Little Women.

Alcott's own mother was pretty much the Marmee you see in Little Women, except that the real Marmee was far more blunt, worked as a suffragette, laid down the law with her husband one cold morning in Massachusetts, and could debate women's rights with the best of them. She never had the opportunity to attend college, but she was extremely well read and strongly identified with her wayward little daughter Louisa.

Louisa's own father thought she was evil because she had dark hair. True story. He forever compared her to her sister Anna and found her wanting. Anna was everything a girl should be, while Louisa was headstrong, bold, and outspoken. Therefore in need of correction.

I think Little Women is a little cynical, but not in its depiction of the wife and mother as a traditional role. It's cynical back on Louisa May Alcott, if that makes sense. I think she was cynical about herself, cynical about poverty, cynical about her own struggle as a female writer, cynical about the little girls who wrote her in droves wanting her to marry Teddy to Jo -- but not cynical about women, at all. I think her point is that there are girls of varied inclinations out there, and while the role of wife and mother is beautiful, it isn't the only role for a woman.

I'm not convinced she entirely understood this herself. I think, rather, that she sensed it, and feared the sensing of it was a sign of her dark hair and general unfitness for society.

I think it's beautiful that she poured out her heart and so many women identified with her. Somehow she made a beautiful Victorian world out of her own bewilderment, and tried with her pen to teach what she couldn't teach her own heart. I think she was as kind and generous as she feared she wasn't, and believed half of what she was writing while doubting it intensely. Marmee was apparently a lot like Louisa, though she didn't (as I understand it) have any doubt that she was decidely intelligent and entirely fit for the world. Those doldrums were Louisa's alone.

Anyway, I think she's being honest in her beautiful depiction of females domestic as well as ambitious, and that she loves the domestic sincerely. It's where her mother and sisters were. She just had a lot of unanswered questions. Probably not unlike many in that era. :)

You should read March by Geraldine Brooks. EXCELLENT.

Ruth said...

It was something delightful to read. I was really glad I did. Hope you enjoy it, too.

Ruth said...

So insightful, Jean! It makes sense that women would identify with Jo easier than the other sisters. But I guess I figured I was always different b/c I was such a tomboy growing up.

I will need to read these others definitely.

Ruth said...

You're welcome, Lois. Thanks!

Ruth said...

Thank you for sharing your wisdom. I am actually relieved and grateful to get this kind of feedback b/c I want to believe that she was totally serious in lifting up women in these roles that so often are devalued.

I would have never imagined that her cynicism would be directed at her own self, but I guess it makes a lot of sense now, as do all of the other topics she explores, such as poverty. How awful that she had to live with the superstitions of dark hair.

I will add March to my TBR list, too. Thanks!!!!

Fanda Classiclit said...

I would read this for Lit. Movement Challenge next year (Transcendentalism). Reading your review, I think it would be interesting to read.

Hamlette (Rachel) said...

It never occurred to me that Alcott might not be straightforwardly presenting these roles as good and honorable. Perhaps because I read so many of her other books when I was young, and they all seemed to be very forthright? Certainly there's an undercurrent of frustration, especially in Jo's story, but I never felt it to be a mocking one.

Ruth said...

Hi, Hamlette,
I think I agree that she was not mocking. It was my first concern. But I do think there is a bit of cynicism in her story. I have to read her other books to truly understand where she is coming from.

P.S. Are you doing a LW read-along next year?

o said...

I love this book, and this is a great post :) I think your idea for a Pickwick Papers for your home school project is fantastic!

Joseph said...

Hello Ruth, I just read Little Women for the first time. Wow! I didn't feel that Alcott, via Marmee or any other character, was mocking traditional roles of wife and mother. Her attitude was a breath of fresh air in that regard. I think Alcott, and her real life mother, were early feminists, but that only meant they wanted to unlock roles and responsibilities that were denied women, without demeaning traditional roles (gross over-simplification for sake of space). Anyway, it's a delightful book, by an extraordinary woman. Nice review.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Joseph. I know you are correct. Reminds me that I need to and want to read this again. Very soon.

Jillian said...

If you haven't seen it yet, Ruth, the new Little Women movie is WONDERFUL! <3 <3