"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
...he did not own it till long afterward; men seldom do,—for when women are the advisers, the lords of creation don’t take the advice till they have persuaded themselves that it is just what they intended to do. Then they act upon it, and, if it succeeds, they give the weaker vessel half the credit of it. If it fails, they generously give her the whole.
Don't laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God's sight.
"I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship."
"Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!"
Kind hearts and a mother's wisdom
All fiction—all art or entertainment really—is either disturbing or comforting. Most both disturbs and comforts in varying measures. It's why we read: to experience ups and down of life besides our own. Some works create tensions and dangers to stir us up and then resolve them happily to relieve us. Others keep digging to awaken deeper disturbances that are not so easily settled.
And then there are books like Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, a novel that, on its surface at least, offers nothing but comfort.
This seems especially so in the first part. Chapter after chapter follows the minor travails of the poor but happy March family. Father March is off to serve as a pastor in America's Civil War, and every now and then the mother, called Marmee, and the four daughters express anxious thoughts about him. But the interest of the story at this point is the minor domestic and social escapades the daughters become embroiled in. Especially in the early going, each episode is resolved quickly by chapter's end, usually thanks to wise words from the calmly good-natured Marmee. The book shapes up as a compendium of advice to girls on accepting what they must, helping others, remaining virtuous, controlling temper (this for daughter Jo, the most dynamic character), and so on.
Nothing really objectionable, except perhaps the over-emphasis on preparing for wifehood. This is a little surprising since Alcott herself was a suffragette who never married. But the advice to girls is not about learning to make oneself subservient to a man through marriage. As in any Jane Austen novel, the challenges facing young women eventually dwindle to the central issue of finding a spouse, but there is little of the desperation of, say, the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice. And finding a compatible mate with whom one can share life on an equal basis is more important than landing a rich husband.
Each of the girls—Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy—exhibits her own mildly peculiar character that gets her into scrapes. One is too compliant, one is too stubbornly independent, one is too retiring, one is too materialistic. Taken individually the sisters are somewhat one-dimensional but taken together they can be seen as personifying the different characteristics of one girl.
I can imagine female readers in the day discussing which sister they identified with. "I'm a Jo. You're a real Beth. Oh, don't be a Meg." Just as fans of Sex and the City would much later compare notes on whether they were a Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte or Miranda—when in fact, most are a bit of them all.
The longer story of the novel is how each of the girls learns from her mistakes and develops into a moral young lady. Inevitably, dissension divides the siblings but these kerfuffles are quickly sorted out in the loving family. Everything always works out so easily, when one has a good heart.
The other people who come into their lives, particularly the would-be husbands, are also wonderfully kind and understanding. Not a scoundrel among them.
Real life does intrude at times. Scarlet fever strikes. A friend is wounded in the war. But these are minor setbacks, swiftly overcome.
As the story goes on, however, and especially into the second part entitled "Good Wives" (sometimes considered a separate novel, sequel to the first), the episodic structure of problem and solution per chapter gives way to longer story arcs. A marriage and new family started, a long illness proves fatal, a literary life is begun, a love triangle is resolved.... This is the most engaging part of Little Women for a modern reader who would tire of the continued moral-of-the-month approach. Of greatest interest is probably the working out of the marital prospects of the two remaining unmarried daughters.
Still, however, everything just works out so neatly. Even a sister's premature death is sugar-coated. It is presented almost as a fulfilling event, as the afflicted girl dies peacefully in the knowledge she is loved by her family and is somehow sacrificing herself to pull them together in a greater domestic bliss. Her demise is spoken of as her leaving this life early to prepare the way for them in the next life.
Honestly, how can a more sophisticated reader stomach this today?
Or to put it more kindly: what has made this novel of all comfort and little disturbance so popular over the past century and a half? Perhaps people bring their own insecurities and intractable problems to the novel and are pleased to learn life's dangers can be overcome, difficulties smoothed out, fulfilment found, if only one can emulate the March girls—maintain an honest heart and strive to better oneself.
The spectre of spinsterhood
This may have been therapeutic for the author too. The passage that seems to scrape closest to the bone confronts the possibility that marriage may not be in every girl's future, as Jo—a stand-in for Alcott—considers her prospects of becoming a "literary spinster":
At twenty-five, girls begin to talk about being old maids, but secretly resolve that they never will be. At thirty they say nothing about it, but quietly accept the fact, and if sensible, console themselves by remembering that they have twenty more useful, happy years, in which they may be learning to grow old gracefully. Don't laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God's sight. Even the sad, sour sisters should be kindly dealt with, because they have missed the sweetest part of life, if for no other reason; and looking at them with compassion, not contempt, girls in their bloom should remember that they too may miss the blossom time. That rosy cheeks don't last forever, that silver threads will come in the bonnie brown hair, and that, by-and-by, kindness and respect will be as sweet as love and admiration now.
So even missing out on marriage and the "sweetest part of life" can in the long run can have its own rewards. Though it is worth noting that despite Alcott's statements that liberty can be preferable to marriage for some women, she took care to please her readership by ensuring her principal character achieved a marital relationship, albeit a unconventional one for its time.
The one hundred and fiftieth anniversay of Little Women has recently been celebrated with new editions and movie adaptations. Howeever, I find it hard to believe its popularity will survive much further into the twenty-first century. I don't know any adolescents or young adults of the past couple of generations who admit to having read the novel or its sequels. The fond reviews found online seem to be mainly from older people who recall it from their distant youth.
And that's okay. Little Women has perhaps outlived its usefulness. It's still interesting to read from an historical perspective to see how people in a certain period saw their lives—or how they wanted to see their lives, just as we can get a peak into past psyches from reading Austen or Charles Dickens. (Alcott makes several references to the work of her near-contemporary in Little Women). But it does not stir us up the way those other enduring classics do. Comfort food has a limited shelf life.