November
30th 2012
Thoughts on Little Women

Posted under: American history, art, childhood, Gender, women's history

Little Women, 1933

Barbara Sicherman offers some interesting thoughts about Little Women on the occasion of Louisa May Alcott’s 180th birthday (yesterday) and its influence on generations of women around the world (h/t to reader LKK for this.)  She says that the book’s durability is due to its surprisingly modern sensibilities, perhaps most memorably in the person of Jo March, Alcott’s alter-ego:

Perhaps the most important reason for the novel’s survival is a heroine with unusual appeal. Some readers have identified with the other March sisters, but it is Jo March, the rambunctious tomboy and bookworm who is unladylike and careless of her appearance, who carries the story. The vast majority of readers, past and present, have identified with her. Jo’s presumed flaws are precisely the characteristics that speak to preadolescent and adolescent readers, themselves struggling with issues of growing up.

Alcott, who modeled Jo in her own image, created a character that continues to appeal. As J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books and herself a “Jo,” observed: “It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a bad temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.”

For readers on the threshold of adulthood, the book’s embrace of female ambition has been a significant counterweight to more habitual gender prescriptions. For years there were few alternative models, although in my generation, the Nancy Drew books helped. Even today, some girls still respond to the portrait of Jo, the enthralled and enthralling writer.

It’s a good time of the year to consider Little Women, as the novel opens with Marmee and the March girls cooking Christmas breakfast.  I think I read LW when I was eleven, in the sixth grade.  I remember being so moved by the idea of Jo reading a pile of books while eating “russetts” in her “garrett” as to climb a tree with an apple in my teeth and the novel under my arm in order to re-enact Jo’s escape as best I could.  I lasted maybe 15 minutes, perched awkwardly on a single branch!

So identified with Jo, but (true confession here) I also identified strongly with Amy, the youngest sister, who was pretty and creative but also vain and willful (and usually the sister who was most in need of learning a lesson.)  I always thought Meg was a prig and a bore, and Beth was clearly a doomed, drippy invalid.  But I’ve always thought that Amy gets unfairly overlooked–she’s not as generous or as good as the other sisters, but that’s what makes her interestingly human.  (Those March girls were mostly a bunch of goody-two-shoes, weren’t they?  And I wonder:  why can’t the pretty girl also be the brainy, bookish, ambitious girl?  The notion that beauty is stupid is an unfortunate stereotype that I’m afraid persists.)  Clearly, because Laurie is positioned between Jo and Amy as a suitor to both, Alcott saw these two sisters as the most interesting.  (And we can’t think that anyone who first wanted to marry Jo has anything but discerning judgment, can we?)

Little Women, 1994

Alcott’s powerful idea of the ensemble of four (or sometimes three) young (or youngish) women characters has become a trope in popular literature:  Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace Ingalls.  Nancy Drew, George, and Bess.  Savannah, Bernadine, Robin, and Gloria.  Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte.  (I’m sure you readers can think of others.)

Here’s a question for the historians:  has any mother besides Mrs. March in the history of the world been called Marmee?  Ugh.  Honestly, I found that name strange in 1979, even stranger than Amy’s pickled limes, and I wonder if it doesn’t alienate other readers.

What are your thoughts about Little Women, and Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy?  (Does anyone but girls or maybe scholars of the New England Renaissance read this book?)

44 Comments »

44 Responses to “Thoughts on Little Women

  1. human on 30 Nov 2012 at 3:22 pm #

    I was young at the time, but I remember identifying with Jo and being really bummed when she turned Laurie down. I didn’t care for her old guy, and didn’t like the book much because of that.

    I also found it annoying that Beth’s only role in the story was to be better than everyone else and then die.

    But I did rather like Jo. Still, growing up in the 80s one didn’t lack for books with cool girl characters, so my not caring for this one wasn’t much great loss.

  2. Tom Bach on 30 Nov 2012 at 3:58 pm #

    My maternal grandma was a Marmee; she was born just right around the 1910s. I have no idea if LW was the inspiration.

  3. JB on 30 Nov 2012 at 4:14 pm #

    I am male and read it in the fifth grade because it was listed among the most difficult book on our reading list. I loved it, and the teacher, if I recall, was confused that I picked up the book, but humored me. In contrast, six years later, when I chose to read Pride and Prejudice (also a set of four daughters with quite a different mother from Marmee) for British Literature, another teacher actively tried to stop me from reading it because, as she said, it was really a book for girls, but I read it anyway. I think I turned out ok, even if not exactly normative in various ways.

  4. JB on 30 Nov 2012 at 4:19 pm #

    Correction to above, Pride and Prejudice has five daughters. How could I misremember!

  5. widgeon on 30 Nov 2012 at 4:34 pm #

    Someone else identifies with Amy? That has been my secret shame for so many years! I was the youngest of three (plus some steps) and largely dismissed in the way Amy was. I was considered “cute” vs. “smart” in my family. One detail I love about Marmee is her confession to Jo that she also was strong-willed and impatient, but had to temper those emotions when she became a mother. It reminded me as a child that my own mother had a life and a personality outside of her motherhood. Jo’s older German husband comes off much more sympathetic in the subsequent books (yes, I read them all). Clearly I am a fan.

  6. Susan on 30 Nov 2012 at 4:41 pm #

    I didn’t read LW until I was in my 40s: as a somewhat rebellious child, I resisted it because it was for “girls”. I enjoyed it then, but obviously it didn’t have the emotional resonance it would have had at age 10. Instead, I read Pride and Prejudice at age 11, and stayed sane through high school because of it.

  7. Tanya on 30 Nov 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    I adore this book and the movies. And yes, i adored the musical, too. This last week in AP, we spent a class talking about the Civil War home front, so I made sure to bring in Alcott and Little Women. The girls, at least, know it, and they’ve all studied Thoreau and Emerson, so mentioning Concord brings in another familiar connection.

    All this reminds me that i think it’s time to go rewatch my copy of the 1994 version!

    Oh, and I’m definitely a Jo, but always had a mesh of Meg in me. The older i get, the more i appreciate and like Amy too, though. Especially as she evolves over the course of the story.

  8. Contingent Cassandra on 30 Nov 2012 at 4:45 pm #

    Marmee sounds to me like something you spread on bread (akin to marmalade or marmite). I’ve never heard it elsewhere.

    I used the opening scene of Little Women in a Sunday-before-Christmas program I put together for my church’s adult education program some time ago, with the general idea of tracing the history of American celebrations of/attitudes toward Christmas. We began with a sermon by Cotton (I think) Mather (at least one of the Mathers) condemning the holiday as unBiblical and pagan, then did “a Visit from Saint Nicholas,” somebody (Douglass? Jacobs?) on slaves’ Christmas celebrations, Alcott, and I can’t remember what else, with each piece read by a different church member (we have some good actors, amateur and professional, in the congregation), and me providing a bit of narration (drawing heavily on Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas. I don’t know whether the men in the audience had read Little Women, but they were certainly familiar with it (though I don’t think anyone, including the woman who read it, had remembered it starts on Christmas, and is set during the Civil War). And it worked well to represent the changes in attitudes toward Christmas from the Puritans to the mid-19th century.

  9. delagar on 30 Nov 2012 at 4:45 pm #

    I started with Little Men and went back to read Little women much later, along with most of Alcott’s books. It made me very sad, as I recall, that Alcott disapproved of Nat (the orphan boy of Little Men) because he had a “weak chin,” although Dan (the archetypal bad boy) came off well.

    Nan was the tough girl in that series — the “Jo” character; and my favorite.

  10. LadyProf on 30 Nov 2012 at 5:07 pm #

    One aspect of the 1994 movie that I appreciated was the way the vaguely delineated, misty father shuffled around a little in the second reel, having returned from his Civil War duties with nothing to say. “We haven’t got Father, and shall not have him for a long time.” Yup, and it doesn’t friggin’ matter, for once in Hollywood, that a male character is absent and then silent.

  11. Western Dave on 30 Nov 2012 at 5:16 pm #

    Mmmmmm, pickled lime.

  12. Comradde PhysioProffe on 30 Nov 2012 at 5:32 pm #

    So identified with Jo, but (true confession here) I also identified strongly with Amy, the youngest sister, who was pretty and creative but also vain and willful (and usually the sister who was most in need of learning a lesson.)

    Well, you are a vain and willful blogger.

  13. ej on 30 Nov 2012 at 5:56 pm #

    I loathed Amy. For the limes and for stealing Laurie, who should have spent the rest of his life pining for Jo. And getting to go to Europe, which should have also been Jo’s.

    And I never understood the appeal of the older man until he was played by Gabriel Byrne. I guess in my imagination he was much older and far less appealing than in the film.

  14. sophylou on 30 Nov 2012 at 6:38 pm #

    I was probably the only girl in history who didn’t identify with Jo all that much. I liked her wanting to be a writer and identified with that, but I wasn’t a tomboy. I do remember being afraid that I was Beth because I was VERY quiet and “good”… and so was afraid I’d die young!

    Also, I never had a problem with her marrying Bhaer — I always thought Laurie seemed too immature — and was delighted when Gabriel Byrne played Bhaer. I did, however, have a SERIOUS problem with Bhaer in Little Men when he made *Nat* beat *him* after Nat had been bad…. ick ick ick. I’ve taught that as a demonstration of Richard Brodhead’s disciplinary intimacy (and wasn’t that typical of Bronson Alcott’s actual teaching?) but have always had an eeeeeeww reaction to that.

  15. Indyanna on 30 Nov 2012 at 7:58 pm #

    I have to say that I missed this one. I went to a pretty liberal and even progressive co-ed private school, but perhaps a lot of the (English?) teachers there did some of the informal gender-steering that JB alludes to above. I also have to say that unless I missed *that* one too, Alcott’s 180th didn’t get any play on the top of the home page at Google yesterday, although they will undoubtedly have their interactive caricature staff up all night the day before the 128th birthday of the guy who invented the ball socket wrench. The fellows out in Walnut Hill, or wherever they’re headquartered, do seem to have a big penchant for what the legendary philosopher Donald T. Regan once referred to as “throw weights.” Somebody ought to form a collective and hack that page once in a while to “re-dress” it a little bit, or at least compile a counter-list of world-historical birthdays.

  16. midprof on 30 Nov 2012 at 8:35 pm #

    I have a copy of LW that my erstwhile piano teacher gave to me and my sister. I recently went cover to cover reading it to my 9 year old at night, and we both really enjoyed it. I was surprised how durable some of the touches of humor are — Meg’s disobedient young son and her struggles with her husband over how to parent him, for example — but never liked the plot turn of Amy marrying Laurie, nor Marmee’s explanation to Jo of why they (Jo and Laurie) weren’t suited to one another. It still feels to me like Jo’s punishment for her ambition that she can’t have Laurie, though he seems entirely ready for her. Like Widgeon, I loved Marmee’s confession to Jo. To your books with trios/quartets I’d add the Betsy/Tacy/Tib stories of Maud Hart Lovelace.

  17. New Kid on the Hallway on 30 Nov 2012 at 10:59 pm #

    See, I grew up in Concord, MA, so I was steeped in LW from a very early age – visited the Alcott houses any number of times (through school), did a play of LW (in the Alcott house, maybe?), all kinds of things. I’ll confess that this is part of what made me sick to death of American history by the time I hit high school and drove me to medieval Europe in college, but I do have a fondness for LW. However (and this may say a lot about me, not necessarily flattering), I identified with Meg more than the other girls – because she was the oldest (which I was) and the responsible one (which I didn’t necessarily feel I was, but that I should be, because I was the oldest). I mean, I realized I was supposed to identify with Jo, but I’ve never been a tomboy, and I had a younger sister who was much more of a tomboy than I was, so. (I was just envious of Amy because she was the pretty one!)

    I agree with widgeon that Bhaer comes across better in the later books (I read most, though maybe not all of, what Alcott wrote; the local library had her entire oeuvre prominently displayed). I don’t remember the beating thing, though, which sounds genuinely icky.

    Also, I totally think the father’s absence from LW (and the 1994 movie) reflects Bronson Alcott’s complete fecklessness and uselessness at supporting his family, and hence effective absence from the usual role of patriarch at the time. (It’s perhaps a little unfair to me to judge Bronson on his unwillingness/inability to play the provider role, recognizing that such a patriarchal expectation constrains men as much as it constrains women. That said, I still think if I’d been married to Bronson at that time I’d have frequently wanted to strangle him.)

  18. Z on 01 Dec 2012 at 3:48 am #

    I didn’t like the book, everyone was all too virtuous, and Jo was more someone I would like to know than someone I would want to be. I identified with Beth — smallest and most ill, so obviously the best girl! Meg, priggish, yes, and I did not mind Amy but did not relate.

    That all shows something about my upbringing, perhaps. I should read this book now, and see what I think.

  19. Sweet Sue on 01 Dec 2012 at 5:08 am #

    Meg was always my favorite because she was the oldest of four sisters, as was I.
    Also, she had great acting talent and theatre was my love. Meg’s rebellious, younger daughter, Josie, inherits her mother’s ability (“Jo’s Boys”) and grows up to be a famous actress.
    Meg March and Jane Bennett filled similar roles as paragons/role models for their siblings.

  20. Dame Eleanor Hull on 01 Dec 2012 at 5:51 am #

    “Marmee” is “Mommy,” spelled/pronounced in Boston English, where the R is (in this position) silent. It’s a sign of the close ties and lack of affectation in this family that she is neither Mother nor Mamma (accent on second syllable, a la Francaise).

  21. Katherine on 01 Dec 2012 at 6:20 am #

    A rather nice homage to LW is in episode of Friends, when Phoebe gets Joey to read it, and he knows Beth is going to die, so keeps putting the book the freezer to forestall the inevitable.

  22. Amanda on 01 Dec 2012 at 8:38 am #

    I have to disagree with the above comment. “Marmee” has nothing to do with a general Boston accent. It’s one of the many small details in the story that come straight out of Alcott’s life experiences. Anna Alcott, the oldest girl, had difficulty saying “Mama” as a child, and said “Marmar” instead. By the time Louisa was born, it had transformed into Marmee.

    I’ve always thought the 1994 book did an excellent job of translating the book through Alcott’s own life, explicitly mentioning Transcendentalism and really showing that Laurie was an inappropriate match for Jo; she needed someone older and steadier. It also does a good job of Marmee and Jo’s relationship and its similarities to the relationship between Abba and Louisa, who had very similar personalities as well (hot tempers, outspoken, strong wills).

  23. History Maven on 01 Dec 2012 at 9:00 am #

    I’m not sure I identified with any of the girls–or perhaps I identified with one or the other of them in different readings, because I took up the book and read parts from time to time.

    I thought then that the moment the grown-up Amy, in her old gown dressed up with “illusion” meets Laurie at the ball in Europe mirrored the moment earlier in the book when Jo, standing besides the wall to hide a mended burned spot in her best gown, meets Laurie. I won’t bore with interpretations, but I will say that Amy’s emerging self-awareness about her poverty and her resolve to not play victim to it seemed to mirror what Laurie–and readers–saw in Jo. The two scenes are worth reading against each other.

  24. squadratomagico on 01 Dec 2012 at 10:04 am #

    I read it at some point in my youth, but I didn’t identify with any of the characters at all. I think I regarded it as a vaguely-interesting artefact from the past, not as something that had relevance to my life or struggles. In fact, I found the March sisters rather tiresome: like Susan, I resisted the book in part because it was *such* a girls’ book; but I also was thoroughly uninspired by the predominant theme of the Struggle for Goodness and Virtue in the book. Even though Jo wasn’t prim and priggish, it seemed as if she wished she was.

    If there was a classic novel heroine with whom I identified in my youth it was Jane Eyre all the way. Like Jo, another smart, plain, poor heroine, but about a million times more interesting, with strong opinions and a commitment to equality and justice over vague “goodness.” Perhaps I identified more fully with her, as well, because she was quite introverted, and always an outsider: these are qualities I possess far more than those of tomboy-struggling-for-virtue Jo.

  25. undine on 01 Dec 2012 at 10:28 am #

    Amy’s not stupid even if she’s pretty, but she uses her smarts to get what she wants rather than for the betterment of the family as a whole. That is Not Right according tot the book’s system of values. She does learn to work for the family, but only after gentle “correction” (having them pile on her repeatedly about her vanity and shallowness) from the rest of the March family. And “shadowy father” is better than showing a closer view of Bronson Alcott, whose idealism brought them near to starvation at times.

    Has anyone ever eaten or seen a pickled lime? I was always curious, too.

  26. caseyOR on 01 Dec 2012 at 10:31 am #

    I was a big fan of LMA. I loved Little Women. And as I was a tomboy who aspired to be a writer and my long hair was always in a bit of a tangle, I identified with Jo.

    I was around 9 when I started reading Alcott’s books. I loved every book I read. If I went back to reread them now I might find things with which to quibble, but as a 9 and 10 year old I was quite taken with these books.

    When I got a bit older, starting my teens, my interest in LMA had more to do with her success as a woman writer.

  27. squadratomagico on 01 Dec 2012 at 10:39 am #

    For those who are curious about pickled lime: I wonder if it is anything like Indian lime pickle? I’ve had that quite a lot, and it’s tasty, if extremely sour. I imagine the American version might also lack some of the flavor profile of the Indian spices that are used, though lime pickle usually is not terribly hot (at least, by my standards, but I enjoy spicy foods!)

  28. Bix on 01 Dec 2012 at 12:55 pm #

    It’s interesting that there is a very strong commonality between Little Women, Little House on the Prairie, and Pride and Prejudice. All three are narrated by the second sister in a family of daughters, all three have a rebellious streak, and all three have close friendships with their traditionally virtuous older sisters. I haven’t read Little House on the Prairie in awhile, though. Maybe I should.

  29. Dr. Virago on 01 Dec 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    There’s a hilarious episode of Friends where Rachel gets Joey to read LW instead of his usual re-reading favorite, The Stand (or maybe it was another S. King novel). At any rate, Joey has a habit of hiding the scary book in the freezer when it gets too scary from him, so when he starts reading LW and realizes Beth is going to die, he hides LW in the freezer, too. It’s a strangely sweet and ridiculously funny moment about the power of books to move us.

    I did not read LW until I was in graduate school. I’m not sure why I didn’t read it in my youth. Maybe because I was too busy with Madeline L’Engle’s more science-oriented heroines (who owe so much to Jo, I realized later)? Had I read it, I’m *sure* I would have identified with Jo. After all, I climbed trees with books (and stayed there for hours! — it’s all about finding the right branch combo) all on my own! :)

  30. Historiann on 01 Dec 2012 at 3:51 pm #

    Wow. I am unsurprised to see a number of Jo March fans here! Thanks for all of your comments–I was away from my computer all yesterday afternoon until this afternoon.

    I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only (yes, vain and willful) reader who liked Amy. I think Undine gets why she’s appealing, at least to me: “Amy’s not stupid even if she’s pretty, but she uses her smarts to get what she wants rather than for the betterment of the family as a whole.” YES! She’s the only sister who seems modern and real in that respect. Jo cuts her hair short, not to be rebellious, but because she DONATES her lovely hair for the benefit of the bald.

    I too really like the 1994 movie. It’s a good family movie, which some of you may be on the lookout for in the next few weeks depending on your holiday plans. It’s entertaining and wholesome for everyone, ages 3 or 4 on up, IIRC. (“Wholesome!” I sound like that insufferable prig Meg!)

    Thanks to JB and Susan for noting that Jane Austen had pioneered the large family or group of young women as a basis for a novel. How could I ever have forgotten? (I love P&P, of course, but I have a strange affiliation for Persuasion, too, which features a solitary heroine in Anne Elliott. (I think that’s her name.) For a regency novel, it’s positively sexy! (Just go re-read Wentworth’s letter to Anne.)

    On the Marmee controversy: having lived in Massachusetts and having relatives there & in Maine, I had considered the possibility that Marmee might sound more like “Mommy” if spoken with a mid- to late-20th C wicked New England accent. But I guess I was more interested in why an R ended up in the written name than in how it might have sounded out loud. I don’t know if linguists know what people living in Concord, Mass. ca. 1860 might have sounded like, but I wouldn’t assume that they had what we might identify as a dropped-R New England accent. (Thanks to Tom Bach for reporting on his grandmother’s use of the term! Very interesting–I wonder if it was a regionalism or even a localism.)

    New Kid: I sympathize with your boredom with all things Concord! But I must admit that I kind of love reading about that whole gang and their lives in Concord: Hawthorne, the Peabody sisters, the Alcotts, Margaret Fuller, Emerson, Thoreau, etc. John Matteson’s recent book Eden’s Outcasts: Louisa May Alcott and her father (2007) did a terrific job bringing the community to life, including their misbegotten experiment at Brook Farm, and detailed the very many failings of Bronson Alcott. Indeed, the man was a pathetically irresponsible fool, but would LMA have burned with ambition the way she did without the need to provide for her mother and her sisters?

    Bronson Alcott even outdoes Charles Ingalls in his epic loserdom, except he sounds infinitely less charismatic. At least Pa had his luxuriant beard and hair, and his fiddle.

  31. Flavia on 01 Dec 2012 at 5:04 pm #

    I read the book at a relatively young age, only once, and liked it fine, but I felt much as Squadrato did. It didn’t have nearly the impact on me that Anne of Green Gables (or the Laura Ingalls Wilder books) did.

    Anne, now: THAT was a girl I identified with! fiery, bossy, bookish, and a bit vain.

  32. Feminist Avatar on 01 Dec 2012 at 5:42 pm #

    I adored Anne of Green Gables! But, I also enjoyed all the Little Women series, which I read when I was around nine or ten. I indentified with Joe for her writing and awkwardness (and when she cut her hair off- got to be my favourite bit!), but I also liked Meg, especially in the later books when she becomes a mother, because I liked her sort of practical, get on with it sort of nature. And, I HATED Amy, because she was too selfish- I clearly bought into the books’ moral! I was disappointed when Laurie married Amy but immediately liked Bhaer, so I got over it quickly enough.

    I’ve just been reading Dallett Hemphill’s Siblings and she argues that the Jo-Amy dynamic is interesting, because Jo turns her jealousy of Amy into a ‘fierce love and protection’, telling us something interesting about how sisters dealt with such complexities in their emotional relationships during the period.

    I’ve tried Indian lime pickle with Indian food, but have no idea if this is what’s referred to here!

  33. History Maven on 01 Dec 2012 at 6:49 pm #

    The British learned of Indian pickled limes and ran with the idea. A recipe for pickled limes appears in Mrs. Beeton’s cookery book (published in parts before being published entirely in 1861). The great blog, Food in Jars, “pondered” pickled limes in 2009 (http://www.foodinjars.com/2009/05/pondering-pickled-limes/) and tried it in 2012 (http://www.foodinjars.com/2012/03/salt-preserved-key-limes/).

    Here’s Linda Ziedrich, the author of “The Joy of Pickling”, on the history of pickled limes:

    In the West Indies, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, ripe limes were packed whole in sea water or fresh-made brine and shipped to northeastern U.S. ports in barrels. In 1838, according to the Royal Horticultural Society of Great Britain, there was “a fair demand in the New York market for pickled limes,” but by the late nineteenth century pickled limes were invariably sent to Boston. There they were sold from glass jars on top of candy-store counters, and some families even bought them by the barrel. Because the import tariff for pickled limes was quite low – importers fought to keep them classed as neither fresh fruit nor pickle – children could buy them cheaply, often for a penny apiece. Kids chewed, sucked, and traded pickled limes at school (and not just a recess) for decades, making the limes the perennial bane of New England schoolteachers. Doctors tended to disapprove of the limes, too; in 1869 a Boston physician wrote that pickled limes were among the “unnatural and abominable” substances consumed by children with nutritional deficiencies. Parents, however, seemed generally content for children to indulge themselves in the pickled-lime habit. (p.77)

  34. The Alchemist on 01 Dec 2012 at 8:39 pm #

    I read LW and LM in elementary school and have continued to re-read them for the last three decades.

  35. Susan on 01 Dec 2012 at 10:43 pm #

    As an adult, I think Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen novel; it has the requisite happy ending, but there’s a sense of the lost chances and complex choices we have in life. And I like that Anne Elliott is older, made mistakes, and really gets a second chance. It’s a grown-up novel, as P&P is a young woman’s novel.

  36. Melete on 02 Dec 2012 at 6:55 am #

    As a weird little kid, I couldn’t bring myself to read books for girls, except the Bobbsey Twins, which wasn’t billed as specifically girl-oriented. My preference was for science fiction. I read every sci-fi novel in the community library and then started reading as much nonfiction science as I could get my sweaty hands on.

    In my weird little kid mind, something titled Little Women represented the mindset that made it next to impossible for girls in my generation to study and have careers in science. While I couldn’t grow up to be an astrophysicist, I at least didn’t want my leisure time contaminated with that stuff.

  37. Tenured Radical on 02 Dec 2012 at 7:11 am #

    A Jo clocking in here: I read it somewhat late (summer after 10th grade) having been consumed with Everything Alexander Dumas prior to that. I imagined myself as the Fourth Musketeer.

    Looking back on it, however, the questions about freedom that are part of Jo’s gender identity, and a theme of the whole book, are quite important. EG,

    *Having* the means for a Christmas dinner then frees the family to be its best self and give it away.

    Jo survives the burning of her manuscript (a truly terrible moment in the book) be writing another, better one. The death of a first, surely inferior, book frees her to write a better book and by doing so, commit to writing as an adult thing.

    Jo has to reject Laurie because his love is too consuming — it will suffocate her, because he has loved her as a girl, not a woman. The Old Guy, however, Understands Women, and can create the space for her to be a mother and an author. Hence, Jo (regardless of how much her marriage distressed those of us of the Sapphic persuasion) may have been the first female in history (OK, other than Mrs. Stowe) to “have it all.”

  38. Perpetua on 03 Dec 2012 at 6:51 am #

    So I’m an outlier here, because while I certainly resembled Jo most, and admired Amy for the reasons many of you mentioned (she’s so sensible, in a good way, as an adult), when I was a girl, I liked Meg the most. Perhaps this was because I inhabited Jo so much that I naturally looked up to Meg as the role model? I wanted to be the things that she was, even though I wasn’t. But Mary Ingalls, I never had any use for.

    I agree with @TR’s read of Jo and Laurie. I agreed with the logic of the story about those two, and was happy when they parted. I wanted *more* for Jo.

    I loved LW as a girl, and read all the way through Jo’s Boys many times, as well as the other books in LMA’s oeuvre. But I related to Anne Shirley much more. Maybe because it’s less preachy?

  39. nicoleandmaggie on 03 Dec 2012 at 9:20 am #

    I read Little Women in third grade, and at the time I only viewed romance through a logical pairing up lens. (I loved Gilbert and Sullivan the way everybody ended up with someone in the end.) So I found the romance parts somewhat boring and didn’t care who she ended up with really, though I guess I was happy she found someone and her sister found someone.

    I probably identified with both Jo and Meg. When I was little I wanted to be Anne, then when I was older I wanted to not be Anne, and since then I’ve resigned myself to being like Anne in many not-so-flattering ways.

  40. comparatrice on 04 Dec 2012 at 11:14 am #

    It’s funny how clear and strong the pressure is to *identify* with a (female) character, rather than to take an interest in her actions and the situations in which she finds herself. I know I felt that pressure as a kid, and would have said I identified with Jo, or with L.M. Montgomery’s writerly heroines — but the point of reading a novel is not to dress yourself up and first-person-shoot your way through it, but to have some relief from the narcissism of childhood and see a world (and its *events*, people’s choices and agency) from a more collective, synoptic viewpoint. As a kid, I knew who I was– I got lucky and my parents bestowed a pretty congenial kid-identity on me– and was far more curious about other people. I liked it when Jo *did* things, liked it when Amy went to Europe; I meditated on Beth’s suffering, and cared surprisingly little about Laurie and Dr. Bhaer, perhaps because of what TR refers to above.

    I think the identification-pressure is part of the marketing of women’s literature and even historical “women writers” (the Victorians, Woolf, Dickinson, et al) — I have been struck again and again by the number of novels or “imaginative” biographies written about female authors, and suspect that it’s greater than the number devoted to men. (Except Kafka. Everyone wants a piece of Kafka.) There isn’t really anything wrong with this as such, but I wish imitation and identification didn’t seem like a duty. Then again, having originality seem like a duty is also a curse.

  41. Signal Boost: Barbara Sicherman on the Persistence of Little Women « Knitting Clio on 04 Dec 2012 at 1:39 pm #

    [...] Historiann asked her readers to give their thoughts and recollections of Little Women, so I invite my readers to do the same. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this. [...]

  42. IrishUp on 04 Dec 2012 at 5:30 pm #

    I also REFUSED to read LW as a kid. EVERYONE told me how much like Jo I was, I should read the book, & etc. Obviously, LW was going to be the last thing I’d evar read (and I’ll reread the Lysol can to see if it kills anything new, if I’m desperate enough). I actually only read it because I liked the 1994 movie. Perhaps that’s why I liked Amy’s character arc so much better than Jo’s. You know from the get go Jo is going to be a writer. It’s not clear what Amy is going to turn out to be like, and she’s pretty interesting.

    But I’m really delurking to defend Charles Ingalls as decidedly not an epic loser and miles away from Mr. Alcott. He can build houses from scratch – including making the shingles and wooden pegs yo! He’s an able farmer, and when they finally settle, becomes one of the town leaders. He’s also unfailingly and materially supportive of Laura, and clearly values her as she is.

  43. Ellie on 04 Dec 2012 at 7:13 pm #

    My mother (b. 1940s) also called her mother (b. c. 1919) “Marmee.” I always assumed it came from LW, but never thought to ask. Now I will!

  44. Historiann on 04 Dec 2012 at 8:07 pm #

    IrishUp: that’s an admirable defense of Pa Ingalls, but I’m afraid he was an epic failure as a man. If he had just settled his ass down somewhere before middle age, instead of dragging his poor wife and children all over hell’s half acre, he might have made something of himself. But all of the Ingalls’ family’s bad luck is traceable to one cause: Pa’s piss-poor judgment. Sure, he could build a house on his own–he got plenty of practice, as he had to build a new one in every book because he got chased out of the previous one by 1) locusts, 2) bad winter, 3) disease, 4) poverty, 5) having built the house in Indian territory.

    (I am talking about the fictional Pa, not the real Charles Ingalls here. The literary creation is more to the point.)

    He’s a mess, but Laura’s neither the first nor the last female to fall for a lifelong loser because he has nice eyes, a glossy beard, and can play “Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines” on his fiddle.

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