If longevity in print were the only criteria for a book to achieve status as a ‘classic’, Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’, continuously in print since its publication 1868/69, just three years after the conclusion of the American Civil War, would certainly be a contender. Indeed, many consider the work to be a great classic of American literature. The story is often described as ‘semi-autobiographical’ as it is loosely based on the author’s own life with her three sisters.
As a novel, it’s not a work I’ve ever felt compelled to read but, with my wife, I’ve watched a number of movie versions over the years. Beginning with the 1933 black and white adaptation with a young Katherine Hepburn, I’ve also seen the 1994, 2018 and 2019 adaptations, the last of which provided some impetus to finally read it.
For me, the book is more of a successful period piece than a true ‘classic’, which I think ought to transcend its period and speak about the human condition to new generations of readers. There are points in the book that come close to doing so, but in general it never quite clears the bar. I couldn’t help comparing the novel to the great works of the earlier English novelist, Jane Austen. My daughter and I always disagree on the merits of Ms. Austen – her contention is that Ms. Austen’s books are nothing more than tales about women looking for rich husbands in a dreadful era for women. I can already imagine what she’d make of Ms. Alcott’s story.
The book does make an interesting comparison to the movies, especially the later versions which tend to make Jo March, the main character of the story, into quite a modern woman. In the most recent movie rendition, she is independent, strong willed and flouting conformity. Like the author, she is not drawn to marriage – despite the social conventions of the time that portrayed marriage as the consummate objective for every female. The movie blurs the line between the author and her character to achieve this effect.
After reading the book, I’m not sure there is much justification for this portrayal, even though the adolescent Jo has many of these qualities. Unfortunately the novel is keen to correct these ‘defects’ of character and transform her into a state of conformity and push her into marriage as a logical outcome of increasing maturity – helped along by an archetype ‘wise woman’ mother.
It’s true that Ms. Alcott seems more concerned with her characters finding true love instead of rich husbands they can fall in love with, as seems the case with a couple of Ms. Austen’s famous characters. However, Ms. Austen’s women face more realistic trials and tribulations than do the sisters in Ms. Alcott’s work. There’s complexity in Ms. Austen’s characters as they chaff against the confines of their social context. The world of ‘Little Women’ is, in most respects, simple, homey and wrapped in an idealistic glow. Any chaffing that occurs is that which helps the sisters understand and accept their ‘proper’ lot in life. Aside from slipping a person of color into Jo’s school with the white children, one gets no intimations that anything needs to change in Jo’s society – ‘God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.’
One aspect I did find rather amusing was the constant reference by the girls as they grow up to their ‘poverty’. It seems that the family had much more money in an earlier time and feel the lack of comforts that their money used to provide, despite the fact their father is a colonel in the army and has sufficient funds to keep the family in a stable home with a servant to cook for them – yeah…
Perhaps it’s the way the ‘point of view’ (POV) is used in ‘Little Women’ that I found irksome. The ‘omniscient author’ as a POV is almost extinct in modern fiction, supplanted by specific characters’ ‘points of view’ that trade away the author’s ability to fill in background, comment on their character’s actions/thoughts and their ability to foreshadow events in favor of the greater realism that is found by revealing only what a character experiences while striding through the pages of the story. Ms. Alcott’s POV is obtrusive and given to constant preaching and moralizing. It feels like the author is standing on the corner of every page, a basket of bromides and homilies in one hand and distributing religious tracts of an uplifting nature with the other. One can quickly overdose on the saccharine taste.
When I think of Ms. Austen transplanted into modern times and seeking a publisher for her ‘Pride and Prejudice’, I can’t imagine it not finding its way into print. I can’t help but think Ms. Alcott would be hard pressed to find a publisher for her novel if she were writing in today’s market. It’s why I think ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is a ‘classic’ and ‘Little Women’ is not. I’m sure it’s the reason screenwriters have silenced the author’s constant sermonettes in favor of a more unconventional Jo March.
It’s not that ‘Little Women’ won’t continue to attract readers. Anyone who pines for a simplicity that is lacking in modern life or has fond memories of the kind of benign patriarchal families exemplified in shows like ‘Leave it to Beaver’ will continue to admire Ms. Alcott’s work. On the other hand, if given a choice, I’d prefer watching one of the movies instead of reading the book.