I had to chuckle as I wrote the title of this post to include the word “re-read.” This may, perhaps, with the possible exception of Elizabeth Enright’s Spiderweb for Two, be the book I’ve re-read most often in my entire life. How many times? I couldn’t possibly say. Fifty? More? It could easily be that; it might be double that. I wasn’t blogging when I first started reading it at around age nine.
Of course I was Jo when I was younger. Weren’t we all? (Who in her right mind would have been Amy, even with her talent and pretty hair?) I loved to read, I wanted to write, I loved Arabian horses and melodrama, and if Jo admired Dickens, I was ready to lose my heart, too. But I loved the rest of the family just as much. Numberless were the times my sympathetic mother came in to find me weeping over Beth’s fate, or riveted by one of the several proposals, or envious of Amy’s Grand Tour.
Of course, these days the experience of reading is a little different than it was when I was ten or twelve. I now understand the book as a narrative about strong women learning to accept limitations, both personal and social, as everyone must: how do we live in partnership, in family, in the working world, in our social class, even within our understanding of mortality, without losing our sense of ourselves? What are our obligations to aging parents, to sick relatives, to the poor in our community, to our beliefs, to our own dreams and ambitions?
Alcott weaves these questions into a story (a “domestic drama,” in her words) that brings together humor, pathos, tenderness, and real insight. There’s true frustration at the few choices women have, and yet power and creativity in the paths they take. Alcott’s language is vigorous and (to my mind) very modern, with rarely a false note. It’s also intensely, particularly American, which has its charm: the insistence on personal independence, working for a living, and the nobility of poverty smack of 19th-century New England.
This is a beloved novel for many excellent reasons. Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy (not to mention Laurie and Marmee) are like family for many of us, and each time I read this novel, I watch their fortunes all over again, with laughter and tears. I have been sick this last week, and nothing could have been more comforting than Little Women.
Note: I know that many readers think that Jo should have married Laurie, and resent the appearance of Professor Bhaer, calling him “old” for Jo. I beg to differ. The first time we see him, Jo is 25, and the Professor is “nearly forty” at first glance, putting him in his thirties. A 12-year age difference at most isn’t much, really, and Laurie never would have worked. Surely anyone can see that. Plus, I like geeks.