Little Women (re-read)

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.

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37 Responses to Little Women (re-read)

  1. Harriet says:

    I absolutely agree about the Professor — a much better husband for Jo. Lovely review of a book I too love, though I haven’t read it quite that many times!

  2. Deb says:

    Oh no, Laurie would never have been right for Jo.

    I maintain that you actually never read the same book twice because, each time you read it, you’re a different person. You see different things each time you re-read a book because you’re always in a different place in your life. The book I have re-read most often through the years (starting 40 years ago, when I was 13) is GONE WITH THE WIND. I have seen it variously as a romance, a romanticized vision of the south, an apologist for racism, an indictment of racism, the admiring story of a headstrong woman, a cautionary tale about being too headstrong, etc. The words are always the same–it’s just that my interpretation changes.

    • Jenny says:

      This is so well-put. I have become, I hope, a much better reader as I’ve gotten older, more perceptive and more able to see the complexities of what I’m reading, but I always have a hand in the creation of the text because of where I stand in my life.

  3. Oh, I *loved* this book as a child, and re-read it often. But it’s been years since I revisited – at least, seven or eight years. I think I’m overdue for a re-read.

    I’m a Jo-Bhaer “shipper” too – as they say in the TV fandom world. I love Laurie but it would have never worked between him and Jo. They would have ended up hating each other.

  4. rebeccareid says:

    I have only read it twice — once as a preteen or teen, and once when I first started blogging. I should revisit it! I loved it.

    • Jenny says:

      I find it just about infinitely satisfying, and it holds up for me very well as an adult — not all novels do.

  5. What. Yeah, maybe Bhaer is a safe choice, but she and Laurie had such scorching chemistry! I guess it’s just because the image of Jo getting so swept away that she kisses Laurie and adorkably apologizes for it is burned into my mind—it’s such a great moment, and has led me to love heroines who go “WHAT WHO WAS TALKING ABOUT MAKING OUT I CERTAINLY WASN’T!” awkwardly. The 1990s film adaptation does right by removing Jo’s attraction to Laurie and foreshadowing his eventual marriage.

    Plus, it always felt like a knee-jerk response since the fandom wanted it so badly, but Alcott was horrified by the idea of her author avatar hooking up with a character based on a man she only saw as a friend.

    So, um, Little Women is wonderful. :D

    • Jenny says:

      The safe choice? I beg your pardon! Laurie would have been the “safe” choice: he had money, the families knew and loved each other, and everyone expected them to marry, because of that chemistry you’re talking about. Professor Bhaer was a stranger, poor, a foreigner, and someone she had to wait to marry. Not the safe choice.

      Also, Jo didn’t kiss Laurie, she hugged him. Laurie was the one who kissed Jo. Again, a little one-sided!

      Did you like that 1990 adaptation? I thought it was pretty good but had its flaws.

      • Fair enough, fair enough. I meant safe as in I always thought that Jo and Laurie had some scorching chemistry. Perhaps it’s time for a reread…

        I thought it did some things well, especially the Jo/Laurie relationship as Alcott ultimately wanted it.

  6. Emily says:

    I was actually the odd girl reader who never really connected with Little Women; I’m not sure what was wrong with me. Although I did get to play Beth in a school production, which was fun since I always liked dramatic death scenes.

    But anyway, I was just reminded of the whole Jo/Laurie/Bhaer thing when I read Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs about her early life. She talks about how devastated she was as a little girl that Jo & Laurie don’t get together. But then little-girl Simone thinks about it a bit and figures maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to hook up with an older professor type who would keep her intellectually engaged. Apparently it worked out with Sartre, anyway. :-)

    • Jenny says:

      I’d have loved to play Beth. What a great role. :)

      I know that part in Beauvoir! I’d forgotten that. Our childhood dreams, realized, right? Ha!

      • Anonymous says:

        I’m not completely sure, but I think that what made Simone de Beauvoir angry (Memoires d’une Jeune Fille Rangée) is the fact that Laurie married Amy, having been so madly in love with Jo. How could he forget her and go on to marry a superficial being like Amy, quite the opposite from Jo? Anyway, I could be mistaken, it’s ages since I read de Beauvoir’s book!

  7. nancy says:

    I’m not so much pro-Laurie as anti-Bhaer. I didn’t like him because he seemed to exist only to criticize Jo and to be the enlightened being that shows her how to think “correctly.” In short, Casaubon-lite. Ugh. At least Laurie didn’t try to mold Jo.

    But maybe Bhaer improves in the sequel? I never read it so I’m probably too harsh on the man

    • Jenny says:

      Well, I’m not sure he ever criticizes Jo directly — just makes an inspired guess about how she’s earning her living and hopes to keep her from doing herself any lasting damage, so he criticizes the newspapers for selling sensation stories. It’s quite clear that Jo makes up her own mind on that score. And he’s generous and kind to every soul in the house, and has a huge sense of humor, so Casaubon he is not. He doesn’t play a very big role in Good Wives — shows up toward the end. I never think of them separately and was reviewing both in this post.

  8. Nicola says:

    I too have read Little Women and Good Wives many, many times so I did enjoy your post. Never could love Little Men and Jo’s Boys, though. The last two novels get too sentimental.

    • Jenny says:

      I like Little Men okay and have read it perhaps two or three times — certain scenes were favorites when I was a kid. Jo’s Boys, though, I think I’ve only read once. I agree that they don’t carry the power that Little Women and Good Wives do.

  9. Susan E says:

    Love Little Women (and Spiderweb for Two). When I read as pre-teen/teen, I couldn’t understand why Jo couldn’t be in love with Laurie, but that would have been to just tie things up with a too-easy bow, it seems to me now. And the 1990s adaptation with Gabriel Bryne would have reconciled me to the Professor if I wasn’t already reconciled….

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, Gabriel Byrne! He was definitely not my picture of the Professor, but I suppose when you think of the 19th-century German Romantics…

  10. Lisa says:

    I’ve also lost count of the times I’ve read Little Women – though these days I might re-read Eight Cousins or An Old-Fashioned Girl more often. I was really taken aback to find that one of my staff had never read Little Women. I gave her a copy for Christmas last year; she hasn’t mentioned reading it yet….

    • Jenny says:

      I have also been revisiting some of her other books more often than this one (Jack and Jill and An Old-Fashioned Girl). It surprised me how much I really loved this one again.

  11. Chelsea says:

    Leave it to Little Women to garner such reactions! Perhaps one of my favorite things about re-reading this long-term friend (what else can you call a book that you’ve been reading and re-reading your entire life) is the knowledge that doing so makes me part of an even larger family – a family of readers who view the March sisters as their own, view Marmee as a kind of surrogate mother, and swoon for Laurie, the boy next door. I did an honors thesis for my undergraduate degree – focusing on feminist readings of the novel – and what I can’t wait to teach my daughter is that, while Jo is obviously the main character (and the one I myself identified most strongly with, as a gawky and awkward writing brunette), there are beautiful traits in all the girls that need to be looked to: Amy’s appreciation for beauty, Beth’s patience, Meg’s responsibility and devotion to family. The entire book is a gem.

    As far as the Laurie/Bhaer question – I have to vote for Laurie! I can’t help it! Yes, I know that they would have had their fair share of problems, and I don’t think that the professor was a bad choice (also: Gabrielle Byrne versus Christian Bale? No contest!) but it’s Laurie and Jo! That’d be like saying that in the end Elizabeth should have chosen Mr. Collins over Darcy. There’s just no way! Thanks for the great review and all the commentors for a fantastic discussion!

    • Jenny says:

      You’re right about the lovely traits in all the girls. As a mom, I sympathize more with Meg than I used to. :) But I totally object to your comparing the Professor with Mr. Collins. Mr. Collins is selfish, humorless, vain, and creepy. The Professor is generous, funny, intelligent, kind, forgetful of self, and Romantic (like the German Romantics.) You might not feel the chemistry, but he’s no Mr. Collins!

  12. Amy says:

    I love this book and haven’t read it in years which means it’s time to pick it up again. I understand the attraction of having and Jo and Laurie together but the ending as it is never bothered me. Something about it felt right even if it wasn’t what you thought would happen and that also has appeal.

    • Jenny says:

      I agree! Though someone comments lower down that they’re not too sure about Laurie and Amy, and neither am I.

  13. Jenny says:

    I too felt cross with Professor Bhaer for telling Jo what she should be writing. He’s not the boss of her life! Hrmph. Although I wanted Jo and Laurie to end up together (I did!), I was sort of in sympathy with Louisa May Alcott when she said she wouldn’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anybody. Fair enough. But I’d have been happier if Laurie had married Jo, and it felt soooo contrived for him to end up with Amy. And I don’t like Professor Bhaer.

    • Jenny says:

      Okay, I also thought it was contrived for Laurie to wind up with Amy, so there we agree. But I do NOT agree that the Professor was bossing Jo around. He was giving her another perspective from a person she had reason to admire and respect, and allowing her to make her own decision, which she did. Given the opportunity, I hope a friend of mine would do the same.

  14. Alex says:

    I’m a fan of the book, really I am, but whenever discussing it with other people I get into endless arguments because I put Amy & Laurie in my list of couple that just won’t work after “The End”. I feel the same way about Catherine & Tilney.

    Don’t you honestly think he’s get tired of her in a couple of years?! It’s really not so much that I wanted to see Laurie and Jo, it’s more that I really believe Amy is not the girl for him.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes! I think Jo and the Professor are just right, I don’t want to see Jo and Laurie together, but I agree that Laurie and Amy make a strange couple. It feels to me like Amy is just not very likeable through the book and gets shoehorned into that couple to make it all fit. I don’t see it working out. She doesn’t have enough spirit.

  15. bybee says:

    The chapter that really grabbed me the first time I read Little Women was when Amy is angry because she doesn’t get invited to the play and she burns Jo’s writing then Jo is so enraged she nearly gets Amy killed by not telling her the ice is soft. I was riveted and became a Little Women fan for life.

    • Jenny says:

      I love that one! And — so funny — my mother recently had an incident where my little sister got in trouble at school for having contraband Silly Bandz, and said it was exactly like Amy and the pickled limes. I laughed and laughed.

  16. JaneGS says:

    For some reason, I have never read Little Women. Maybe I was rereading all my favorites so many times I didn’t have room in my life for another set of girls and another world to inhabit.

    At any rate, it is on my TBR shelf for this year. Maybe a good summer read.

    >Alcott’s language is vigorous and (to my mind) very modern, with rarely a false note.

    That’s good to know–I’ve always assumed it would be cloying. I can put up with a lot if the writing is good and true.

  17. sakura says:

    I too was heartbroken when Laurie and Amy got engaged…can’t help it! But I think in some ways I felt sadder as everyone grew older because their dreams changed and they realised life isn’t what you think it will be. It wasn’t something I was ready to see when I was a child and can only appreciate as you get older (as with the case of the Prof.)

    • Jenny says:

      You’re right that a theme of the book is that life isn’t what you think — though in some cases it does turn out beautifully. Compromise and change are a strong strain in the book.

  18. Phaedosia says:

    Ooh! I LOVED Spiderweb for Two when I was growing up. Thanks for reminding me about it–time to re-read! (Of course, Little Women is great, too.)

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