I’ve read a lot of books in my life. I’ve had to–I was an English major, an English teacher, and now I’m an adjunct professor. Plus, I just enjoy reading! Of course there are a lot of books I haven’t read, which isn’t surprising; but there are some books I haven’t read that surprise people, given my background. “What do you mean, you’ve never read The Great Gatsby?” they ask in shock. I just… never had to. It was never on the syllabi for any classes I took, and I never taught it. Maybe I’ll give it a go next year, the whole 2020 thing and all. But another such book is Little Women.
This one tended to surprise people; I’m also a New Englander born and raised not far from the heart of early American literature and the cradle of Transcendentalism. “J, you’d love Jo!” they told me. “It’s so good! Didn’t you at least see the movie?” I didn’t doubt it, and no, I hadn’t. And I hadn’t given it much thought until a series of events that may or may not involve Timothee Chalamet *ahem* led me to decide to read it this year.
With the official trailer dropping yesterday, it got me thinking about my experiences reading the book earlier this year. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would, and maybe not for the reasons I would have if I’d read it when I was younger. I was closing in on 40 when I read it for the first time, and I’m actually glad I hadn’t read it before then!
My experiences have shaped me; the people I’ve known, the things I’ve done, the choices I’ve made, all have molded me into who I am now. If I’d approached Little Women when I was younger, I wouldn’t have appreciated the different characters the way did this time. I went into the book expecting to like Jo: stubborn, willful, determined, a writer who doesn’t like to be told what to do. She reminded me of me; my very first library day as a child, some little girl told me I couldn’t take out a book about dinosaurs, because “those are boy books”. I took out that book, and every other dinosaur book I could find every library day thereafter–mostly out of interest, and partly out of spite.
But the more I read of the other sisters, I saw other parts of myself. While I initially viewed Meg as the responsible and dutiful eldest sister, trying to set a good example and sometimes quashing Jo’s free spirit, I realized that yes, she’s the eldest. She has a natural sense of duty, but that’s tempered by her occasional dreams of finer things that lead her to sometimes make poor choices. She’s able to grow from those times. Also, I saw a lot of myself in Meg’s struggles as a wife and new mother. She wants to do right by her husband and make a cozy home, but she still struggles and gets overwhelmed. She loves her family and the life she’s made, but she still gets tired and struggles. I mean, she ended up with twins, so yeah–I struggle with my one (who has the energy of two!). I don’t think I’d have appreciated Meg’s story arc had I read it earlier in my life.
While I definitely identified with Meg and Jo, I didn’t think I would identify with Amy at all; she’s young, and I spent a lot of the early part of the book more annoyed with her and reading her arcs quickly so I could move back to Jo and Meg. However, overall I appreciated her growth the most; I think she shows the most out of them, though I would say that’s because she starts off so much younger and has a lot of room for it, while Meg and Jo are older and working and pretty set in what they want out of life. When I think back on reading Amy’s storyline, it’s more than just her growth and maturation that makes her character great: it’s the fact that she doesn’t settle. She tries, because she thinks it’s what she should do, but realizes that she wants more, from then on doesn’t settle.
Which of course brings me to Laurie. Laurie holds his own really well with the sisters, and they each have a unique relationship with him. He needled Meg like a younger brother, and appreciated Beth’s gentle ways. And of course there’s his ill-fated love for Jo, and initially, I was upset when she turned him down. They were perfect for each other! Both intelligent, energetic, headstrong… and then because they were so much alike it made sense that it would never work out. Which was why I was pleasantly surprised to find myself rooting for Laurie and Amy! Amy won’t settle; Laurie is prone to a good fit of pique every so often, and she’s quick to call him out on it. I think because she always saw Laurie as ending up with Jo, she felt she had nothing to lose by being honest with him. And because he hadn’t ever considered her romantically, he had no pretenses around Amy. As a result, their relationship builds organically, and it becomes a really lovely partnership. His proposal in the boat, where they agree to row through life together, was simple and beautiful, and it makes for a great metaphor for their relationship.
What strikes me the most about the sisters and the way Alcott writes about them is that they each have a unique pathway and make their own choices, and Alcott doesn’t promote one over the other. Jo’s headstrong determination to become published isn’t any worthier than Meg’s desire to marry and start a family. Amy’s ambitions as an artist aren’t silly, and Beth’s generosity and compassion and empathy are strengths; she’s not a martyr or a tragic figure or cautionary tale–she’s Beth, who loves everyone and wants to help. No one sister is any better than the other, and all choices suit them all just right. In the trailer Meg tells Jo, “Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.” I feel like that’s the overall theme of Little Women: everyone has different dreams, and those differences don’t invalidate the dreams.
I don’t think I’d have appreciated this as much as I do now, if I’d read the book or seen the movie when I was younger. I think I’d have focused so much on Jo, because, at that age, that’s who I was. And before that, maybe I’d have seen more to identify with in Amy. And now, I see both, but also Meg, and even Marmee. Marmee is #goals–she doesn’t judge, she knows when to stand back and let her daughters figure it out, but when to step forward and let them know she’s still there for them. And I don’t think I’d have seen that about Marmee without being older and a parent myself, figuring out when to back off and let the Smol Human explore and experiment, and when to swoop in and make it all better.
I learned a lot from Little Women. I’m glad I finally read it, but glad it took me so long. Perhaps this fall I’ll take a trip down to the Alcott House; I’ll definitely be seeing the movie (with box of tissues in hand) over the holidays, and who knows: maybe eventually I’ll read Alcott’s other works. I do know that the March sisters and their lessons won’t be leaving me any time soon, and for that, I’m glad.