BY LOUISA MAY ALCOTTHave regular hours for work and play; make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well. Then youth will bring few regrets, and life will become a beautiful success.
Ah yes, the classic tale about four unusually mature children, who posses uncanny reasoning abilities and adult-like moral compasses. The story featuring the most profound foresight ever displayed by a 7-year-old girl. The book so desperately trying to teach rambunctious little girls how to become proper young women that it only succeeds in making its readers thankful they don’t live in the nineteenth century. Little Women. To be clear, I am not opposed to reading books that challenge my beliefs. However, Alcott’s novel focuses so heavily on teaching her readers moral lessons that the actual story falls woefully by the wayside. No one enjoys being beat over the head with someone else’s morals, but apparently, Alcott missed that memo.
I mean tell me if you find reading this enjoyable: set during the Civil War, Little Women begins with our four dear heroines lamenting their poverty and low social standing. Although they should be thankful for their beauty and status as white, middle class Americans, we cannot judge them, for who has lived a life free of jealous and unthankful thoughts? As children the girls will learn about the undisputed reward of hard work, the deceitful nature of their own minds, and the power of love, thankfulness, and family. Let us watch with joyfulness as the young girls gradually turn into young women, and let us learn from their lives as we watch them produce spiritual fruit, overcome hardships, work with diligence, live with grace, and of course, procure husbands, for that is the ultimate purpose and only source of true joy for women.
Let me know when you’re done gagging.
From the affirmation that poor people must work harder than rich people and are therefore happier to the lessons about how alcohol will surely ruin your life, this book is essentially a collection of outdated social and religious views that are no longer accepted, let alone supported. In the novel, Alcott advocates the beliefs that a 30-year-old spinster had “missed the sweetest part of life” and that a man couldn’t love a woman unless she was beautiful. While it is true that in the 1800s a women’s life expectancy was around 60 and at 30 a woman had most likely lived half of her life, implying that an unmarried 30-year-old in 1860 had lived a pointless life is just as offensive as implying an unmarried 50-year-old today has lived a pointless life. It’s a miracle my eyes remained intact after all the eye-rolling they endured while reading this book. Also, please stop saying they were poor. They weren’t. They had a maid, a home, pretty dresses, and food on the table. Not. Poor.
It is important to note, that Little Women is based loosely on Alcott’s childhood, and it’s not hard to spot the many elements of her Transcendental upbringing that shine through. Her father believed in attempting to achieve perfection, plain living, and self-denial: all elements and themes upon which the book heavily relies. Jo March’s character was also heavily based on Alcott who was second of four daughters, a writer, and never married. While I believe in the importance of reading older literature, understanding what used to be socially acceptable, and appreciating how far we have come in women’s and civil rights, there is a thin line between older books that contain racist and sexist material and ones that advocate sexism and racism. And we need to be careful not to fawn over ones that fall into the latter category.
Old-fashioned ideologies aside, I still found the story boring and most of the characters uninteresting, so thank goodness for Jo March. She was a breath of fresh air in a suffocating cloud of religious allegories. Jo brings life and normality to the pages and is surprisingly progressive when considering the tone throughout the rest of the novel. She says things like, “If people care more for my clothes than they do for me, I don’t wish to see them,” and, “She feels it in the air–love, I mean. She’s got most of the symptoms–is twittery and cross, doesn’t eat, lies awake, and mopes in corners.” In fact, if the story had been entirely about Jo, featuring her fiery personality and rambunctious adventures with Teddy, I think I would have quite enjoyed the book. But Alcott’s story just felt bogged down by the other (much less interesting) sisters.
I like to think that as a reader, I am generally pretty easy to please, so I cannot speak to how this book has maintained its popularity throughout the years while I so wholly disliked it. I found Alcott’s writing style to be neither here nor there, her characters were uninteresting and had odd taste in men, and the overall theme of the book was simply too preachy. Normally, I might recommend reading this book simply for its status as a classic, but the only reason it continues to be a classic is because we continue to read it. I think it’s time to retire this book to the top shelf. Appreciate it for its historical significance, but I would encourage our young women to read something else.