Little Women. What can I say about this magnificent series that hasn’t been praised before? It has survived the roiling waves of the literary ocean since 1868 with great ease and nobility. We read it as children, identifying with the young characters, and then we re-read it as adults, realizing anew the themes that may have once escaped us. It has been viewed through many lenses, and has withstood the test of both adoring and critical eyes. It may be seen as an early cry for female independence (at a time when it was actually needed), a quest for self-success, a story of love, or simply a portrayal of simpler, yet turbulent, times. But it is not merely the element of one of these themes that has garnered it success—it is the blending of them all. The result is a steady paced source of good old fashioned entertainment.
This is not why I originally enjoyed the series. I mean, yes–that’s why it’s great. Alcott balances what was a pervading social norm of the time well with characters who dwell between the two extremes of total domesticity and entire independence. And having read with the eyes of a young adult aware of life’s restrictions, sorrows, and joys, I can certainly enjoy the author’s moral stand. But as a kid, I simply knew that the book entranced me. The childhood adventures of the March sisters touched me, and Jo’s love of writing, horse play and general lack of feminine antics gratified me…and therein lies the magic. What girl can read Little Women and not see a reflection of herself in Alcott’s protagonist?
Alcott created the now quintessential American Girl through the telling of the protagonist’s (Jo) story. Jo girl chases adventure and whimsy, fights against the social restraints that keep her from having “jolly” times, and ultimately secures a steady, godly future for herself that she had the ultimate hand in making–a thing to be proud of, in any age. The life of the tale comes from Alcott’s own life, for Louisa May surely is her main character Jo (separated only, it seems, by certain matrimonial events), and the setting of the story her own home.
The parents of the four March sisters are modeled after her own, as well. Her father, Bronson Alcott, wrote of his children, “Look not into the world, for the image of the Father. There it is dimmed, disfigured. But look into the radiant face of childhood ere earth hath left its traces upon it, and be blessed—nay, saved!” This love shaped Alcott’s world.
And so I’ll step from my soap box, to give the synopsis of Alcott’s crowning jewels, dwelling only briefly on Little Women, because it’s sequel has much less attention from the internet.
Originally, books one and two (Little Women and Good Wives) were published in one volume. The story begins with a gradual, well paced introduction to the March family–Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, their mother and father–during a time when the US was torn by the civil war. Their father, Mr. March, is a volunteer for the war effort, despite a somewhat advanced age. His letters are read eagerly by Mrs. March, (a fine example of parental love, lifting her children up through times of peace and turmoil) and the girls, who bravely shoulder food shortages and a harsh winter at home. Meg, the oldest of the bunch, embodies propriety (and is based upon Alcott’s own sister Anna) ; Jo, an adventurous spirit; Beth, gentleness and love of others; and Amy, artful creativity and innocent yearnings.
In the first chapters, the March’s celebrate Christmas. There shall be no gifts, for the family has little money for the sake of goodwill (Mr. March having lost most of the family’s funds in the act of helping a poor friend). They each proclaim what they wish for the most, and are softened by Beth’s Christmas wish, that their father will return home to them safely. On Christmas morning, a fine surprise meets them from their mother–a rich, hearty meal is spread before them. They praise the luxuries of ice-cream and meat. But they will not taste the meal–for word comes of the Hummels, a poor German family stricken by sickness and hunger. The March’s give up their fine Christmas feast to the starving Hummels, whose exuberant thanks humble the March’s hearts, and teach them a true lesson in giving freely.
As time winds on, Jo befriends next-door neighbor Theodore Laurence, fondly called “Laurie”. The March girls perform Jo’s plays and stories aloud, and welcome Laurie in as their brother, who is delighted at the attentions of the family.
Laurie lives with his grandfather, Old Mr. Laurence, a man who is portrayed as stern looking, and hardened by his son’s (Laurie’s father) treatment of him. His character becomes considerably softer, however, in his care for meek Beth, who fears going to the Laurence household out of fright for the old man. Mr. Laurence hears of this, and generously invites Beth over to play his grand piano. In gratitude for the experience, Beth knits him a pair of slippers. The relationship between the man and girl flourishes all the more in friendship after Mr. Laurence makes a gift of his deceased granddaughter’s piano to Beth.
The tale teaches us readers many lessons. Amy’s proud spirit is humbled by an incident with limes at her school; like Meg, she mourns their near destitution, (though their home could not be stronger or more warm in spirit,) and she longs for the adoration of her classmates. The limes show a bit of wealth to her fellow children, but they are carelessly tossed out by Mr. Davis, the school master. Amy’s shame quenches a bit of her pride.
In another incident, Amy becomes upset with Jo and burns Jo’s prized manuscripts. Jo’s fury is great, but she learns the importance of forgiveness after Amy nearly drowns in an icy pond. Remembering her love for her younger sister, Jo and Mrs. March discuss the temptations of temper, and Jo solemnly promises to try to control her own more.
Chapter nine tells of Meg’s vanity. Meg spends much of her time with wealthy friends, who dress her “like a doll” for parties, take her out to events and teach her to put on snobbish airs. But Laurie, attending a gathering along with Meg, speaks of his disapproval of her attitude, and Meg later admits all to Mrs. March. Her mother soothes her with the reminder to always be herself.
Later, in an act of sacrifice, Beth frequents the home of the Hummels with her mother. The family is stricken still by extreme poverty, and eventually, Scarlet Fever strikes the Hummel children. Beth contracts it, as well. Her state of life begins to degrade, and she makes peace with her weakened body.
The story ends with the coming of the next year’s Christmas, with the celebration of a dearly missed family member’s home return, and with Meg’s affections for Laurie’s bookish tutor, John Brooke. Right on que, Good Wives portrays another phase of life for the Marches–that of growing up.
Good Wives begins three years after the events of Little Women with Meg and John’s wedding, and with Amy going abroad to perfect her talents in art with crotchety Aunt March. This leaves a sickly Beth and a restless Jo at home. In this time, Jo falls ever deeper into her writing, emerging from her literary “vortexes” sullen from lack of sleep. On one occasion she wins money through a literary contests, and sends her beloved Beth and mother to the seaside. But her time at home is soon strained, for Jo senses what she fears is affection from Laurie, and earnestly begins to wish he might cast his eyes to Beth instead. Jo decides that Laurie may come to love her sister, if only the rest of them were “out of the way.” And so Jo decides to strike out for the winter, saying, “I want something new. I feel restless and anxious to be seeing, doing, and learning more than I am. I brood too much over my own small affairs…I’d like to hop a little way and try my wings.” She also admits that she fears that Laurie is becoming too fond of her, and Mrs. March agrees to the trying of her “wings”.
While Meg is adjusting to her new role in life as a wife, Jo becomes a governess of sorts for Mrs. March’s friend, Mrs. Kirke, in the bustling city of New York. It is here that she meets Friedrich Bhaer, a learned Professor, who supports his orphaned nephews by teaching American children German in Mrs. Kirke’s parlor–a “regular German–rather stout, with brown hair tumbled all over his head, a bushy beard, good nose, kind eyes and a splendid voice,” with patched clothing, a habit of “shoveling” in his meals, and “not a…handsome feature in his face, except his fine teeth.” The older man impresses her with his daily habits of kindness and generosity, and her letters home become increasingly “Bhaer-y” as the winter progresses. After realizing her interest in the lessons he gives, he soon offers to teach her German. He also critiques her “scribblings”, helping her talents to grow, which results in her procuring a paying position writing fiction for a local newspaper, The Daily Volcano. He will later subtly encourage her ability to write more wholesome stories than those that she has been selling to the Daily Volcano. She takes the lesson to heart with a dose of shame, and resolves to return to her roots.
Jo then attends a party of sorts at the boarding house, which many of her favorite authors are in attendance. She is delighted, but soon realizes that the men and women she so respected are only, after all, men and women. They speak of new ideas that discount the old and true ways, leaving Jo feeling quite adrift. Here she witnesses a hearty bout of defense for religion and God from grave Mr. Bhaer, who debates with the young philosophers with conviction. Hereafter, the man becomes a dear friend to home-sick Jo March. In chapter eleven, Alcott writes, “She (Jo) began to see that character is a better possession than money, rank, intellect, or beauty, and to feel that if goodness is what a wise man has defined it to be, ‘truth, reverence, and good will’, then her friend Friedrich Bhaer was not only good, but great.”
Jo’s days in New York end with the coming of Spring. She says goodbye to her friends, and leaves a greater mark of absence behind in departing Mrs. Kirke’s boarding house than she realizes. Her homecoming is joyful, for the Marches attend Laurie’s college graduation with great celebration. But Jo fears her absence has not quelled his intentions for the future, and he soon springs forth with a hasty marriage proposal, “plunging into the subject with characteristic impetuosity.” Jo refuses him with a heavy heart, knowing that her love for him is that of a friend, and that it could never be anything more. Laurie then flees to Europe, unwilling to face his rejection.
Throughout all of this, we read of Laurie and Amy. Meeting up unexpectedly while in Europe, the two begin to spend time together and Laurie’s old spirit slowly re-kindles from the friendship. But Amy sees the hardness of heart that has come over him, and becomes disgusted with the change.“Love Jo all your days, if you choose, but don’t let it spoil you, for it’s wicked to throw away so many good gifts because you can’t have the one you want.” Laurie takes the advice to heart, and follows up on another of Amy’s concerns, for the next day he returns home to his grandfather, who he has neglected with his flight from America.
Meanwhile, Beth’s health grows worse. Jo takes Beth to the seashore for some “healthful air”, and on one afternoon they sit together on the sand, watching the view of the ocean. It is here that Beth admits to Jo the reason for her new found sorrows and joys, admitting that she has known she must soon die, but has made peace with it. After a many months of suffering, Beth says to Jo, “…You must take my place, Jo, and be everything to Father and Mother when I’m gone…you’ll be happier in doing that than writing splendid books or seeing all the world, for love is the only thing we can carry with us when we go, and it makes the end so easy.” She does not last the night, and with her last breath, the Marches smile through their tears and thank God, for Beth was well at last.
Amy receives a letter bearing the sorrowful news. By now, she has turned down a marriage proposal from one Fred Vaughn, and feels a stinging sense of shame over the words she once spoke to Laurie in pride, “I shall marry for money.” She now longs for something more, and awaits Laurie’s coming, for he has returned to Europe. As she waits, she longs for home and grieves over her gentle sister’s death, but is comforted by Laurie’s sudden arrival. She takes delight in his presence, and by this time he has gotten past Jo, and feels that Amy is the only woman in the world who could fill a greater place in his soul.
Jo now grieves at home, feeling quite alone, and a sudden sense of despair fills her at the thought of spending all her life in that quiet house, devoted to humdrum cares, a few small pleasures, and duties that never seemed to grow any easier. She suddenly fears becoming an old maid, and living a lonely existence. She seeks out the advice of her father, who gladly takes all her confidences and sorrows, and gives her the help she so needs. For the parents who had taught one child to meet death without fear, were trying now to teach another to accept life without despondency of distrust, and to use it’s beautiful opportunities with gratitude and power.
Jo later looks over the relics of her childhood on the shelves of her room, and pauses over a note written by Professor Bhaer the previous winter, promising to come to his friend. She sat looking at the friendly words, as they took new meaning, and touched a tender spot in her heart.
Laurie and Amy return home. Jo is delighted beyond words when she learns that the two married while in Europe, and is content that Laurie is a part of the March family at last.
Jo’s despondency is further broken by a sudden visit from Bhaer. He is greeted warmly by her, and the other Marches soon take delight in him, as well. Even Laurie, who immediately suspects the older man’s intentions, thinks of him as a “trump.” Bhaer and Mr. March hold lengthy discussions over various topics, and Meg’s two children cling to the Professor like apes. Only after several weeks pass do the Marches begin to suspect Bhaer’s intentions. When the frequent visits cease, however, Jo becomes worried. She goes out under the pretense of wanting to shop for her mother, but Mrs. March sees through the facade with ease, and informs Jo to invite the Professor over for tea if she should see him. Jo departs in a glow of gratitude, thinking, “…What do girls do who haven’t any mothers to help them through their troubles?”
Jo does indeed meet the Professor. Rather ashamed of her blatant actions, she becomes frustrated with her search, and begins to return home with the coming of a strong rainstorm, when an umbrella and a puzzled smile greet her. Jo and Bhaer speak for a while, and after several misread comments from Jo, Bhaer tells her that he is soon going away to the West, thinking with regret that she must have no interest in him. But Jo cannot hide her sadness at his leaving, and begins to cry. The sight seemed to touch him very much, for suddenly stooping down, he asked in a tone that meant a great deal, ‘Heart’s dearest, why do you cry?” Jo lets it all spill out, and her every sentiment is returned with earnest, joyous sincerity.
The book ends with a flurry of happenings. Aunt March passes away, and wills her immense house, called “Plumfield”, to Jo. After being advised to sell the property off for a grand sum, Jo decides aloud that she would like to open a good, happy, home-like school, with me (Jo) to take care of the them (students) and Fritz to teach them. They indeed open the school, and several years later a family holiday of sorts is portrayed on the Plumfield lawns, complete with Marches, Brookes, Laurences and Bhaers, and a score of Plumfield students– a fine introduction to some of the child characters of the next book, Little Men.