Sunday, August 21, 2011

Little Women

Little Women has an excellent but inaccurate reputation as a children's novel.  Alcott's work is a classic bildungsroman (coming of age story), which partially accounts for its enduring appeal. It is better classified as a young adult novel than a children's book, and society's reliance on simplified versions results in ignorance of much the book has to offer. Alcott explores issues of identity, loyalty, class, women's roles, personal development, death and the definition of success, among others, but much of this exploration takes place in dialogue between the characters, through narrator musings or within an individual character's thoughts, rather than through plot devices. Perhaps it is the style of presentation of these major themes of discussion which doesn't lend itself well to screen adaptations.
      The author's transcendentalist upbringing is obvious in some of the musings. Alcott's father, Bronson Alcott, was a founder of the transcendentalist movement, and Louisa was tutored by noted transcendentalists and writers including Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne and Fuller. Considering her education, it is no surprise that her writing talent flourished. Can you imagine being tutored by Emerson and Thoreau?! Ah, if only... 
     The book is so well-written, and the characters so believable, that it's no wonder it became an instant classic.  This is a story of four average teen girls (well, average for 1868) experiencing average challenges, relationships, failures and successes. Even in abridged or adapted versions, the appeal shines through (but I still recommend reading the original).  While teaching English in Kazakhstan, I taught a unit using an adapted version of Little Women, and I was surprised at the students' enthusiasm for the story.  The enduring themes and issues mentioned above remain salient across time and cultures. I think of Alcott writing in her attic, and wonder what she would have thought had she known that, 130 years later on the other side of the world, her description of a well-loved character's death would bring tears to strangers' eyes.

Tomboy writer: Jo (based on Louisa M. Alcott herself)
Girly-girl painter: Amy
Shy violet and homebody: Beth
Mother figure: Meg
Honorary brother: Laurie
Curmudgeonly aunt: Aunt March
Setting: New England during the Civil War
There was a lot of: discussions, noble deeds, funny mistakes, unfortunate illnesses, poverty
There should have been more: food. This book would have lent itself well to a Beatrix Potter-type tea cosy effect, with characters sharing toast and tea, meat and potatoes, bread and cheese, etc., around a roaring fire. Or maybe I'm just hungry.
This book makes you want to: show kindness to others, be the best you can be, take the bad times in stride, for they come to us all
This book makes you glad you don't have to: knit all your own socks, fear death from common communicable diseases, work as hard for independence as women did at that time

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