Little Women: The First Classic I Remember Loving

Classic Remarks

WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:

What is the first classic you remember loving?

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Little Women First Classic I Remember Loving

I first read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women when I was around eight or nine, and my love for the story has never waned. Though first published in 1868, the story, centered around the coming-of-age of four sisters, has a timeless quality. Their struggles may be different in nature–feeling out of place at a ball, worrying that they do not have enough money to treat friends to pickled limes–but the scenarios are relatable nonetheless. Who has not worried about fitting in at one point or another? Who has not hoped to impress friends, to find a place where they belong? Little Women takes the everyday moments of a life and imparts to them all the seriousness and the importance they deserve. And reading it, one cannot but help that the story is taking them seriously, too.

Part of what I love so much about Little Women is that it seems very much like the type of book that might not be published today. It has no clear plot, no unusual premise, no quirky adventures. It is, quite simply, the story of a few girls’ lives. They begin as teens and girls, and they end as women. Along they way, they experience the ups and downs of life: schoolgirl crushes, new and lost friendships, family tragedy, the first taste of independence as they strike out on their own. But Alcott makes each of these moments supremely interesting because she is able to enter in to what it means to be a girl, and a girl turning into a woman. Small things that seem unimportant to the old and disillusioned can be immensely important to the young. Alcott remembers those feelings, and she lets readers experience them again, too.

I also love that Alcott presents readers with four distinct personalities in her protagonists, and she shows that each is valued. There is no one right way to be a woman. There is Meg, who at first dreams of becoming of becoming an actress, but finds happiness in marriage and motherhood. Fierce Jo, who longs to become a famous author, to discard traditional gender roles, and to support her family. Gentle Beth, whose kindness makes everyone’s lives a little happier. And vain and ambitious Amy, who must at last recognize that she has no artistic genius, but who finds personal fulfillment nonetheless. Each follows a different path–some entering a profession, some choosing the domestic life, some finding wealth, and some content with poverty. But all are presented as worthy of love and support. The women in this book never compete with one another, never put each other down, never suggest that they all have to be the same way in order to be strong. It is a stunning acceptance of womanhood that many a contemporary novel has failed to achieve.

So why do I keep returning again and again to Little Women, the book that first enchanted me when I was a girl? At first, I simply loved the story and the characters, perhaps without really knowing why. As the years pass, however, I always find something new in Little Women–a nuance in a character I had overlooked, a significance in a passage that needed more life experience for me to see it. The book is one that grows and changes with me. But, even so, it also provides important constants: four girls who are valued for their individuality, and the events of their lives that are taken very seriously, “ordinary” as they are. Little Women still moves me because life itself is moving. And Louisa May Alcott has captured four lives perfectly, with all their heartaches and joys.

What is the first classic you remember loving?

An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott

Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott

Information

Goodreads: An Old-Fashioned Girl
Series: None
Source: Owned
Published: 1869

Summary

Fourteen-year-old Polly Milton visits her friend Fanny Shaw in the city, where she is impressed by Fanny’s fashionable lifestyle. However, she also feels that Fanny and her friends judge her for her “countrified” manners and clothing. Over the next six years, Polly keeps visiting the Shaws, until the day she moves into the city to earn her living as a music teacher. She realizes that many of the Shaws’ old set will no longer speak to her, since she is now a working woman. But when the Shaws face financial adversity, Polly will be there to help teach them that a loving family is the greatest wealth of all.

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Review

Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl will feel familiar to fans of Little Women. Once again, Alcott chronicles the coming-of-age of a young woman who realizes that riches do not equal happiness, and who finds her own contentment in serving others and forming part of a loving family. Alcott’s vivid characters, however, with their many foibles, prevent the story from becoming sickeningly sweet or overly didactic. Instead, what readers get is one girl’s personal journey made utterly engrossing by the way in which Alcott tells it.

Even though centuries may separate readers and the protagonist Polly, Polly’s worries about wanting to fit in, wanting to be appreciated, and wanting to be admired, still ring true. Her journey thus becomes a journey that readers can not only go along with, but also one that they can use to reflect on their own. An Old-Fashioned Girl will appeal to fans of Alcott, but also readers who enjoy a good, old-fashioned story where the drama is limited, but the characters make everyday moments feel just as interesting and important.

Some readers may feel put off by Polly’s values. She remains dedicated to dressing and living simply even as she witnesses the extravagances of her rich friends. She also thinks it wrong to flirt for fun, because she could end up hurting a man who takes her advances seriously. She believes it is important to love and support her family, and she values those relationships more than she values her own comforts. For some modern readers, Polly may seem like nothing more than a prudish, subjugated girl who does not know how to have fun. Behind the outward gestures like simple clothes, however, is real conviction. Polly knows who she is and what she wants. She does not need her friends or high society to tell her how to be happy because she already is.

Alcott’s work makes it clear that, even in her day, there was some concern that outward appearances were taking precedence over true happiness and that people, worried about keeping up with their neighbors, were actually making themselves miserable. Even if readers do not agree with Polly that avoiding unnecessary expenses and keeping house for their brother can help them discern what they truly value, the main idea of looking inward for contentment instead of chasing the latest fads can still ring true. An Old-Fashioned Girl thus combines a delightful story with a thought-provoking question, “What really makes us happy? And do we have the courage to chase it, even when society will laugh at us for it?”

5 stars

Louisa May Alcott’s Lesser-Known Works (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

What Is Classic Remarks?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

How Can I Participate?

Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

You can find more information and the list of weekly prompts here.

(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

This Week’s Prompt:

What are some lesser-known works by a classic author you think people should read?

Little Men

The sequel to the classic Little Women, Little Men follows the students at Jo’s boarding school as they get into scrapes and learn how to be better people. Essentially, it’s Little Women but with (mostly) boys as the focus. The March family make cameo appearances, which is fun. It’s arguably not quite as good as Little Women, which is probably why it has been adapted less and experienced less popularity. Still, fans of the the first book will find some of the same charm in this one.

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Jo’s Boys

Jo's Boys by Louisa May Alcott

Jo’s Boys follows the students at Jo’s boarding school as they begin to grow up, fall in love, and decide what they want to do with their lives. It’s bittersweet watching Jo watch her boys set off into the unknown. She clearly wants the best for them, but she also knows she cannot keep them safe with her forever. A worthy follow-up to Little Men.

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Eight Cousins

Eight Cousins by Louis May Alcott

Orphan Rose Campbell arrives at the “Aunt Hill,” where her six aunts and seven boy cousins live. At first, Rose is overwhelmed and sickly. But her Uncle Alec prescribes outdoor activity as the remedy and, soon, Rose and her cousins are getting into all kinds of adventures. A classic tale of growing up in the vein of Anne of Green Gables or Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.

Rose in Bloom

Rose in Bloom

In the sequel to Eight Cousins, Rose Campbell returns to the “Aunt Hill” after going abroad. She wants to be an independent woman and find her calling in life, but she also has many potential suitors. Will Rose be able to identify true love when she sees it?

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Jack and Jill

Jack and Jill by Louisa May Alcott

Best friends Jack and Jill are laid up with injuries when they tumble out of a sled. Fortunately, they have plenty of friends to keep them amused with theatrical productions, seaside visits, and other adventures. A story filled with the simple amusements of childhood perfect for readers who always longed to join the March sisters with their games like writing a newspaper or setting up a mailbox.

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An Old-Fashioned Girl

Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott

Polly Milton goes to visit her cousin Fanny in the city, only to discover that city life has many temptations she did not expect. Fanny is glamorous, rich, and oh-so-grown-up. At first, Polly wants to be just like her. But are there charms to being “old-fashioned” after all? This story is somewhat similar to Meg’s in Little Women in that it follows a young girl who feels left out and insignificant due to her background. As always, however the book teaches a lesson: it is good to be true to yourself.

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Under the Lilacs

Ben and his dog Sancho run away from a cruel ringmaster at the circus only to find themselves welcomed into a loving community. A sweet children’s story full of the childlike adventures Alcott knew so well how to make interesting.

Why I Wouldn’t Change the Ending of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

Spoilers for Little Women abound in this post! Read ahead at your own risk!

Jo’s rebuttal of Laurie’s marriage proposal in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has upset generations of readers. The best of friends, the two seem meant for each other. Instead, Alcott weds Jo to a man twice her age and matches Laurie with Amy, as if being denied one sister meant he would just have to try another. (Amy, of course, gets Laurie’s money.) For many, the pairings are deeply unsatisfying. Personally, I never could accept Laurie and Amy, but I have always loved Jo and Professor Bhaer.

Alcott’s choice to wed Jo to a non-traditional hero was quite deliberate. In the late 1860s, she wrote to a friend, “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please any one.” Her original plan was to leave Jo single–or wedded to her work, if you prefer. However, her publisher insisted that Little Women would not sell if Jo remained unmarried. The middle-aged Professor Bhaer is Alcott’s attempt to subvert traditional gender roles. If Jo must marry, it will be on her own terms–not to the young, handsome, and wealthy boy readers expect.

Although I can easily imagine an alternate world in which Jo does marry Laurie, I respect Alcott’s decision to subvert readers’ expectations. So often teenage characters fall in love and immediately find “The One.” But real life does not work that way. Real life is messy. Most individuals will probably date more than one person, before they find the one they marry. I like that Little Women reflects this, that Little Women says it is okay to fall in love, but also to fall in love again.

I also like that Alcott basically responded to her publisher’s (sexist) demands with her own wicked twist. She gave her publisher a marriage, but not necessarily a romantic one. Professor Bhaer disapproves of Jo’s sensationalist stories, which, for many readers, makes him instantly unlikable. (Personally, I choose to read his disapproval as true concern for someone he cares about.) Their romance proceeds, not smoothly, but with awkwardness and misunderstandings. It ends in the mud and in the rain, under an umbrella. Prince Charming Professor Bhaer is not–indeed he seems the very opposite of the smooth, polished Laurie, who woos Amy at balls and on foreign lakes. So Alcott gets the last laugh. There is a marriage, but probably not the one her publisher wanted.

The ending is, to me, however, profoundly romantic–and that is one of the key reasons I would never wish it changed. I love that Alcott took an “ordinary” woman whose only good feature is ostensibly her hair and an “ordinary” middle-aged man who seems a bit grumpy at times and gave them a love story. I love that she took two awkward people and threw them together in a bunch of awkward moments–and that could not change how they felt about each other. I love that they profess their love to each other messy and uncomfortable in the rain. They are nothing like a fairy tale couple. They are better, because they seem real. And so Little Women tells us love is possible for everyone, not just the charming or the young or the beautiful or the rich.

In light of Alcott’s views on her characters, the news that Margaret Stohl and Melissa de la Cruz will release a retelling of Little Women called Jo & Laurie in which Jo ends up with Laurie has not resonated well with all fans. The current Goodreads reviews show a number of readers upset that reimagining the ending of Little Women is an insult to Alcott’s feminist vision. For my own part, I agree that (obviously) Jo and Laurie marrying each other is not what Alcott wanted. It is, in fact, not what I want, either, so I probably will not read this new book.

However, I see no harm in fans of Little Women releasing an alternate version of the story. That is what fans do. They take a story and they make it their own. They try out different story lines and different endings. Alcott may not have wanted Jo and Laurie married, but plenty of fans throughout the years have disagreed with her. Releasing a retelling will not take away Little Women from us. Those of us who ship Jo and Professor Bhaer will still have Alcott’s vision to delight and move us.