Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women review

Lockdown has turned a lot of us into bookworms (if we weren’t already!) and so at the BMI, we’re creating a space for our members to write about their reading experiences in lockdown. Here’s Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, reviewed by Tasha Booth-Johnson.

Immediately after first watching Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation in January of this year, I added Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1869) to my reading list. While Gerwig’s film utilises a non-linear narrative and updates the novel for a twenty-first century audience – I thank her especially for transforming the ageing professor Bhaer into an attractive, young Frenchman – the sense of love, family, and utter chaos is captured beautifully. Alcott’s story, for those unaware, follows the coming of age of four young women during the Civil War in the United States and is widely considered to be at least semi-autobiographical, taking much inspiration from Alcott’s own teenage years growing up with three sisters. The novel reads like a snapshot into the real lives of these young women, a series of scenes where we learn about their wants, dreams, and flaws, and their budding friendship with their young neighbour Theodore Laurence – called Laurie. The tension revolves entirely around the inner lives of these characters, the threat of the war often relegated to the background in favour of family disagreements, small and large, all of which take the reader on an emotional journey that truly encapsulates the lives of these women.

The present-day reader, however, must be aware of the context within which the novel was written. The Puritan aspects of the narrative are rather heavy-handed, thus crafting a tone rife with didactic religious morality. The characters do not always do what is right, but they always learn from these mistakes – and they are sure to tell you exactly what they have learned. However, some such ‘mistakes’ sit uncomfortably. A handful of scenes are hard to swallow for the twenty-first century reader, cloaked as they are in essentialist gender ideology to the extent that they seem entirely ridiculous – these are, for good reason, scenes omitted from both the 1994 and 2019 film adaptations. Such scenes stand out sharply even within the rest of the narrative, where we predominantly follow Jo, a tomboy and a writer, whose very existence contradicts the ideologies enforced in other – specifically Meg’s – subplots. Throughout the novel Jo battles with her own desires, for instance to be a published writer, and what others expect from her and whether or not she should, or is even able to, follow the same path as her elder sister, Meg, the perfect little woman.

Little Women was a delightful read in many ways: the scenes of domestic bliss and childhood squabbles, the heart-wrenching moments that, while often predictable, remain painful to read. The novel has consistently low stakes, especially in contrast to the sensation fiction popular in the 1860s of the kind written by Jo, but it is for this very reason I enjoyed it so whole-heartedly.

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