“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
And so begins Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. You most likely read this book as a girl and probably have a copy given to you some Christmas or Hanukkah decades ago in an attic somewhere.
Today is Christmas and I just happen to be spending it near Concord, Massachusetts where the real events upon which the book is based took place and where it was written. This coincidence got me to thinking about the book and the profound influence it has had upon my life.
Like many girls and young women, I grew up wanting to live in the world of the Marches and be like the sisters in the book. More than any other book I read when I was young, Little Women shaped my view of what women should be; the goals they should be able to pursue; the traits of honesty, perseverance, charity, and humor that lead to happiness and success; and how women should relate to one another with respect and love. I doubt I would be writing this blog if not for this book.
As I reflected on the book from an adult perspective, I began to realize how amazingly effective it is for empowering young women, especially given that it was written at the height of the Victorian era. It is revolutionary, but in a way that transforms by teaching, by simply presenting a portrait of real life where women are truly respected and believe in themselves. It is a book that deserves a second look as we look for new visions of the future, though it was written 140 years ago.
In Little Women, the primary relationships are among women, the sisters and their mother. The male characters seem to exist mostly to move the plot along. Jo’s engagement in the final chapter comes across as the compromise it was; Louisa wanted to keep Jo single, as she was herself, but was forced to marry her off by her publisher.
The girls are each expected to find her innate talent and develop it. When the family needs money, Jo and her sisters assume they will go out and find work, though their choices are limited. In real life, when Louisa could not enlist in the Union Army she became a nurse and turned her experiences into the truthful and poignant book Hospital Sketches. She also spent many years working to support her family. She develops this theme of the importance of women working in her delightful novel Work.
Perhaps most importantly, each of the sisters is a fully developed young woman with some characteristics that are contrary to those of a “good young woman” of that time or our own. They are sometimes grumpy, obstinate, fed up, shallow and more, yet each is respected for who she is. Individuality is prized in this book.
Yet, other books for young women have been written with these same qualities, books that I read when I was a child but that never affected me as much as Little Women. What is it about this book that makes it such a force for the inner transformation of young (and grown-up) women? As I thought about it, I realized that it carries another important message: the real, daily lives of young women are as important as those of any celebrity, any glamorous heroine, any fictional character in some extraordinary circumstance. Nothing outside of normal daily life happens in Little Women, yet every decision they made and action they took is considered to be one more step in the girls’ progress towards becoming strong, independent women who really do go out and change the world. What we do everyday makes a difference – what an encouraging, inspiring, liberating message this is in a world where so much seems to be beyond our control, where misery engulfs women on every continent, where challenges on the road to a world where everyone is cared for and respected can seem insurmountable.
Perhaps this Christmas you’ll want to lie on the rug, like Jo, and enjoy again the gift Louisa May Alcott gave you so many years ago. Or, if you have never experienced it, read Little Women and some of her other works like Work and Hospital Sketches for the first time. Hers is a world worth spending time in at any age.