Published: “Little Women” 1868, “Good Wives” 1869
Publisher: originally Roberts Brothers
Genre: American classics
Disclaimer: As this review may be harsh, please note that this was the first time I read it, and am not a fan of nineteenth-century American literature in the first place. My particular fondness lies in nineteenth-century British literature, as the writing style and its rhythm, in my opinion, are far more cultivated. Immense spoilers ahead.
This near-autobiographical novel follows the lives of sisters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March across several years during and after the American Civil War just outside of New England. Meg is the eldest, very beautiful, and knows how to run a household. Her domestic qualities and patience with children aid her in finding a husband, although by the end of Part II (Good Wives) Meg feels caged in this domestic sphere and attempts to find the silver-lining in her situation. Jo, the tomboy of the family, is quick to anger but vastly creative. She pursues friendship and a self-sustaining career over the domestic life. She scoffs at Theodore “Teddy” “Laurie” Lawrence’s proposal, and falls into the arms of The Professor, and older, German, scholarly man and claims it is love. Beth, quiet, subservient, and gentle, is everyone’s pet. She is beloved by all, but very weak and is ill throughout the novel. She seems to fill the role of the pitied woman, the beautiful but poor creature, the angel no one dares to scar with life’s difficulties. Amy, spoiled and the youngest of the family, desiring wealth and trinkets, is adored and indulged for her fantasies and wishes. When Jo turns away Laurie, Laurie runs to Amy instead, knowing his wealth and knowledge would bring comfort to her.
Alcott wrote Little Women in six weeks. After its success, she wrote Good Wives, the second part to Little Women and now published in one collective volume, and had it published within the year. She wrote a chapter a day for Good Wives, and it certainly looks like that. The writing is very plain and drab. Alcott may have been an editor, but she did not seem to have a grasp for intricate plotting.
One of the qualities I admire in nineteenth-century British literature is that you’re guaranteed a plot or adventure of some sort. A mystery, a scandal to discover, a marriage to form or break, an inheritance to gain. From the first few chapters, the reader can grasp the plot and run along with it. There’s a desire to read all the way to the end, because the plot is invested in something and only the end can reveal it all.
With Alcott’s Little Women, particularly part one, there was no plot whatsoever. It opens with the girls complaining about being poor on Christmas. It follows their day-to-day lives. There is no sense of direction or ending. It was nice to read about the blossoming friendship between Laurie and Jo, the tension and platonic or romantic love around the two of them, but there was no path for the novel to take. The only glimpse the reader gets of a war even happening is when Father is ill on the front. That is it.
In part two, it felt indulgent. Indulgent towards the readers of the time that begged for more. It was also incredibly preachy. Every chapter, even in part one, had a moral to it that the characters shrugged after discovering it and said, “Well, I did wrong, now I know what to do right, and I shall do it from now on! Hurray!” Even Alcott must have been told she had too many moral stories, and clearly she didn’t give a damn:
[Jo] looked at the marked passages and was surprised to find that all the moral reflections — which she had carefully put in as ballast for much romance — had been stricken out.
“But, sir, I thought every story should have some sort of moral, so I took care to have a few of my sinners repent.”
“People want to be amused, not preached at, you know. Morals don’t sell nowadays;” which was not quite a correct statement, by the way.
Really, Alcott? I’m sure most of the readers begging for more of the March sisters wanted to see Laurie and Jo marry. I know I certainly was. I had hoped the direction this novel was taking was towards a wedding between the two. They know each other so well, they have mutual love and respect for one another, and a deep understanding. It was jarring to watch Jo cast Laurie aside and instead go for a dull, less invested man. It hurt to read Laurie calling Amy a decent replacement for Jo.
I understand that Alcott was trying to make a statement about the outcomes of women’s lives in that time. One marries and either lives happily and securely in wealth, contented and poor but somewhat independently, or at first for love that is later ruined and broken. And Beth’s role felt snubbed too. That the best of women suffer the greatest, and simply live to show others the good moral path: to be self-sacrificing and serving others always.
It did not leave me feeling empowered like I do with Jane Eyre; I was not left with passion like I do with Wuthering Heights; there was no examination and acceptance of crossing gender roles like in Woman in White; and there was no examination of the realistic economic, political, and personal struggles like in David Copperfield. I was disappointed. Fans of Alcott may have read this when they were younger. I can see this writing style appealing to younger crowds. But as I’m older, and this is my first read, I was left wanting. With little plot, too much preaching, and an unrealistic and unsatisfactory ending for the characters properly suited to others, I’m sad to say I did not enjoy this book in the least.