The Bottom Line: Despite the chaotic ending, this is a beautifully-written classic and a lovely portrait of nineteenth-century domestic life.
Never shall I forget my fifth-grade year, for it was during this trying time that I fully realized the extent to which rigid programs have invaded public education. In October of that year, I received a copy of Little Women from the library in four large Braille volumes. However, I was forced to hide my 947-page treasure in the classroom because Alcotts literary masterpiece had been usurped by a dreadfully inferior bookan imitation novel that was considered great because it was on the Accelerated Reader list. I am a stubborn individual; treating Little Women as contraband fueled my insatiable curiosity. A subsequent study of the book and a forty-seven-page book report revealed the following:
In order to fully comprehend a plot summary of this novel, it is essential that the reader understand the March girls characters. Margaret (Meg) is rather enamored of fashionable gowns and longs constantly for a bit more wealth. However, she retains a gentle, moral personality that softens her elite nature.
Josephine (Jo) is an aspiring authoress who has been deterred from masculine habits only through much coaxing. Jo has little patience for love and other such sentimental nonsense"; however, she maintains a strong friendship with the familys neighbor, Laurie Lawrence. The latters pursuit of marriage causes their relationship to disintegrate abruptly and bitterly.
Elizabeth (Beth) is gentle, kindhearted, and very childlike. At thirteen, she keeps and nurses a doll that has long been abandoned by Jo. Despite her tragic illness, Beth maintains a faithful demeanor and a patient attitude.
Although the girls encourage Amy not to fret over her physical appearance and complex social network, the latter is nearly incapable of accepting anything save perfection from her clothes. She speaks French imperfectly and attempts to remain the epitome of American fashion. However, little changes in her character. Her small mannerisms often render Amy somewhat snobbish.
PLOT SUMMARY, PART I
Christmas wont be Christmas without any presents. So begins Alcotts entertaining yet moral guide to womanly, nineteenth-century etiquette. Although the March home is a happy one, their fathers wartime absence casts a shadow upon the Christmas season. The familys financial difficulties are particularly perplexing for Meg and Amy, two young ladies who are fascinated by finery.
Following the Christmas season, which proves festive despite a lack of books and gowns, the two eldest girls are invited to a ball at the house of a rather fine lady. There, Jo makes the acquaintance of Laurie Lawrencea mischievous young man who quickly becomes a good friend of the March family. His grandfathers wealth and his own kindness are great assets to Mrs. March and her daughters.
The year brings with it several interesting, girlish pleasures: the formation of a secret society, Beths acquisition of a baby grand piano, and Megs brief sojourn in the house of an elite but lofty woman. These simple amusements are quickly forgotten, however, when Mr. March receives a telegram informing her that her husband is very ill. In the subsequent flurry of sentiment, the March sisters fail to see that Beth is continuing to aid an impoverished family. Beths continual care proves traumatic, for she ultimately contracts scarlet fever.
Beths recovery brings with it two lovely events, neither of which I shall here relate. Suffice it to say that Part I of this novel closes joyfully.
PLOT SUMMARY, PART II
Warning: I fear that I shall be unable to summarize Part II without disclosing vital portions of the storys end. Please skip this section if you wish to be surprised.
Part II opens as Meg is married to John Brooke, Lauries former tutor. Despite some domestic challenges, Meg and John are quite contentedparticularly following the birth of their twins. Meanwhile, Laurie begins to fall in love with Jomuch to the latters horror. Beths condition gradually deteriorates; her passing, though painful, is soon forgotten. Jo, after all, has other concernsnamely, a break-up quarrel with Laurie and a newfound infatuation for an older German professor. Amy, true to her aesthetic character, decides to travel abroad, where she is united in matrimony with Laurie. As Part II closes, the March-Lawrence family enjoys a large reunion back in the United States.
I fear that I cannot be blamed for the hasty, careless style in which my summary of Part II was written. Whereas Part I was beautifully and carefully written, Part II is quite unrealistic. Indeed, the family does pay little heed to Beth and the difficulties that befall her. Whereas Part I covered one year in the March household, Alcott attempts to describe over seven years in Part II. The result is a disjointed, unrealistic ending.
In other words, Little Women may be described as follows: The book opens with the gentle harp of eloquence and a sweet flute. Later, a reverent piano joins our musical masterpiece, adding a touch of grave yet lovely morality. Suddenly, a loud and inappropriate series of drums invades orchestral tranquility. As the story draws to an end, cymbals enter this obnoxious cacophony. Bang! That is the sound of all instrumentsharp, flute, piano, drums, and cymbalsbeing knocked down in disgust.
Throughout Part I in particular, Alcott makes several allusions to Pilgrims Progress. As the girls pretend to embark on Christians journey, they learn several lessons about quenching vanity and controlling ones temper. Part II continues these lessons; the girls rely heavily on Judeo-Christian values to make decisions. Mrs. March represents ideal motherhood and remains a constant source of comfort and friendship throughout the book. Alcott walks a rather fine line between didactic instruction and entertainment. Considering the publication date, she managed quite well.
Little Women is a classic that is certainly worth reading. It is not for young girls only; rather, it may be enjoyed by anyone with a sentimental heart and a love for well-written, classic literature. Although I did find the ending terribly unrealistic, many nineteenth-century novels seem to end after this fashion. Ignore the odious clatter of cymbals and falling instruments, purchase a copy of one of Americas greatest novels, and enjoy!