In the nearly a century and a half since it was first published, Little Women has continued to captivate its (mostly female) readers. Rare is the young woman who first picks it up who doesn't want to be Jo March. A contemporary tale when it was first published in 1868, Little Women has become the ultimate historical, and feminist, novel.
The story of four sisters growing up in genteel poverty during and just after the American Civil War, Little Women is based loosely on the early life of the author herself, who grew up in a Transcendentalist household in Massachusetts, among the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
The book tells the story of how, within the Victorian middle class values of the March family, the four March sisters each has develops her own personality. Meg is the dutiful eldest, who does pretty much what is expected of her by her family and society. Jo is the rebellious second daughter, determined to be a writer and to live out her life according to her own wishes and beliefs. Beth is the fragile, saintly third sister, and Amy is the vain, spoiled, but talented youngest.
For any girl who has ever had a sister, or any girl who has ever wanted one, this is a classic story of sisterly interaction. Because the author, too, was one of four sisters, she gets it right.
There have been those who have condemned the basic values of the March girls-- hard work, industriousness, charity, and essential propriety-- as saccharine, but the fierce independence they all exert in the course of the novel (especially Jo), makes the characters come to life. For the view of a uniquely American family, and for the historical-but-not-dated insights, it makes wonderful reading. And without sex or violence or any of the modern come-ons, it remains a page turner.
It is set in a small town in Massachusetts, where the March girls struggle to fit into the society in which they are raised. Two manage to leave, only to return changed yet happy to do so. The story takes them from the middle of the Civil War, when their father (who is serving) is wounded and their mother goes to care for him, to several years after. All the characters grow throughout the story, but it is Jo, the protagonist, who perhaps grows the most, learning to abandon romantic dreams for true (if unexpected) love. .
The March sisters are, above all, honest with each other and-- at least to the extent that they can see themselves-- with themselves. And they are open and loyal with and to each other. The basic story discusses how they meet the challenges of their lives and grow to be adults, each in her own way.
For a book published in 1868, the language-- perhaps because it is written in a truly American vernacular-- is surprisingly modern, and unlike many other 19th century novels, is not at all difficult for modern American readers to follow. Jo-- as indeed are all of the March girls-- is a uniquely American character, independent and headstrong, who succeeds but dint of her own determination.
The book has been adapted several times for movies and for television, with Jo being portrayed by, among others, Katharine Hepburn (1933), June Allyson (i949) and Winona Ryder (1994). In a 1978 made-for-television movie, she was portrayed by Susan Dey and in a short-lived (1978-1979) television series by Jessica Harper. Little Women has even been a musical on Broadway (2005) in which Kate Fisher sang the role of Jo.
Adaptive variations include when and how Jo and her sisters meet their next-door neighbor Theodore (Laurie) Laurence, when and how Amy meets him again in Europe , and how far into the future the story goes. A sequel to the book, Little Men, published three years later, tells more about the March family in the ensuing years. A third book in the series, Jo's Boys, published fifteen years after that, rounds out the story.
The author, Louisa May Alcott, was a woman ahead of her time. An abolitionist and feminist, she campaigned hard for women's suffrage and used her writing talent to earn her (and her family's) way out of the genteel poverty into which she was born. She was the author of many fiery novels as well as many wholesome ones, and a number of children's books as well.
That the book remains in print after 140+ years is a testimony to the enduring enjoyment readers take from it.
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