I was reading a contemporary novel that had many good reviews on Amazon, but when it spiraled down to nothing better than daytime drama I closed the book and hunted for another. My daughter had recently read Little Women and discussed it with me. She liked it, although with reservations. I was not required to read Little Women while getting my English degrees, but of course the book had come up in various classes. I had seen one or two versions of the movie. Since the contemporary adult author had failed me, I thought I would give this classic a try. I’m glad I did.
The relief I felt when I opened Little Women and started reading after experiencing that particular contemporary novel was palpable. It was as if I had removed a rock from underneath my sleeping bag and could now settle down for a good night’s sleep under the pine tree and stars. Within the first chapter the reading experience was that refreshing.
I wondered what made Little Women such a better reading experience. Was it the writing style? No. The writing styles really can’t be compared. Little Women was written in the Nineteenth Century and the contemporary novel in the Twenty-first Century. They are naturally going to sound very different. The contemporary novel really had everything going for it with me as its audience. The language, world, morals, and society were all very familiar to me. These same things in Little Women were quite foreign. I mean, how do you get by language and sentiment like this:
Everybody sniffed when they came to that part. Jo wasn’t ashamed of the great tear that dropped off the end of her nose, and Amy never minded the rumpling of her curls as she hid her face on her mother’s shoulder and sobbed out, “I am a selfish girl! But I’ll truly try to be better, so he mayn’t be disappointed in me by-and-by.”
In any lesser book with such dated language and seeming sentimentality would be unbearable. Even in this book I thought, “What is this? What am I reading?” But I was hooked. I kept reading because there was something impossibly true and genuine underneath the language and sentiment.
Within the next few chapters I started wondering if the author was playing with me. As I experienced the day to day life of these sisters I realized they had had a moment of genuine desire to be better people, but, like us all, those moments wear off and the girls found themselves staring in the mirror at the mediocre version of themselves again. In other words, in spite of language that is dated and ‘nice,’, the lives of the characters are layered, complex, and true. In fact it is the contrast between the dated, ‘charming,’ language and the realities of the difficult world this book is set in that made it such a powerful read for me.
For me, I think this is the core of the matter: this book captures me because it is a ‘nice’ book set in the real world. By nice I mean that there are no scenes (direct or indirectly) of child abuse, sexual appetites, infidelities, betrayals, or traumatic coming out stories. The characters are wholesome and virtuous and always trying to be more so. This is the stuff that makes for unreadable books. In Little Women Alcott kept me reading because just a few steps away from these wholesome characters I sensed the ugly, dark part of the world, like the lion that would rip you apart if it weren’t for the Plexiglas partition. I’m not sure how Alcott did this, because there is no sign that she tried to. Yet the virtuousness of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy is never boring.
In fact it is quite the opposite. These sisters, as well as the men who orbit around them, grow more and more captivating as the chapters pass. As they worked out their relationships with each other, with their world, and with their dreams I found myself identifying with them, either by the similarities, or by the desire for there to be similarities. Somehow their Nineteenth Century world still corresponds to my Twenty-first Century world. This is the genius behind a classic.
Little Women is a ‘safe’ read that still will expand your world. Alcott takes your hand like a heavenly guide and walks you safely through the darkness–darkness which surrounds you, but within this book it cannot touch you. Instead you will be in lighted rooms and treated to moments like Meg on her wedding day:
“. . . But please hug and kiss me, everyone, and don’t mind my dress. I want a great many crumples of this sort put into it today,” and Meg opened her arms to her sisters, who clung about her with April faces for a minute, feeling that the new love had not changed the old.
Or the description of Amy who is not beautiful, but who is beauty itself:
Amy is with truth considered “the flower of the family”, for at sixteen she has the air and bearing of a full-grown woman, not beautiful, but possessed of that indescribable charm called grace. One saw it in the lines of her figure, the make and motion of her hands, the flow of her dress, the drop of her hair, unconscious yet harmonious, and as attractive to many as beauty itself.
Or of the middle-aged Mr. Bhaer who befriends Jo:
He was poor, yet always appeared to be giving something away; a stranger, yet everyone was his friend; no longer young, but as happy-hearted as a boy; plain and peculiar, yet his face looked beautiful to many, and his oddities were freely forgiven for his sake.
The quotes go on and on, describing lives that somehow stick above the murk of this world like mountain tops above the fog, and yet are grounded in reality.
This book is easily one of my favorites next to so many other classics. The moving power of it caught me off guard. I had driven a group of boys to a basketball tournament. While the boys played game after game, and the parents cheered, and the whistles blew, I sat reading Little Woman. At one point I found myself bawling–tears falling freely. It struck me as absurd that the book had such power over me in such a setting. Perhaps I am getting older and more sentimental, but I am delighted to have found Little Women even if half my life is already over.