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On reading “Little Women” for the first time in 35 years

July 18, 2011

Louisa May Alcott as a young woman.

I’m rereading “Little Women” for the first time since my young adulthood, and it’s a thought-provoking experience. The book was written by one of our nation’s first professional women authors, yet it reflects a culture in which women’s highest calling was to be a wife and mother, a culture in which women were expected to be uplifting moral forces. So although Louisa May Alcott was a woman who made a living by her pen, she still felt the duty to write in a morally uplifting way. The book contains a simple narrative of four girls and their mother, but each chapter also presents a more or less obvious moral lesson. As the story progresses the mother provides guidance to her daughters in how to be better persons — less argumentative, more conciliatory, less likely to speak in haste, more hard-working. The frequent moralizing can be alienating to modern readers.

And yet the female protagonist, Jo March, is so keenly defined and possesses such recognizable human concerns and hopes that I’m hooked as a reader. The novel was written only a few years after the Civil War ended, but the characterization foreshadows modern fiction. G.K. Chesterton is reported to have said that the novel “predated realism by twenty or thirty years”. Bear in mind that many mid-century Victorian novels contained characters that were not true individuals per se but more accurately stereotypes of The Swooning Heroine, The Mustachioed Rogue, or The Golden-Haired Hero. But Jo is no typical swooning heroine; she’s a recognizable person, a tomboy who rumples her dresses by romping with children and sitting on the grass with a book. She doesn’t like romance; she has no expectation of ever marrying. She’s an aspiring writer, and none of this is typical for a conventional young woman of Victorian America. Jo is sui generis as a character, a modern woman struggling in a pre-modern society, and the realism of her character is first-rate.

The thing that strikes me most forcefully about this novel is that the author (and the culture in which she lived) completely believed in the notion of perfectibility, of the necessity of an ongoing effort to improve oneself on the path of life. Self-improvement, and societal improvement, were things that people were expected to strive toward. After long and anguished private deliberation President Lincoln fought a war in order to perfect his nation, just as the Founding Fathers had done before him. The idea of perfectibility lingered well into the 20th century, not as a spiritual necessity but as more of a material optimism, because Americans were cheerfully confident that our physical lives would continue to improve due to social, economic and scientific advances. That hope of betterment maintained people during the dark years of the Great Depression and the war that followed, and the mantra was better times are just around the corner. Even during the 1950s people retained this belief in perfectibility, for weren’t more people than ever before living in their own new ranch homes, driving big cars and enjoying their expensive new television sets each night? Weren’t we going to beat back the Russians and make capitalism rule supreme around the globe? So, at what point did our culture lose the optimism that we could guide ourselves and our nation to an ever-better future through our own efforts?

I think it happened in the 1960s due to the war in Vietnam and the shockwaves that rippled outward from our burning slums and our  assassinated leaders. By Nixon’s resignation in the early ’70s, no one believed any longer in perfectibility. We were jaded and cynical, and without real hope. We felt that no matter how hard we struggled, it was all in vain, just so much wasted effort.That cynicism is now firmly entrenched in our culture, along with laziness and greed. So, in turning my eyes away from the murk that pervades the culture today, to browse through “Little Women” is like taking a deep drink of fresh cool spring water after weeks of nothing but soda pop. It’s inspiring, really: a glimpse of a sweet and optimistic culture that’s vanished forever.

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