With these happy memories to look back on I was thrilled when Little Women was selected as my Classics Club Spin book. Surely a book I loved so much as child should warm my heart as an adult. In fact, I couldn't remember if I had read the unabridged or abridged version of the book first time around so I looked forward to reading the whole unabridged book this time around, all 500+ pages of it. I checked out the library copy of the book and I also cued up the audiobook on my computer. Last summer I got a free download from SYNC and I hadn't listened to any of it yet. First glitch, I couldn't figure out how to transfer the file from my computer to my iPod. Bummer, that meant if I wanted to listen to it I was tethered to my computer. Reading the print version was an option but I already had three (or was it four) books I needed to finish for book club and other projects. All of this I tell you just to make the point that I got off to a rough and a late start.
Right from the epigraph I knew that my childhood memory of the book wasn't going to hold up.
Go then, my little Book, and show to all/That entertain and bid thee welcome shall, /What thou dost keep close shut up in thy breast; /And wish what thou dost show them may be blest/To them for good, may make them choose to be/ Pilgrims better, by far, than thee or me./ Tell them of Mercy; she is one/Who early hath her pilgrimage begun./ Yea, let young damsels learn of her to prize/The world which is to come, and so be wise;/ For little tripping maids may follow God/ Along the ways which saintly feet have trod.Apparently Louisa May Alcott was making a point right from the start that all the work-a-day stories in the book about the sisters were not nearly as important as the religious messages she would be delivering therein (Shmoop). And to say there is a preaching tone to the book is stating it mildly. As a child I missed all the literary allusions to Pilgrims Progress and knew nothing about the Transcendentalists ideals. As an adult I felt clobbered over the head by them.
With these thoughts in mind I wonder what is it that makes Little Women so special? Why is it even considered a classic? After consulting Shmoop I found a few answers to my query. It is consider the classic book for girls. Why? Probably because every girl whoever reads it does exactly what I did as a child---fit, or tries to fit, her family into the pages of the book. We all know people exact like Jo, and Meg, and Amy. We may even know a few sweet Beths. We all wish we had mothers like Marmee and families who lived up to their ideals even if it means they forgo earthly riches. We want friends like Laurie and opportunities for creative pursuits.
The first 23 chapters of Little Women were published in 1868 and it is largely accepted that these chapters were based on Louisa May Alcott's life. These chapters seem so real because they probably were quite true. The second half of the book, chapters 24-47, were originally published a year later in 1869 in a book called Good Wives. The reading public demanded that Alcott continue the story of the four sisters into adulthood. Everyone wanted to know if Jo and Laurie would end up together. "Without her own life experiences, the second part of the novel may feel less realistic. However, no amount of fan-mail could force Alcott to marry off the two main characters in the way her readers expected" (Shmoop).
In addition to being the quintessential girl book, it holds up well to the scrutiny of English teachers over the ages with all kinds of themes, literary allusions, and literary spin-offs. I pity the poor boy who ever had to study this book in class, though I dare say it is unlikely to happen in this generation. High School English teachers no longer have the luxury to teach long books and students, with a few rare exceptions, are unlikely to select them for their own enjoyment.
In a funny coincidence, the day I finished Little Women this week I opened up Google to find this picture as their Google Doodle of the day, since it was Louisa May Alcott's 184th birthday.