Some days must be dark, and sad, and dreary."
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"The Rainy Day"
So with this quote ends Little Women...not the cheeriest note to end on considering the messages of innocence, goodness and the rewards of restraint hidden within.
I found myself quite surprised reading this book after a thirty year absence. I first read it at age 12 or 13, and at the time the feeling that I took away from the novel was the overwhelming desire to live within its pages. It seemed an idealized, uncomplicated world of nature, simple beauties, sincere personalities and above all, comfort.
This time I found myself slightly irritated with the message of "goodness" that was repeated endlessly until about halfway through my reading... I had to give my head a shake and remind myself of the times in which the book was written. Alcott was a feminist and an abolitionist, and what platforms did women have in the 1870's? The book was written "in record time for money"(1) and even the author pokes fun at her own preaching ways:
"Gentlemen, which means boys, be courteous to the old maids, no matter how poor and plain and prim, for the only chivalry worth having is that which is the readiest to pay deference to the old, protect the feeble, and serve womankind, regardless of rank, age or color....
Jo must have fallen asleep (as I dare say my reader has during this little homily)..."
page 441, chapter 43 "Surprises"
By this time I was reading "the homily" and shouting Hear Hear! The little lessons sprinkled throughout were an effective method of conveying ideals to the masses (though the popularity of the book came as a surprise to both author and publisher), and a fine little platform it was for a poor author without power or money.
Do you see the feminism in this book? The longing for equality above all things?
"Beth could not reason upon or explain the faith that gave her courage and patience to give up life, and cheerfully wait for death. Like a confiding child, she asked no questions, but left everything to God and nature, Father and mother of us all, feeling sure that they, and only they, could teach and strengthen heart and spirit for this life and the life to come."
-page 374, chapter 36 "Beth's Secret"
Was Beth's life a celebration of innocence or a reminder of our fleeting time, our "rainy days"?
Perhaps the greater message is the sin of wealth and its displays?
"Wealth is certainly a most desirable thing, but poverty has its sunny side, and one of the sweet uses of adversity, is the genuine satisfaction which comes from hearty work of head or hand; and to the inspiration of necessity, we owe half the wise, beautiful, and useful blessings of the world."
page 269, chapter 27, "Literary Lessons"
Is wealth portrayed as sinful? How do Laurie and Amy compensate for their own wealth as a character deficit at the novel's end, are their plans for charity a way of saving themselves?
One thought that did occur to me is that in all of the lessons learned about the idea of "happiness" the virtues extolled in this novel are right in line, and this is with current thought! A purpose (work), community (family, sincere relationships) and an appreciation of the natural world... these are all themes in Little Women.
Do Marmee's lectures address real ideas of happiness?
How about the acknowledgement of flaws in personality (Jo's temper, Amy's vanity, Meg's shame for her poor clothes) which leads to acceptance and personal triumph for the sisters when they overcome these deficiencies? I found that refreshing yet disciplined, and it made me wonder about modern lack of character and virtue...
Is the emphasis on character flaw merely a method of carrying the story forward in a sort of moral trajectory? Is the book really about the development of morals and the hard work it takes to polish oneself into a useful member of society?
In the end I so enjoyed reading it again, and I've been wondering what it would be like to raise a family of Rascals in these vastly different times. So I guess I still long for this world and to live in it, idealized of course! How about you? There are many themes I haven't touched on but I leave it to you, and remember that long comments are encouraged, the last thing I want is to do all the talking.