Versatility characterizes thecanon of Louisa May Alcott, which includes children’s literature, adult novels, gothic thrillers, autobiography, short stories, poetry, and drama. While Alcott’s works for children may be distinguished from those of other writers of children’s stories in some important ways, they nonetheless fit into the broader context of American literature of the time. What set Alcott’s children’s novels apart from the rest was her careful avoidance of the overt didacticism and sermonizing that characterized many others. A code of proper behavior is implicit in the novels, but it is detected in situations rather than showcased by authorial intrusion. In the juvenile novels, with the exception of the March family works, Alcott wrote less from her own experiences, and she was more prone to rewrite earlier works. The most enduring of Alcott’s collection are the girls’ novels and the family stories, which continue to be read because of the vitality of the characters—how they deal with life situations and challenges with humor, even fun—and the way Alcott uses detail to present simple, honest lives. Although critics of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century found the children’s novels to be overly sentimental, readers of the day enjoyed them.
Alcott’s works for adults portray a less simplistic view of life than do the children’s stories. Readers meet people with boring, unhappy, or even sordid lives, lives that would not be deemed suitable for those works that earned Alcott the epithet “children’s friend.” Alcott’s skill in building character, in using dialogue, and in exploring social issues of the day is evident.
Moods, Alcott’s first and favorite novel, was published in 1864. Having been advised to cut its length by about half, Alcott submitted a text that was predictably unsatisfactory both to her and to her critics. Some twenty years later, a new edition was published with some deletions and the restoration of former chapters. The basic story remained the same: The heroine, Sylvia Yule, is dominated by mood swings. Governed more by feelings than by reason, she is prone to making misguided judgments in love. She loves Adam Warwick, a model of strength, intellect, and manliness, but she learns, too late, that he uses others to serve his own purposes and then shuns them. After Adam leaves Sylvia, his best friend, Geoffrey Moor, becomes a true friend to Sylvia, but he mistakes the friendship for love. He is totally unlike Adam Warwick: slight of build, sweet, and tranquil. Sylvia decides to marry Geoffrey because he is a “safe” choice, not because she loves him. When Sylvia finally confesses to Geoffrey her love for Adam, Geoffrey leaves for one year to see if his absence will help her learn to love him. The plan works, but on his way back to claim her love, Adam, Geoffrey’s traveling companion, is drowned. Though saddened, Sylvia and Geoffrey are reunited, wiser and more cognizant of the value of their mutual love. In the 1864 edition of the book, Sylvia develops tuberculosis, and when Geoffrey returns, he nurses her through her terminal illness before she dies in his arms. In the 1881 edition, in which Sylvia falls ill but recovers and accepts Geoffrey’s love, Alcott focuses more clearly on the theme of moods rather than of marriage, and plot and characterization are more even.
Although Louisa May Alcott was already an established author when Little Women was published, it was that novel that brought her an enduring reputation. Little Women was written quickly; the original manuscript was completed in six weeks. Because the public clamored for a sequel revealing how the sisters married, Alcott obliged with Little Women, Part 2 (later published as Good Wives) one year later. The two were subsequently published as a single novel.
Little Women is based on the fictionalized life of the Alcott sisters at their house in Concord. The plot is episodic, devoting at least one chapter to each sister. The overall theme is the sisters’ quest to face the challenges of life and to overcome their personal “burdens” so that they may develop into “little women.” The chief burden of Meg, the eldest, is vanity. Jo, like her mother, has a temper that she must learn to control if she is to become a “little woman.” Beth, thirteen, is already so nearly perfect that her burden is simply to overcome her shyness. Amy is the proverbial spoiled baby in the family, and she must try to overcome her impracticality and thoughtlessness. When the sisters are not sharing intimacies and producing dramatic productions for entertainment, they interact with the next-door neighbors, Mr. Laurence and his orphaned grandson, Laurie. Laurie is wealthy in material things but longs to have family; he often enjoys the March girls’ activities vicariously, from a window.
Mrs. March, affectionately called Marmee, is a central character in the novel. The girls know that they can confide in their mother about anything, and at any time. She is strong, wise, and loving, clearly the anchor of the family. Mr. March is a clergyman who has gone to serve in the Civil War and so is absent during the course of the novel. Among the events of the novel is the tragic death of Beth from a terminal illness. The story ends with the engagement of Meg, the eldest sister, with Jo’s decision to become a writer and to leave her tomboyish childhood for a mature relationship, and with Amy’s betrothal to Laurie. Little Women was an overnight success, and the public eagerly awaited the sequel, provided in Little Women, Part 2.
Little Women, Part 2
The sequel to Little Women was released in January of 1869. Little Women, Part 2 begins with Meg’s wedding day; she settles into a conventional marriage in which her husband is the breadwinner and she is the docile, dependent wife. They have two children, Daisy and Demi-John. For a time, Alcott allows Jo to be happy being single, enjoying her liberty. After she has married Amy off to Laurie in another conventional romantic marriage, however, she bows to the wishes of her readers and has Jo marry Professor Bhaer, the kindly older man about whom Jo became serious in Little Women. With this union, Jo is able to maintain a degree of freedom and to pursue intellectual interests in a way that conventional marriages of the day would not have allowed. Together, Jo and the Professor operate the Plumfield School, whose pedagogy parallels the philosophy of Alcott’s father in his Temple School; the success of Plumfield is thus a tribute to Bronson Alcott.
An Old-Fashioned Girl
Alcott’s novel An Old-Fashioned Girl, published in 1870, was not as commercially successful as were...
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