Critical Overview

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Although Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women in 1868 for the sole purpose of making money, the novel is without question her most notable and enduring work. In fact, the book as it is read today contains the original text and its sequel, Good Wives, which was written a year after the first part. The second part was written in response to the demands of Alcott’s young female readers, who were drawn to the individuality displayed by the novel’s characters and wanted to know what would become of them. Upon the April 14 release of part 2, Alcott’s publisher was shocked by its sales. By the end of May, more than 13,000 copies had sold—an incredible number at the time and especially surprising because the book was written for young girls, not the general public. Critical response in 1868 and 1869 was as favorable as the readers’ response, and Alcott was among the first children’s authors to be taken seriously by literary critics. A review in Nation declared Little Women an “agreeable” story that appeals to juvenile and adult readers alike. The critic wrote that the March girls were “drawn with a certain cleverness.”

When the second part of the novel was published, a critic wrote in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine that it was perhaps too mature for adolescent girls but that it rings true by not resorting to the “false sentiment” so common in children’s literature. In fact, Alcott’s contemporaries as well as modern-day critics agree that the novel is remarkable for its reality and depth, standing in stark contrast to the too-sweet, overly didactic stories available to children at the time. Children were generally depicted as perfect and innocent, but Alcott gave her characters flaws and made no effort to conceal them. They remain virtuous, however, because they are aware of their weaknesses and strive to correct them. In modern terms, the characters in Little Women seem a bit too perfect, as many critics argue, but in the context of the mid-nineteenth century, they were characters whose likeness had never been seen. Not all critics praise the novel, however. Biographer Martha Saxton viewed Little Women as a sell-out for Alcott, who, according to Saxton, had great talent yet squandered it on a book that was preachy and sentimental. Jane Gabin in Reference Guide to American Literature, on the other hand, deemed Little Women “markedly superior to other books of its genre” because of its unobtrusive “sermonizing” and its well-rounded characters. She added that in other books of the time, the villains and the heroes were clearly identified, but in Alcott’s book, even the heroes have flaws and make mistakes.

Alcott’s sense of the challenges and joys of adolescence continues to impress readers. Since its publication, Little Women has never gone out of print, and some scholars attribute its staggering success to the universal themes of growing up and to Alcott’s honest portrayal of the feelings, thoughts, worries, and delights that accompany it. In New England Quarterly, Madeleine Stern observed:

The author’s knowledge of adolescent psychology reveals itself in twofold form throughout the work, for it consisted first of an appeal to adolescents, the skill of making them laugh or cry, and secondly of an ability to describe adolescents, to catch and transfix the varied emotions and thoughts of the young.

Feminist critics are divided about the portrayal of females in Little Women. While some criticize the heavily domestic depiction of womanhood, others praise Jo as a breakout figure who blazes her own path and is able to have both love and a career. The fact that, in part 2, Jo marries a man who is older and lacks passion seems too great a compromise to some critics who admired Jo’s steadfast adherence to her principles in part 1. Further, they interpret her working at Plumfield with her husband as sacrificing her writing after marriage.

Although the book is filled with submissive women who are content with domestic life (such as Meg), a great deal of feminist attention concentrates on Jo. Brigid Brophy of New York Times Book Review agreed that while the book is heavily sentimental, it still works because of the extraordinary character of Jo. Less taken with the novel, Elizabeth Janeway in Only Connect: Readings on Children’s Literature described it as “dated and sentimental and full of preaching and moralizing” but admitted that Jo makes the book worth reading nonetheless. She wrote that “Jo is . . . the one young woman in nineteenth-century fiction who maintains her individual independence, who gives up no part of her autonomy as payment for being a woman.” Alison Lurie of New York Review of Books seems to agree with this notion, as she commented:

From a mid-nineteenth century perspective, Little Women is both a conservative and a radical novel. . . . In contemporary terms, [Jo] has it all: Not only a household and children but two careers and she doesn’t have to do her own housework and cooking.

Critics continue to debate the lasting qualities of Little Women. Whether it is the novel’s touching presentation of growing pains, the triumphant female figure Jo, or the overall “human truth,” as British author and critic G. K. Chesterton claims, there is no doubt that the novel as a whole has an enduring appeal. Despite its setting in a time and place unfamiliar to modern readers, the novel continues to speak to children and adults in a way that transcends mere nostalgia.

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Critical Evaluation

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Little Women (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)