Autobiographical Elements in Alcott's Novel
That Louisa May Alcott's classic Little Women is heavily autobiographical is well known among literary scholars. Perhaps because she wrote the book merely for money, she found it economical to lift people and events out of her own life to create the story. Part one was written in 1868 and was intended to be the only story about the March family. Readers, however, were captivated by the girls and demanded to know more about their lives. The following year, Alcott wrote Good Wives, which now appears as part two in Little Women. Readers were thrilled with the continuing story of the Marches, although Alcott's intentions were not merely to appease her readers by writing a naive and romantic story. In part two, fiction overshadows fact, which leaves readers and scholars to wonder how Alcott made decisions about the fates of the sisters. While it is clear that certain aspects of part two are designed to satisfy her readership, others clearly are not. Was Alcott compromising with her readers (between what she knew they would want and what she thought was realistic), or was she exercising a bit of wish fulfillment in her novel?
Part one of Little Women is brimming with autobiographical elements, from important plot developments to minor details. Some scholars suggest that Alcott's initial reluctance to write the book, her quick completion of the manuscript in six weeks, and her minimal editing all indicate that she undertook writing the novel as a task to finish as quickly as possible. Using her life as a template allowed her to make shortcuts without sacrificing realism, characterization, or interesting story developments.
Each of the four sisters was modeled after one of Alcott's own sisters. Meg is the literary counterpart to Anna, Jo is Alcott's alter ego, Beth is the book's version of Elizabeth, and the letters of Amy's name can be rearranged to spell out her real-life inspiration, May. Most of the events in part one are based on actual events in Alcott's life, such as Meg's marriage and Jo's profound disappointment at having the family separated. Also, the Alcott girls donated their Christmas breakfast to a needy family one year, Alcott won a hundred dollars in a writing contest, and the girls often performed plays for neighborhood girls. Growing up, Alcott loved spending time with her sisters as much as Jo does, and she resolved early in life to be responsible for taking care of the family. After the failure of Fruit-lands (Alcott's father's attempt to establish a utopian society), Alcott realized that her father could not be relied upon to support his wife and daughters. Alcott's mother realized this, too, and, like Marmee, worked diligently to be sure the family's needs were met. Mr. March is physically or emotionally absent throughout Little Women, and Alcott's father was not a reliable breadwinner or confidant.
Part one is more character driven than part two, presumably because Alcott is simply telling about the people in her life. It is unsatisfying as a self-contained story, as it only introduces the girls, describes some of their scrapes, and tells how Meg comes to be engaged. Many scholars regard it as plotless, concluding that its success came from its detailed setting, quick pace, and delightful characters with whom young readers could readily identify. Because most characters in children's books at the time were too perfect, readers were less interested in what eventually became of them. In Little Women, however, readers saw themselves in the pages of the story and longed to know how things turned out for the March girls. Thus, being character driven is part one's strength.
In addition, part one reveals a great deal about Alcott's perceptions of her family life. Mr. March's absence reflects Alcott's inability to create a believable, involved father in an autobiographical work. Because her father was not an ideal paternal figure, she would have had difficulty imagining the familiar setting with a wonderful, warm, and connected father....
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