Louisa May Alcott
The following entry presents criticism on Alcott's novel Little Women. See also Louisa May Alcott Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism.
What is now known as Little Women includes both the original work by that title and its sequel, Good Wives. Written by Louisa May Alcott in 1868 and 1869 respectively, together these works have been long established as primary within the canon of juvenile literature and are considered by many to be the first children's books in America to break with the didactic tradition. Alcott introduced realism and entertainment to American children's literature, thereby achieving commercial success unknown to her moralizing contemporaries. Little Women is still read worldwide today.
Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1832, and raised in Concord, Massachusetts, and Boston. She was the second of four daughters of Abigail May Alcott and Amos Bronson Alcott, a Transcendentalist, educational reformer, and well-known writer. Louisa, though more commercially successful than her father, faced many obstacles to the literary career she envisioned for herself. As a woman writer, she was expected to write sentimental and moralizing tales, and in order to earn a living as a writer, she was expected to cater to the sensational cravings of her audience. Although she did both successfully until her death in 1888, many critics argue that with Little Women, Alcott countered sensationalism with realism and subverted the moralizing purpose she often appeared to embrace.
Plot and Major Characters
In Part I, while Mr. March is away as a volunteer chaplain in the Civil War, the March girls, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, embark on "pilgrimages" toward selfimprovement, with the inspiration of John Bunyan's religious allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress (1678). Their journeys, though, are largely determined by their own consciences and will rather than by dogma. Meg learns to overcome her vanity, Jo to overcome excessiveness and temper, Amy, greed and selfishness. Beth is already saintly and seems not to need change, but ironically, it is an act of charity—a visit to a sick infant—which results in the scarlet fever that weakens her health and precipitates her death.
Welcomed into this haven are neighbors Theodore Laurence (Laurie) and his grandfather, who are far from stock patriarchal figures; they are, rather, admirers who crave and aspire to the domestic peace enjoyed by the Marches. Laurie and Jo develop a close friendship that intrigued Alcott's readers, but she avoided the conventional romantic plot by refusing to have them marry. Jo, an unconventional girl who thinks of herself as the "man of the house" while her father is away, is more interested in developing her art and financially supporting her family than marrying.
Part II of Little Women, originally published separately as Good Wives, focuses on the girls' transitions into adulthood. Meg marries John Brooke, Laurie's tutor—a financially difficult but happy match. Amy loses some of her passion for art and marries Laurie after he has been refused by Jo and has recovered from the blow. Beth dies before she can reach adulthood, but her loss inspires Jo to take up her domestic role. Jo eventually marries Professor Bhaer, a middle-aged academic with whom she shares philosophical interests. They open a boys' school, where she, no longer a tomboy, becomes a mother-figure for the students.
Alcott's earlier work, often published under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard, is generally characterized by sensational characters and plots, violence, melodrama, and romance—all consistent with the expectations of her readers. When asked to write a "girl's book," Alcott was yet again forced to write according to others' interests, but in this case she opted for more realism than sensationalism by choosing the only girl-hood she knew for her subject—her own. Based on her life, and that of her sisters, Anna, Elizabeth, and May, Little Women follows the adolescence of the girls into adulthood, captures their private, domestic experience concretely, delineates their matriarchal haven of comfort and frugality, dramatizes their creative play, and explores their struggles to become artists, good sisters, and eventually happy wives. Although the culture of her time demanded that Alcott produce moralizing tales, she displayed a certain amount of resistance to that mandate in Little Women, preaching moderation rather than excessive religious molding. The girls are guided less by rigid moral strictures than by their strong sense of family, sometimes conveyed by words of wisdom from mother Marmee, but more often by a need to get along as a sisterly community. In part II this theme of sisterly love expands to include marriage and the formation of new families, with new roles for the three surviving sisters as good wives. Self-improvement, social responsibility, domestic cooperation, and matriarchal power, as well as the importance of play and artistic development, all serve as prominent themes in Little Women.
The influence of Little Women has been vast, but historically limited to a female readership. Early critics received the novel with sentimental praise and an appreciation of Alcott's ability to meet the minds of her child readers, a view shared by Angela Brazil in her 1922 review. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Alcott was appreciated, like many American women writers, as merely a local colorist with a talent for portraying the domestic sphere concretely. In academia, her novel was studied only by the scholars of children's literature until the 1960s and 1970s, when it came under closer scrutiny by feminist critics, some of whom were frustrated with its outdated sentimentality, others of whom dismissed it because it seems to uphold the traditional separation of men's and women's spheres (public vs. private). In the 1980s, the new emphasis on expanding the canon to include marginalized writers and works associated with popular culture brought more attention to Little Women. It has achieved importance within Women's Studies and the American literary canon in general for its detailed descriptions of nineteenth-century family life and of female struggles for social identity. As Carolyn Heilbrun suggests, Little Women has been particularly influential on female readers in the twentieth century who, craving models of female autonomy, found one, at least briefly, in Alcott's character Jo. Recent critics have continued in this positive vein, calling further attention to the subversive elements in Little Women, recasting Jo as an early feminist who, like her creator, made the most of the limited possibilities open to women in her time.