Little Women : A classic for the ages

by Louisa May Alcott

Although it hadn’t won any awards at the time of its release, multiple film adaptions, television shows, plays and retellings are a testament to the cult that surrounds the book “Little Women” by author Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888). Published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, Alcott wrote the book in response to a request from her friends and family to write a book for young girls. The first novel was a huge success and struck a chord with readers and Alcott was flooded with letters requesting the second volume immediately. She quickly wrote the next volume to accommodate them. Eventually, the two volumes were released as one novel in 1880.

The novel continues to be very widely read and the ambitious female characters in it contributed to the rise of feminism in 20th century America. It revolves around the story of the four March sisters: Margaret “Meg”, Josephine “Jo”, Elizabeth “Beth” and Amy as they live their lives and grow into adults. The girls must contend with learning to become good women and learning about who they are as people with the help of their mother and father.

While on the surface it may come across as a simple story about the four March girls’ journeys from childhood to adulthood, Little Women centres on the conflict between two emphases in a young woman’s life—that which she places on herself, and one which she places on her family. In the novel, an emphasis on domestic duties and family detracts from various women’s abilities to attend to their own growth. For Jo and, in some cases, Amy, the problem of being both: an individual skilled at what they do and to be a dutiful woman creates conflict and pushes the boundaries set by nineteenth-century American society.

At the time when the novel was composed, women’s status in society was slowly increasing. As with any change in social norms, however, progress toward gender equality was made slowly. Through the four different sisters, Alcott explores four possible ways to deal with being a woman bound by the constraints of societal expectations: marry young and create a new family, be subservient and dutiful to one’s parents and immediate family, focus on one’s art, pleasure, and person, or struggle to live both a dutiful family life and a meaningful professional life . While some of the March sisters conform to society’s expectations of the role that women should play, the others initially attempt to break free from these constraints and nurture their individuality. Eventually, however, settling into a more customary life. While Alcott does not suggest that one model of womanhood is more desirable than the other, she does recognize that one is more realistic than the other.

The novel contains five intrinsic aspects: character, theme, setting, plot, and writing style. It is an unusual example of young adult literature of the time because Alcott gives her character with both faults and virtues, avoids teaching to reader, writes in a simple but accurate style, employs simple and often humorous dialogue. Heart-warming and emotional, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott has stood the test of time, and indeed deserves the title of being the cult classic we all know.

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