A Treasure Uncovered
I was in sixth grade when I first came across this book. I remember walking into a nearly empty library during recess, determined to find a new book that would help me get over the massive failure that was trying to read and comprehend A Tale of Two Cities the previous week. I walked up and down the fiction aisle, idly picking up and thumbing through various books. And then I found Little Women and knew it was the book for me after reading the first page:
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
“We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.Little Women, Chapter 1
Though many of the critical and central themes were lost on me the first time I read the novel, I immediately fell in love with the story after skimming those first lines, each one neatly portraying the core of each central character so clearly.
At the time, the mention of being a poor family on the first page was what initially drew me in, as I was from a poor family myself. Then Amy said her line about girls who have plenty of things versus girls (like me) who did not have much of anything at all. And finally Beth, the eternal moral compass, said something that made made me twinge internally, somewhere deep inside me understood a personal deprivation: while the March girls had their mother, their father and each other to depend on at home, I had…myself and books.
So this final line on page one piqued my curiosity, and with a longing for family I did not know I wanted in such a visceral way until reading those lines, I dove head first into Little Women, hoping to find family with the March sisters.
I did, and I still do.
Growing Up with the Story
Little Women is one of a handful of books that I have reread over the years during different phases in my life, and each time I open the book to relive the story of the March women struggling through life during and following the Civil War, I take away something new and understand each character’s perspective on deeper levels.
Of course, when I first read the book, I immediately identified with Amy. Being the youngest in my own family, I often found myself towing the line between being overly indulged (and inciting the jealousy of my older brother) and being entirely ignored and neglected. Any other youngest siblings out there know what I mean?
Amy is driven and talented, but she often lacks the ability or resources to gain recognition because of the myriad of older people’s problems that always take center stage. It’s the age-old trope: when you’re older, you’ll understand why you’re problems aren’t so bad.
However, as I got older, I started agreeing with the others: Amy was perhaps a bit too dramatic at times and just needed to grow up a bit; that’s when I began to identify more and more with Jo and her ambition for life and untethered freedom. And here’s where I think that Louisa May Alcott’s writing is timeless in her characterization of Jo: she describes the very real struggle for women everywhere who clearly do not fit the mold of society’s expectations and who just as clearly do not honestly want to. I’ve never gotten over Jo’s perspective on life: I am still in search of that ephemeral freedom that often escapes the grasp of ambitious women everywhere.
However, I suspect that if I read this book again today, I would start to identify more strongly with Beth or Meg, while holding on to my freedom-loving Jo. Having (somewhat) settled into adulthood, I now appreciate the beauty in taking life more slowly, in enjoying each joy with less restlessness, and in thinking about something, anything other than myself. For that, I can only be thankful….even if I still get itchy feet every now and then.
I started out reading this book as a young girl realizing she wanted but didn’t have a close-knit family and grew into a woman who was able to make deeper familial connections over the years through all of life’s blessings and curses.
This book is not one to be left forgotten on a shelf, and though it tells a story about the struggles of being a woman, I think the central themes of Little Women are relevant for everyone: duty and sacrifice, morality and society, poverty and self-improvement (among other themes in this book) are all things we struggle through as human beings.