Thoughts on Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

If you have been a reader of this space for any amount of time, you will certainly know of my endless love of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.  A lot of that love stems from nostalgia and the fact that I see so much of myself in the character of Jo, and the other girls at times.  I wax all poetic and nostalgic in my full review, which is here if you so desire.

Recently, I've heard some criticism floating around about Little Women, and I thought I'd talk about that.  Now, I am not writing this in response to that criticism necessarily – everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, and I'm not going to try and say they're wrong or anything (though I will defend Little Women forever), but I just wanted to share my thoughts regarding the criticism.

The criticism is, basically, that Little Women is too perfect, too idyllic a picture of a family.  In other words, it's not reality.  And because a loving family, where the parents love each other, where the children love each other and their parents, and where God is present and glorified is not realistic, the book is disliked/considered only a children's book/criticized.  I've also heard people say that it's too sickly sweet, that the morals and the idea of being "a good girl" are old-fashioned and outdated.  Also, that this is a book only meant for children.

Personally, I think that really simplifies the book - I think it's got a bigger heart than all of that, and I also disagree with the idea that it's not realistic as a bit rubbish.  These girls and their mother are separated from their father/husband while he is involved with the Civil War which is taking place, one of the sisters dies later in the book after a prolonged illness, and the family is poor.  Perhaps what the criticism means when they denounce it as unrealistic is that the way in which the family faces their trials and struggles is unrealistic.

Now, I have a problem when things are criticized for being "too perfect" or idealistic.  I'm sorry, but I was under the assumption that we wanted families to be strong, marriages to be healthy, relationships to thrive, and family members to love each other and bind together when the going gets tough.  I think we have a problem when we begin to get rid of ideals and level the playing field so that everything is just "realistic" and there is no striving for anything better than what already is.  If we only have examples of families and relationships and marriages that are realistic, then how will anything ever get better?  How will society ever progress?  And here's a little hint: strong marriages and strong families strengthen society.

One of my favorite things C.S. Lewis ever said about children's literature was his insistence that dark, evil, terrible circumstances and characters be a part of children's books, because they must be aware that in the world they live, there are villains and terrible things, and they need to read stories about those things and read about heroes who destroy villains and chase away the darkness.  I love that, and I think that is terribly important in children's books.

That doesn't mean, however, (and I don't think Lewis meant it either) that ALL children's lit should only be about the darker side of the world.  Yeah, kids should read books that tell about the evil in the world, but it's also imperative that they read books about goodness and purity and stories that tell how things should be.  Children need to know about the evil so they are prepared for it, but they have to know that there is something better than all of that, too.  They have to see the beauty of family, of relationships, of the redemption of love and how love conquers hate.  They have to see the shining knights who pursue the villains, the good men who protect the weak, the fathers who care for their families, the women who are brave and strong, the mothers who weather the storms, the kings who are noble and honorable, and the people who care for others before themselves.

That's why books like Little Women are important.  They show children how families should work, how fathers should protect, how mothers should love.  They need to see high standards, they need a picture of how things should be.  Because if they don't know that, if they can't ever see the good things, it won't matter if they know all about the bad.  They won't have anything else to turn to.

Something else C.S. Lewis said regarding children's books has to do with morals.  A lot of the criticism for Little Women has to do with the amount of morals in the book, the supposedly old-fashioned preachiness of the family's faith.  C.S. Lewis says (and I paraphrase) that children's books should not have any sort of moral that the author himself does not strive for or does not apply to himself.  Otherwise, it won't be believable.  He says, "We must write for children out of those elements in our own imagination which we share with children: differing from out child readers not by any less, or less serious, interest in the things we handle, but by the fact that we have other interests with children would not share with us."  I know for a fact that Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women around her own sisters, and Jo specifically around herself, and she shared Jo's persistent struggle with her temper.  Therefore, Alcott's writing about that came from her personal experience, and that adds so much more heart to Jo's struggle than if the author pulled it out of the air.

Those are just some of my thoughts on the criticism that's floating around about Little Women.  Again, I'm not trying to convince anyone or discredit their opinions, but it just concerns me when ideals like family and marriage are not given any credit because "it's just not realistic".  Personally, I think Little Women is more than just a children's story, and it's still my favorite book.  Thanks for reading! xo, Ella


Amy Shaw said...

Little Women is one of my favorite books too, and I agree with your thoughts on it! I do have one criticism of it though, and that is I am among the many who wish Jo and Laurie had gotten together! I think I understand where Alcott was trying to come from with not putting them together, but I still would have liked to have seen it! :)

Ella said...

Thanks so much for commenting, Amy! Yeah, I think the first time I read the book I was disappointed with who Jo ended up with, too, but I've come to really like Dr. Baehr and appreciate their relationship (especially after reading books like Little Men). I think I would have been really happy with whoever Jo ended up with BECAUSE SHE CAN DO NO WRONG. ;) I would totally be interested in reading Alcott's alternate ending (if there was such a thing), where Jo ends up with Laurie...

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