The Importance of Little Women

When I was young, I read Little Women countless times. I had definite opinions about what happened in the book.I had strong feelings about Amy burning Jo's novel. I hated that Beth died. I thought that Jo and Laurie should have been together. I think one of the reasons I read this book so many times is that I hoped that the next time I read it, some things would turn out differently.

Recently, I watched the PBS adaption of Little Women. This time, it was quite clear to me that Jo and Laurie were not a match. How did I miss the references to billiards and drinking and Laurie's overall nonchalance towards life? How would that work with such a driven, serious young woman? It wouldn't, and she told him so countless times. I had forgotten that, too. In my young mind, he had proposed once in such a romantic way. Why couldn't Jo let herself be happy? They were clearly meant to be! But now I see they weren't.

It still bothered me that Amy destroyed Jo's novel. Really? You're not invited to a play, and you burn your sister's draft? I also didn't have much sympathy for her in the pickled lime incident. The teacher had warned them, no more pickled limes. Yes, hitting her hands with a ruler, when he discovered her stash, was not the appropriate response, but I could not see her as a grand martyr here. And I was annoyed when Amy was so upset about having to live with Aunt March during the scarlet fever epidemic. Your sister is seriously ill, and this is what you're focused on? I would have been a horrible sister for Amy.

And yet Amy understood the culture. She knew how to behave like a young woman of the time and rightfully get the opportunities to go places because she was pleasant and appropriate. And she was a great match for Laurie. They had similar values. They loved the social life. I can see that now.

I hadn't remembered that Beth first recovered and then fell sick again. When I read this book when I was young, I hadn't realized how isolated she was, that she didn't go to school because she was too shy, that she really didn't like to leave the house, that it was very hard for her to meet new people. Like Beth, I loved playing the piano when I was young. I was very shy, too. It would always be hard to read of a young person dying, but I think this death was particularly hard for me because I related so much to her, and I wondered what kind of a life a person like I could have. I wanted Beth to be able to show me the way, and that didn't happen in this story, no matter how many times I read it.

But I also understood Jo. I have that part that burns to write. Watching this story again, I had forgotten about her failed novel. When she is trying to move beyond that failure, she says, “I can't even write journal entries, but I have so many words in my head.” I've been there, sister.  At another point, she states, "I am too thoughtless and too blunt, and I have an ungovernable tongue.” I know all about that. I may have outgrown some of those tendencies, but sometimes I am right there with my temper and thoughts of  what I perceive as justice flying out of my mouth again. I also know that feeling of being outside the culture, of not being able to understand why fashion and flirtation seemed so important to my peers, when writing felt like everything to me. And this time when she met Professor Baer, I swooned. I never thought I would consider Professor Baer a dreamboat, but now I do.

We were at the movies last night, and there was a coming attraction for a modern update of Little Women, coming to a theatre near you in September. I will have to go see it. I think this story remains powerful because it talks about sisterhood, about the importance of caring for others, and about the different paths that one can take in life. It will always be one of my favorite stories.