Happy Birthday, Louisa May Alcott! Entry Previews for Little Women and Little Men

Happy Birthday, Louisa May Alcott! Entry Previews for Little Women and Little Men

In honor of Louisa May Alcott’s birthday, here are excerpts from the Literature Criticism Series for Alcott’s Little Women (Children’s Literature Review: Volume 196) and Little Men (Children’s Literature Review: Volume 195):


Little Women

Louisa May Alcott

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms A. M. Barnard, Aunt Weedy, Oranthy Bluggage, Flora Fairfield, and Minerva Moody) American novelist, poet, short-story writer, and author of young-adult books.

INTRODUCTION

Little Women, the canonical novel by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), tells the story of sisters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March as they develop from girls into women during the American Civil War (1861-65). Originally commissioned by the publisher Thomas Niles, the first twenty-four chapters, published in October 1868 and ending with a marriage proposal for Meg, occasioned such enthusiasm from reviewers and readers demanding to know more about the March family that Alcott was compelled to write a sequel, which had the working title Good Wives but was published as Little Women; or,Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, Part Second in 1869 and has typically been included thereafter in publications of Little Women. Structured episodically, the novel treats issues of education, manners, economic inequality, gender roles, and individual happiness as the Marches encounter birth, friendship, marriage, and death. Within the first one hundred years after its publication, Little Women sold more than two million copies. It has been widely translated, has never been out of print, and has been profoundly influential in American and world literature since its initial publication. It is the first of three novels, along with Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886), commonly referred to as the March Family chronicles.

PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS

Little Women takes place primarily in the Concord, Massachusetts, household of the March family, where pretty Meg, rebellious Jo, gentle Beth, and artistic Amy live with their mother, whom they call Marmee. Their father is away, serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. Meg works as a governess, and Jo is a companion to the cantankerous Aunt March. As the story begins, it is Christmas, and the girls are unhappy about the meager outlook of their holiday. Initially, they determine to spend their scant savings on presents for themselves, but, inspired by a battlefront letter from their father, they decide to reenact scenes from John Bunyan’s Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678-84), which prompts them to use their Christmas money to buy gifts for their mother and donate their Christmas breakfast to the Hummels, a poor family of German immigrants. Hearing of the girls’ generosity, their neighbor, the wealthy James Laurence, sends them a feast complete with ice cream. They conclude their celebration by acting out a play that Jo has written.

The following week, Meg and Jo attend a New Year’s dance at their neighbor Mrs. Gardiner’s house, where Jo, hiding behind a curtain because she is reluctant to dance, meets the neighbor’s orphaned grandson, Theodore Laurence—called Laurie. When Meg twists her ankle on the dance floor, Laurie takes the girls home. He becomes a good friend of the March sisters, especially the tomboyish Jo. As the girls begin to visit the Laurence mansion frequently and win the hearts of the Laurences, they embark on a series of life experiences that help them build their talents and characters. Jo delights in the library, and Beth is enchanted by the magnificent piano in the Laurences’ “Palace Beautiful.” The girls act out Jo’s plays; they set up a post office between the houses to exchange letters, books, and packages; and they form the Pickwick Club to publish a newspaper. Amy learns lessons in humility when she gets in trouble at school for bringing pickled limes to share with her friends and when she burns Jo’s precious manuscript of fairy tales after being barred from going to the theater with the older girls and Laurie. Devastated, Jo refuses to forgive her sister until Amy falls through thin ice while skating. Laurie rescues her, and Jo resolves to exercise more self control over her emotions. Next,Meg learns a lesson about vanity when she visits her friend Annie Moffat. Initially jealous of the wealthier girl, she allows herself to be dressed up and behaves frivolously at a party, though she later confesses to Marmee how foolish she felt. Another lesson is imparted when the girls take advantage of a break Marmee gives them from their chores, and the resulting domestic disasters reinforce the importance of work.When spring arrives, a picnic outing results in the first intimations that Laurie’s tutor, John Brooke, has fallen in love with Meg.

The remainder of the year brings both good and ill tidings. Jo receives her first literary triumph when a newspaper publishes her stories. In November, however, a telegram arrives informing Marmee that Mr. March is ill. When Marmee goes to tend to him, accompanied by Mr. Brooke, Jo cuts and sells her hair for twenty-five dollars to help defray the costs. While Marmee is absent, Beth assumes the duty of assisting the Hummels and contracts scarlet fever from their sick baby. She becomes extremely ill, and while Meg and Jo nurse her, Amy is sent to live with Aunt March for safety. Beth is near death when the girls finally send for Marmee, but her fever breaks just as Marmee returns. The entire family is reunited when Laurie brings Mr. March home for Christmas. Mr. Brooke, who has confessed to Marmee and Mr. March that he wants to marry Meg, is told that Meg is too young to wed. He is given permission to court her, however. Meg, on a whim, plays the coquette with Mr. Brooke, but when Aunt March threatens to disinherit her if she marries Mr. Brooke, Meg defends him and declares that she will marry him. Mr. Brooke overhears the conversation, and the two become engaged, though they agree to postpone their marriage, placating Aunt March.

As Part Second opens three years later, the sisters embark on a series of adventures, at home and abroad, that prepare them for their future vocations. Meg marries Mr. Brooke and gives birth to twins, Demi and Daisy. Jo has become a successful writer who sells stories to the newspaper and wins one hundred dollars in a story contest, though her father believes she can do better than write sensationalistic tales. In fact, she has written a novel, which she attempts to publish; however, the publisher returns it to Jo, instructing her to cut it by a third. Amy has replaced Jo as Aunt March’s companion and receives payment in the form of art lessons. Aunt March decides to take a trip to Europe, bringing Amy along to study art. Jealous, Jo departs for New York to work as a governess at a boardinghouse, leaving Beth behind to care for Marmee and her father. There, she befriends an older German professor named Fritz Bhaer. When summer comes, Jo returns home to care for Beth, whose health is declining. Laurie proposes to Jo, but she insists that she will not marry. Dejected, Laurie goes with Mr. Laurence to Europe, though he continues to write letters to Jo. Beth dies in the spring and upon hearing the news, Laurie seeks out Amy; they return from Europe married. Professor Bhaer visits Jo on his way to a new teaching position and proposes marriage, which she accepts. Aunt March dies, leaving Jo Plumfield, her home, where Jo and her husband open a school for boys. The novel ends on Marmee’s sixtieth birthday as she marvels at the growth of the family and wishes that their happiness might continue.

MAJOR THEMES

While the central themes of Little Women relate to the roles of women in nineteenth-century American society, the novel takes its direction from biblical instruction and the lessons of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Little Women begins with a family reenactment of scenes from Bunyan’s didactic novel, and Alcott’s episodic narrative teaches the life lessons exemplified by the experiences of Bunyan’s pilgrim, often echoing his chapter titles. Domestic life forms the subject and setting of most of the novel’s episodes, and the March home is where the story begins and ends. Marmee’s main concern for her daughters is that they find joy and purpose in the development of a stable household, and she instructs them, “Make this home happy, so that you may be fit for homes of your own.” Yet, Meg, Jo, and Amy all spend substantial periods outside the March home, either working to support the family, as Meg and Jo do in their capacities as governess and companion or, in Amy’s case, studying art. Their relative self-sufficiency is commended as part of their identity as American women. As Mr. Brooke remarks, “Young ladies in America love independence as much as their ancestors did, and are admired and respected
for supporting themselves.”

Jo in particular resists a conventional feminine role, complaining early in the novel, “I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy. And it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with Papa. And I can only stay at home and knit, like a poky old woman!” She defies feminine appearances and manners, frequently spoiling her clothes or arriving unkempt, whistling, and using slang.In her friendship with Laurie, Jo demands equality and respect, declaring, “I’m not afraid of anything.” The narrator affirms that for Jo “to be independent and earn the praise of those she loved were the dearest wishes of her heart.” Jo manages to obtain a measure of independence and pride in her work as a writer, though her stories, being primarily sensationalistic, fail to conform to nineteenth-century expectations about female authors—a fact upon which both Mr. March and Professor Bhaer comment. Although Jo joins Meg and Amy in the conventional happy ending of matrimony despite her rebellious nature and ambitions, at novel’s end, she is still writing, though less sensationally, and publishing her work. Little Women thus ultimately affirms the idea that a woman might both marry and have a career—a remarkable notion for its day.


Little Men

Louisa May Alcott

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms A. M. Barnard, Aunt Weedy, Oranthy Bluggage, Flora Fairfield, and Minerva Moody) American novelist, poet, short-story writer, and author of young-adult books.

INTRODUCTION

Little Men, the second in the March family trilogy of children’s books by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888), continues the exploration of educational methods and gender roles begun in Little Women (1868-69). The story focuses on Jo March’s work with the Plumfield Estate School with her husband Friedrich “Fritz” Bhaer and their attempts to enrich equally the mind, body, and souls of their students. The novel is often regarded as Alcott’s attempt to publicize the educational theories of her father, Bronson Alcott, which emphasized the creation of more liberal instructional environments than traditional practices of the era allowed.

PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS

Little Men is primarily set on the estate Jo inherited from her Aunt March, which she had decided to convert into a boarding school at the end of Little Women. Lacking a standard plot, the novel is instead a series of anecdotal stories that charts the educational progress of the fourteen enrolled children over the course of six months. The school employs unconventional educational techniques meant to invigorate the spiritual, intellectual, and physical lives of its students through a system that deemphasizes corporal punishment while encouraging the children to develop according to their individual aptitudes and interests.

Among the twelve boys and two girls of the school, Alcott focuses on the development of a few key characters, including two orphans, Nat Blake and Dan Kean, and a tomboy named Annie “Nan” Harding, who is brought to the school to be company for Daisy Brooke, Jo’s niece. Dan in particular proves to be a significant figure in testing Jo’s educational philosophy. He arrives at Plumfield as an embittered fourteen-year-old and continually breaks Jo’s rules, while provoking the other boys to do the same. After being removed from the school, he comes to realize he misses the loving environment at Plumfield, and contritely asks to be allowed to return. After his readmittance, he becomes a changed boy and a model for the success of Jo’s methodologies. Nat and Nan both similarly blossom under the tutelage of the Bhaers.

The children’s activities, including juvenile pranks and tantrums, are portrayed in a romantic fashion, suggesting how a school such as Plumfield might affect them. The adolescent anxieties about family and friendships that made Little Women popular are also depicted. The novel adds more details about the lives of the various March sisters after the end of Little Women, including the sudden and tragic death of John Brooke, Meg’s husband and father of their three children.

MAJOR THEMES

Like her other young-adult books, Little Men borrows autobiographical details from Alcott’s life. While Little Women explores the relationships between the March sisters, who were based on the childhoods and early adulthoods of the Alcott sisters, Little Men presents a platform for the educational philosophies of their father, Bronson Alcott.

Alcott had a complex relationship with her father, who for many years earned his living as an educator; though she loved and respected him, he had also led the family into bankruptcy, causing the severe deprivation she and her sisters endured. His controversial educational theories led to lost jobs and frequent moves. Alcott’s father rejected rote learning and standard discipline for a conversational Socratic method that relied on storytelling and composition to awaken a child’s imagination and love of learning. Thus inspired, children would then educate themselves as they were challenged with projects for which they were responsible. He also believed education was essentially moral and that a strong sense of values needed to be imparted through the spiritual development of each pupil. Alcott was a powerful advocate of her father’s theories, and, though she said publicly that she wrote Little Men for the money, she also meant the novel to be a validation of his methods. She explored these concepts primarily through the depiction of Jo’s socialization of three disadvantaged children: Nat, Dan, and Nan. Along with their lessons, the children are given responsibility for their own pets, gardens, and businesses. They are encouraged to govern themselves while still allowing time for playful activities. Alcott also presents the Plumfield Estate School as a utopian atmosphere where Billy Ward, a mentally impaired thirteen-year-old, and Dick Brown, who is physically disabled as a result of a “crooked back,” are welcomed as equals by the other members of their school in a communal spirit that binds the students of Plumfield together.

Although the book is titled Little Men, Alcott presents Plumfield as coeducational—a progressive idea in the nineteenth century. Among the many causes of Alcott’s father was a strong advocacy for women’s rights, and the author was herself an avowed feminist who supported women’s suffrage. As a result, while Daisy is presented as a traditional nineteenth-century girl who dreams of marriage and domesticity, Nan is encouraged to pursue her dreams of studying medicine.

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