It has been some time since a novel made me smile, chuckle, and feel – all at once – and in this vein I heartily recommend “Little Women”, especially the first volume. The book is divided into two volumes, “Little Women” (Chapters 1 to 23) and “Good Wives” (Chapters 24 to 47), and it is the first volume which stood out (notwithstanding the unfortunate developments in the second volume). In it, the plot is a straightforward one, yet marked by rich characterisation. Without lengthy profiles, characters are distinguished through unique traits, as well as their relationships with one another. The March family has its fair share of trials and tribulations, though their love always holds steady.
After the first chapter which introduces the four girls, the book reads like a collection of short stories, each a narrative of a new encounter in chronological order, between two Christmases and the absence of their father Mr. Robert March. The poignancy of the exposition is marked by two characteristics: first, how close and dear the family members – with their own preferences or peculiarities, and of varying ages – are to each other, and the power of Alcott’s writing to make one identify with the characters and their emotions at different points; and second, the extent to which one not only identifies with these experiences, but also relate them to their own formative years.
Two chapters involving second sister Josephine “Jo” March come to mind: her first meeting with Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Chapter 3), and her tiff with youngest sister Amy Curtis March (Chapter 8). In Chapter 3, Jo finds herself in an awkward dinner function, and through a series of coincidences she is acquainted with the handsome Laurie – who is also a neighbour of the March family – and in subsequent chapters Jo and Laurie grow closer. The former is strong and outgoing, and the latter shy, at least in the beginning of novel. Their friendship is one reminisces or wishes he or she had in the past, especially with its innocence and care.
In Chapter 8 Jo meets Apollyon – one of the many biblical references in the novel, in this case to a place of destruction and the name of an angel – as she boils with rage after Amy burned her manuscript in a fit of childish anger. In this chapter, as it is throughout the novel, mother Mrs. Margaret March is the voice of reason, and instead of imposing morals or preaching about “the right thing” to do, she guides and encourages her daughters to think on their actions, recounting her own life experiences in the process. As a reader Jo’s rage was palpable, and I felt her indignance and her desire to never forgive, but in the absence of her husband Mrs. March anchors the family with her wisdom. As she told Jo when Jo was in a state of confusion:
“Don’t cry so bitterly, but remember this day, and resolve, with all your soul, that you will never know another like it. Jo, dear, we all have our temptations, some far greater that yours, and if often takes us all our lives to conquer them. You think your temper is the worst in the world; but mine used to be just like that … I’ve learned to check the hasty words that rise to my lips; and when I feel that they mean to break out against my will, I just go away a minute, and give myself a little shake for being so weak and wicked”.
And as Mrs. March told Amy when Amy was at the receiving end of punishment and humiliation at school, about the virtue of humility (and also a lesson for the reader too):
“You are getting to be rather conceited, my dear, and it is quite time you set about correcting it. You have a good many little gifts and virtues, but there is no need of parading them, for conceit spoils the finest genius. There is not much danger that real talent or goodness will be overlooked long; even if it is, the consciousness of possessing and using it well should satisfy one, and the great charm of all power is modesty”.
Finally, one cannot speak of eldest sister Margaret “Meg” March and third sister Elizabeth “Beth” March without giving too much away, except that they complement the other characters with their affection and dedication to the happy March family. A feel-good read, overall.