I went back to revisiting one of my favourite books the other day. As I opened the familiar, and now slightly worn-out pages, a note fell out from the middle. It was from my grandmother, her elegant scrawl telling me that after reading this book, I would go from bring her ‘little girl’ to her ‘little woman’. And she couldn’t have put it in a better way.
Louisa May Alcott never dreamed that her novel Little Women (and its sequels), loosely based on her own life, would make her a bestselling author. A story about the unwavering bond of family, coupled with growth and sacrifice, this coming of age series became a guide-book for little girls for generations to come.
Little Women explores the unconventional story of a matriarch and her four daughters living in 19th century New England, as the turbulent Civil War unravelled in America. Hailing from an extremely humble background, ‘Marmee’, the mother, assumed the role of the head of the family while her husband was away at war. A role-model to her four daughters, notwithstanding her flaws, Marmee is one of the most relatable and realistic characters of the series. Her spirit of discipline, love, and humility goes a long way in shaping the contrasting characters of her four impressionable girls – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.
As a tribute to Louisa May Alcott on her 184th birthday, we’d like to note some life-changing lessons from this heart-wrenching series that is sure to make you chuckle and cry at the same time.
“I have nothing to give but my heart so full and these empty hands.”
Although this is a theme that resonates throughout the book, the true spirit of sacrifice is realised right in one of the initial scenes. The four little girls are gathered in the hall of their modest little house, each of them clutching a dollar which they received from their Aunt March for Christmas. While they enthusiastically debate on what each of them should buy with this money, Jo notices their mother’s sadly worn-out slippers by the door. Despite their impressionable age and their shortage of savings, the four girls unanimously decide to pool in their four dollars and buy ‘Marmee’ some new shoes.
“I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, something heroic or wonderful that won't be forgotten after I'm dead. I don't know what, but I'm on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all someday.”
Alcott wrote this series at a time when women were expected to be gently reared and polished to win a suitor’s hand and build a home and family. She wrote about women ahead of their times, thus challenging such norms and aiming to create history. This, she did, through the character of the headstrong Jo, whose dream had always been to become a ‘worldly writer’. Eventually, Jo leaves the comfort of her little village and home to travel to the country and make a name and living. When she returns, she does so with a world of experience on her shoulders.
“The humblest tasks get beautified if loving hands do them.”
The girls wake up on Christmas morning to find that their mother was out helping a family of multiple offspring deliver yet another birth. Their disappointment is then countered by the scrumptious meal that she, along with Hannah, a lifelong servant and friend, had managed to put together with a lot of difficulty. However, before they can eat, their mother returns to tell them that the family she went to help were huddled together on one bed with no fire and nothing to eat. She asks them, gently, whether they would give their meals to the starving family instead, as a Christmas gift. Filled with guilt at their own selfishness, the girls were sure to do so and later, recollect that it was so much more fulfilling to give than to receive.
“Love Jo all your days, if you choose, but don't let it spoil you, for it's wicked to throw away so many good gifts because you can't have the one you want.”
‘Letting go’ is perhaps one of the most quintessential human challenges, one that is perfectly exemplified by the case of Laurie. Laurie, the boy-next-door and a dear friend to all four girls, has always been in love with Jo. However, as dearly as Jo cared for him, she could never feel anything for him aside friendship. However a headstrong, young Laurie refuses to give up and waits for her with his heart in his sleeve. It was after one of the girls, Beth, falls gravely ill and passes away that the three sisters and Laurie are forced to grow and look at the world differently. This is where Amy, the youngest, teaches Laurie the importance of letting go of his love, so he can make room in his heart for someone, or something, else who would return his love.
“...the love, respect, and confidence of my children was the sweetest reward I could receive for my efforts to be the woman I would have them copy.”
Despite jealous outbursts, dissatisfaction and natural desires for a better lifestyle, as well as clashing personal interests and perceptions among the four sisters, the unbreakable bond of family is greatly realised in this novel. When the family falls upon hard times, Meg and Jo are adamant about getting work to help ends meet. When Jo refuses to invite Amy to a show, the latter fuels her rage by burning the only manuscript of the book Jo had written with great effort. Although Jo refuses to forgive her at first, she realises the importance of family when Amy almost dies in a skating accident. Jo realises that her sister was far more important to her than any dream she could ever have. Even when the dreaded but wealthy Aunt March offers to take in one or more of the girls and relieve the family of financial burdens, both Marmee and her husband refuse. “We can’t give up our girls for a dozen fortunes. Rich or poor, we will keep together and be happy in one another,” they say.
Today, the series has been deemed a classic and its words have been spread down the many years of its existence. And for that, we will always be grateful.