Little Women clearly delineate the personalities of each of the four March daughters. One has dainty, frugal habits; one loves art and luxury; one loves her kittens and dolls, and another loves writing her stories. All of them are on the cusp of womanhood. And as the story progresses each of them learns to give up her (or modify) her dreams for the greater good of all.
I first read this book as a teenager who saw "happily ever after" as the requirement for every story. I was appalled at the defects in some of the novel's characters and considered them defects to the book. Now many years and many books later, I know that these character flaws were essential for keeping the book from becoming sickeningly sweet. They made the characters human and their progress more believable.
Mr. March, the girls' father, was known to say, "Trifles show character," and friends and family members definitely reveal their hearts through both small quarrels and small kindness. At one point in the story when Amy is snubbed by aristocratic friends, she learns that true politeness comes not from wealth, but from the rule she learned at home: Love your neighbor as yourself. She repays meanness with goodness and reaps a reward.
When Meg's father comes home from the war, he takes her hand and says, I remember when this hand was white and smooth, and your first care was to keep it so. It was very pretty then, but to me it is much prettier now, for in it I read a little history. This hardened palm has earned something better than blisters. I'm sure the sewing done by these pricked fingers will last a long time because so much good will went into the stitches. I'm proud to shake this good, industrious hand.
Although one of the principle messages of the book is presently an unpopular one (that "a woman's happiest kingdom is her home,") I hope that young people will still read the book for it's even more central idea: the value of living for others. Interwoven into the tales of heartaches and victories, Alcott succeeds in painting a picture of the joys of family life (even in the midst of poverty) and the long-term pleasures of loving sacrificially and well. The writing is not as eloquent as some of the British novels I've read recently, but it's solid enough.
I enjoyed this humorous description of Jo who thinks she has lost her chance at love: A drop of rain on her cheek recalled her thoughts from baffled hopes to ruined ribbons. For the drops continued to fall, and being a woman as well as a lover, she felt that, though it was too late to save her heart, she might save her bonnet. (p. 267)
One of my favorite aspects of the book is that the girls choose to model their journey to adulthood on the book Pilgrim's Progress. Quiet Beth looks forward to reaching the Celestial City, but tom-boy Jo hopes they can fight a few lions first. This time through I noticed many other literary references: Aesop's Fables, The Vicar of Wakefield, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Rasselas, Evalina, Ivanhoe, Francis Bacon, Milton, Shakespeare, Plato, Homer and Milton, and a host of Dickens' characters.
Most movie adaptions get the story all wrong because they make the girls much older than they are. Amy is 12 in the book's beginning and Meg is 16. I was interested to see that Masterpiece Theatre is coming out with a new version in May. I hope my friends in the U.S. will watch it and let me know what they think about it.