Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a two-volume novel following the four March sisters through their adolescence and young adulthood, was first published in the late 1860s. Almost 150 years later, the book remains remarkably popular; in fact, the unassuming tale is one of the ten most beloved books in America, according to a poll released recently by Harris International. Little Women’s star is on the rise, as it did not appear on the list at all in 2008 when the poll was last conducted. This year it clocked in at number eight, while previous faves such as Atlas Shrugged and The Da Vinci Code were, mercifully, knocked off the list altogether.
Little Women may not have appeared on a top ten list previously, but it’s a perennial favorite for children, especially girls. Most of us read it growing up, as did our mothers and our mothers’ mothers. We watched the movie starring Winona Ryder and Kirsten Dunst, and we picked a preferred sister with whom to identify (most of us fully believed we were wild and bookish Jo, and no one wanted to be quiet, self-sacrificing Beth). The book is inextricably woven into the fabric of American girlhood, and there’s no reason to believe that will change any time soon.
The story’s popularity persists in defiance of our modern age of snark. The book, a semi-autobiographical but highly idealized narrative drawn from Alcott’s own youth, is saccharine, frequently preachy, and fairly old-fashioned. The beloved matriarch of the March family, known by her daughters as “Marmee,” frequently admonishes her girls against sins such as “chasing men” (hussies!!) and urges them to embrace “womanly” virtues such as modesty in dress, quiet voices, domestic skills, and nurturing qualities. “Womanly” is used almost interchangeably with “good” in describing the female characters’ actions, and if the emphasis on modesty in the March family seemed slightly odd and old-fashioned at the time, it seems downright retrograde today.
Modern readers would not be alone in finding Little Women a bit fusty. The author herself notoriously described her children’s stories as “moral pap for the young.” She wrote the books not for artistic reasons, but to pay the bills. Yet it can’t be denied that her stories have spoken to generations of readers. Maybe because there are some genuinely good lessons for living in there -- as well as some sneaky progressivism, endearing characters, and funny stories of everyday life. All in all, Little Women may not be perfect, but most of us could learn a great deal about how to live today from this old-fashioned novel.
1. No matter how hard it may be, try to forgive. Some offenses may seem unforgivable, but refusing to accept a sincere apology usually leads to nothing but more suffering. When impetuous Jo refuses to invite obnoxious youngest sister Amy to a show, Amy vents her rage by burning the only manuscript of the book Jo has been laboring to write. At first Jo withholds her forgiveness, but when Amy almost dies in a skating accident, Jo realizes that her sister is far more important to her than even her cherished book. So close to losing Amy, she sees that holding grudges is more likely to lead to bitter regret than to a sense of righteousness.
2. Don’t give in to jealousy; there will always someone with more than you of whom to feel envious. The March family, unlike Alcott’s own, does not live in abject poverty, but their means are clearly not lavish. With four young girls in the house and little money coming in, there are bound to be occasions when the sisters yearn for the stylish dresses, European tours, and opulent parties of their wealthier acquaintances. But the Marches are constantly reminded that many live in deeper poverty than they do, and that they should be grateful for what comforts they do have.
3. Giving is a greater joy than receiving. Not only do the sisters get frequent reminders of their relatively good fortune, they also find it’s better to focus on helping destitute neighbors than to gaze longingly at their rich neighbors’ lives. In the very first scene, the girls sit around the fire complaining about their newly straitened circumstances: “‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. ‘It’s so dreadful to be poor!’ sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.” But only a few pages later, the girls have rallied and resolved to spend their small amounts of pocket money not on treats for themselves, but on presents for their self-sacrificing mother. To top it all off, they reluctantly take their own Christmas breakfast to a starving family nearby. Though the sacrifices are difficult at first, they are all more content than if they had been selfish.
4. Fine feathers often hide not-so-fine birds, so focus on what's underneath rather than external elegance. At any rate, having such fancy clothes and baubles might seem worthy of envy, but as eldest sister Meg finds when she’s gussied up for a party, it’s not all that she dreamed of. She notices that “there is a charm about fine clothes which attracts a certain class of people, and secures their respect,” but it’s a superficial sort of regard. The expensively dressed women she admired had gossiped about her and paid her no attention when she was in dowdy dresses, but their newfound affection can’t conceal the hypocrisy and shallowness hidden below their silk gowns. It’s easy to judge people by their clothes, but it’s a poor metric for discerning their true character. Alcott also throws a bit of snark at the imperative to suffer for beauty, remarking upon Jo’s preparations for a dance: “Jo’s nineteen hair-pins all seemed stuck straight into her head, which was not exactly comfortable; but, dear me, let us be elegant or die.”
5. Figure out what you’re good at and stick to it. The March sisters might seem like little prodigies at times, but the reality is that none of them are particularly distinguished in terms of talent. They just don’t let their limitations get them down. Beth, the musical sister, practices her piano whenever she can. Amy, the artistic sister, is willing to put aside her vain obsession with her appearance to spend hours improving her sketching. Jo, the literary sister, scribbles constantly. And while Meg isn’t much of a creative she focuses on learning to cook and keep house -- domestic arts that are challenging in their own right. The girls aren’t quitters, and they aren’t dabblers -- they know their strengths and passions and they’re willing to dedicate time and effort into cultivating them. Accordingly, Jo eventually makes a tidy living writing, and Amy becomes an accomplished artist, though she never achieves fame with her skill, and Meg runs a tidy household. That investment in their talents paid off!
6. Everyone, even young ladies, should know how to support themselves. The two eldest March girls are only 15 and 16 at the start of the book, but both are already helping to feed the family. After the family fell upon hard times, Jo and Meg insisted on going out to work -- Meg as a governess, and Jo as a companion to their wealthy aunt. When Amy later supplants Jo as Aunt March’s companion, Jo earns money through her writing. Except for delicate Beth, the girls are all able to work and earn their keep, even in a time when young ladies from middle-class backgrounds would expect to do little outside the home and focus on finding a husband to support them. This gives the little women a sense of accomplishment as well as the very practical ability to provide for themselves and their family -- without needing to wait for a man to do it for them. This ability is more valued in the 21st century, but its importance always bears repeating.
7. And amuse themselves! Even without wireless Internet and cable TV. The March sisters lived in a time before video games and Snapchat, but they didn’t have much access to the easy distractions of their time, either. Without the money to fuel a lively social life, they largely eschew the party circuit. Instead of attending balls and making calls on society acquaintances, they stay home and put on amateur plays, create play newspapers full of their own writing, or work on their sewing, drawing, or music. This way their fun isn’t dependent on money or external sources -- they’ve cultivated the imagination and initiative to make their own fun. Think how much better you’d be able to handle the next cable outage if you could amuse yourself without turning on the TV or computer!
8. Keeping house is hard work, but the results are worth it. When Marmee and their maid Hannah take the day off, the girls are left to their own devices -- and they find that a cluttered house isn’t pleasant to live in and dinner is harder to cook than they’d realized. The foursome makes a royal mess of their day of housekeeping, but afterward they appreciate more than ever how much work Marmee and Hannah put into keeping the household humming along. Suddenly their little chores of dusting and tidying don’t seem so onerous, and more than worth it to keep their home clean and welcoming. Who among us hasn’t longed to let the dish-washing slip for a day, or to let our parents or partner pick up the slack while we watch TV? Little Women rightfully reminds us that everyone is happier when we all make sure to do the daily chores that keep things in order. (Okay, I still have dishes in my sink from yesterday, but I’m working on it. Thanks, Louisa May Alcott!)
9. Don’t get into debt for no good reason. For girls who were accustomed to a finer lifestyle, the Marches do pretty well at keeping their expenses down. But no one is perfect -- and when they mess up, the consequences teach them not to overspend so carelessly again. For example, Amy’s need to give her schoolmates pickled limes in repayment for the ones they’ve given her results in Amy being punished in front of the entire class. Later, Meg impulsively buys expensive silk for a dress, and her husband must give up getting a new, much-needed winter coat due to the shortfall in their funds. Her embarrassment and regret alone are enough to prevent a repeat: “A week of remorse nearly made Meg sick; and the discovery that John had countermanded the order for his new great-coat, reduced her to a state of despair which was pathetic to behold.” It’s easier than ever to spend wildly beyond our means, but if it’s a question of putting new clothes you can’t afford on a credit card and racking up debt, it’s better to make do with your old duds -- who wants to be paying off a designer jacket a year after it’s out of fashion?
10. Don’t obsess about dating. Little Women adheres to 19th-century norms when it comes to marriage, though Alcott herself never married. Though all three girls who survive until adulthood do marry (even Jo, who declares once, “I don’t believe I shall ever marry”), they don’t spend much time flirting with, gossiping about, or dreaming of men. As Marmee remarks to Jo, “We ... had better not get ‘romantic rubbish,’ as you call it, into our heads.” Instead, the girls all focus on their family life and personal development, develop real friendships with good men, then make wise marital choices. If only we could all be so calm and practical about our romantic lives -- it probably would have saved many of us many hours of moaning and chocolate-eating.
11. Love is a wonderful thing... The love of the Marches for each other, their friends, and their eventual spouses and children is the most aspirational thing in the book. There is a warmth and purity to their affection that is rooted in true regard for others, not in a desire to gain from them or use them. Though they befriend the wealthy boy next door, Laurie, they offer him unlimited fun and companionship with no expectation of any financial reward for their embrace of him. Meg has some wealthy admirers, but she happily chooses a poor husband because she loves him for who he is. As a result, they are always surrounded by those who love them and who appreciate their authenticity and openness. Real love, given without expectation of gain, is the most truly rewarding part of life.
12. ... So be careful who you give it to. Compatibility is more important in marriage than passion. Love can befuddle and bewitch us. It’s hard to resist going for it with someone we desperately love -- but passion can only get you so far. True compatibility of character will usually get you a lot closer to a happy marriage. Meg rushes into her engagement faster than expected, but not before she feels sure that her future husband is patient, kind, hardworking, and reliable -- all ideal traits for someone like Meg. Accordingly, though they go through rocky patches in their first years of marriage, they are able to work through their disagreements together and grow into a stronger couple. On the other hand, Jo comes close to making a bad match, as her best friend Laurie has fallen in love with her. Though it’s hard to deny her dear “Teddy,” Jo realizes that they are both too headstrong and impulsive to be happy together over a lifetime: “[Y]ou and I are not suited to each other, because our quick tempers and strong wills would probably make us very miserable…” Because she’s strong enough to say no, they both eventually end up in happy marriages with compatible partners, and they all live happily enough ever after.
13. Family should come first. We live in the age, and the country, of the individual. Little Women should remind us that, if we’re lucky enough to have loving families, we should appreciate and care for them. Family love is the heart of the book, whether it’s sisterly love, parental love, or marital love. The Marches don’t cavalierly end friendships, disown family members, or play fast and loose with the hearts of romantic partners. Even unpleasant Aunt March isn’t neglected. But when she offers to adopt a child to alleviate the family’s financial struggles, she is gently refused: “We can’t give up our girls for a dozen fortunes. Rich or poor, we will keep together and be happy in one another.” What a beautiful thought.