17 October 2007

Why We Love Little Women

I’m sick. It’s miserable, but humbling – a good reminder that I have far less control in this world than I think I do. I tend to live in my mind, and generally ignore my body unless it’s giving me a hard time. (This, most people will argue, is not the healthiest way to live. Other people, I’ve noticed, are maintenance and prevention oriented caretakers, where I’m a problem oriented caretaker. This is why, whenever I take my truck to the mechanic, he inevitably must replace an entire system.)

I’m also something of a hypochondriac. I definitely spent a fair amount of time yesterday and today trying to talk myself out of the self-diagnosis of throat cancer. Because of this, I’m a little panicky that I don’t currently have health insurance, even though I never went to the doctor when I did.

Lacking health insurance, a doctor, a dog to keep my feet warm, a mother to bring me soup, and a TV to watch Anne of Green Gables on, I turn to the next best thing – a hot bath and Little Women.

I spent yesterday alternating between the couch and the bathtub, losing myself in the life and times of the March sisters – for perhaps the tenth time. Little Women, like Watership Down and the Chronicles of Narnia, is one of those books I first encountered in elementary school and have returned to a million times since. My copy was a gift from my step-mother. I believe it belonged to Sally when she was a girl, and someday it will probably be passed along to my daughters or nieces. It is that kind of book.

Little Women was written in 1867 and published in 1868. One hundred and forty years ago! Louisa May Alcott was born in 1832. I was born in 1980, nearly a hundred and fifty years after she was. It seems rather miraculous that her life, her experiences – for Little Women was semi-autobiographical – should have any bearing on my life, any meaning to me now, a century and a half later.

I was born in 1980, my mother in 1950, my grandmother in 1931 (I think). When my grandmother was a little girl, Louisa May Alcott was long dead, and Little Women was already well-established as an American classic. To find LMA’s contemporary on my own family tree, you’d have to go all the way back to my great-great-great-great grandmother, a woman about whom I know nothing, a woman who exists to me as merely an idea, an understood, someone who obviously existed for her daughter to exist, and her granddaughter, and her great-granddaughter (my great-grandmother), and so on. I can hardly fathom such time, and yet LMA’s life, and the lives of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy still speak to me in 2007.

Louisa May Alcott harbored teenage crushes on Emerson and Thoreau. She lived next door to the Hawthornes, and Margaret Fuller gave her feedback on her writing. Her inner circle consisted of names I’d learn in my American History and American Lit classes in high school and college. She was older than I am now during the Civil War. And yet -- her stories still pull me in, still make me feel better when I’m sick, one hundred forty years later.

Why do we love Little Women? It can be preachy and puritanical, overly-romantic and even maudlin. “Meg learned that a woman’s happiest kingdom is home, her highest honor the art of ruling it not as a queen, but a wise wife and mother.” On the surface, so many of the girls’ experiences mean nothing to us now: the girls play “Pilgrim’s Progress,” Meg frets over Jo’s lack of clean gloves for a ball, Amy gets in trouble for bringing pickled limes to school, Beth gets Scarlet Fever, Amy borrows Mr. Laurence’s charàbanc, whatever that is.

But old-fashioned terms and moral lectures don’t matter when Amy throws Jo’s little book into the fire, or when Mr. March comes home from Washington, or when Mr. Bhaer stands in the rain and confesses his feelings for Jo. You’re there. It’s been over fifteen years since I first read Little Women, and I still haven’t forgiven Amy for burning Jo’s book, and I still don’t completely understand how Jo could reject Teddy.

Louisa May Alcott managed to capture the experience of being a girl, and a sister, in a culture that apparently hasn’t changed that much since the Civil War. We still fight with our sisters. We still mistake better clothes & better homes for better lives. We still go on picnics and pretend trees are horses and make little mailboxes to exchange letters with friends. We still write stories and put on plays and get in trouble and fall in love. We still make vows to be nicer, more understanding, more thoughtful, slower to speak, slower to anger – and we still break them. We still struggle with what society tells us to be versus what we feel in our hearts we could and should be.

Little Women was written in the time of my great-great-great-great-grandmother, but it still speaks to us today. Society has changed so much since the Civil War, and yet the experience of girlhood seems to transcend the changes of technology and time. Ultimately, the lesson of Little Women is that people are much more alike than they are different, and the human heart and its struggles haven't changed in 150 years, in spite of everything else. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in 2157, my great-great-great-great granddaughter turns to Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy when she gets sick. In fact, I'd be surprised if she didn't.


Rainswolf said...

This really cracks me up: "Louisa May Alcott harbored teenage crushes on Emerson and Thoreau."

Oh dear. I think I sort of did, too.

Unknown said...

watership down and narnia are two of my comfort books/series as well. in addition to HP, Anne of Green Gables (series) and Little House (series). unfortunately my house doesn't do too well in the bath department, but i make do.

we should watch the anne series together sometime. i have the first one. i believe i saw that you have the second?

Natalie said...

you don't have a pooch or a mom to bring you soup or a tv... but there is a little natalie jeanette around.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful, Molly. And comforting and true.

Anonymous said...

aww, what a great post! im traditionally a lurker, but i thought you guys might enjoy this video, so i wanted to post it:

meg cabot is re-interpreting LITTLE WOMEN... the story definitely changes. it's pretty funny!