Some books you love as a child you forget with time. But some grow with you. The more life you experience, the more certain characters and stories begin to evolve into something deeper and more profound till, before you know it, they’re speaking to you as intimately as if you were one and the same.
The first time I read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, I must have been in my early teens; I don’t quite remember. Believe it or not, in Thailand, a story about four sisters growing up in Concord, Massachusetts is not a staple of many people’s childhood. As a young girl, I was a veracious reader. I would read all the time — at meals, before bed, in class, while walking through the shopping mall with my family. At one point my parents had to sit me down and tell me that I was reading far too much and that I had to learn to function in the real world every once in a while.
Despite my obsession, however, I was more engrossed in fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter, as well as The Little House on the Prairie books and the Anne of Green Gables series. Instead it was the 1995 Little Women film adaptation with Winona Ryder that introduced me to and sparked my interest in the March sisters. But beyond the story’s well-known highlights — Jo selling her hair, Jo rejecting Laurie’s proposal, Beth’s death, Laurie marrying Amy, Jo getting together with Professor Bhaer — I completely missed the significance of the much smaller moments which have since become extremely meaningful to me once I’ve revisited the novel as an adult.
Like with many other teenage girls before me, what initially drew me to Little Women, other than the tight-knit relationship between the sisters, was the character of Jo March. Jo is everything I dreamed of being: smart, brave, confident, ambitious, unconventional. A writer. She’s also the object of affection of the lovely and attractive boy next door, Laurie, which, for an unpopular girl like me, felt deeply romantic. To my teenage self, Jo seemed almost superhuman — a feminine ideal that I strive to emulate at all cost. However, after reexamining the text in detail, it is more than apparent that Alcott never intended for Jo to be an unattainable fantasy for young girls:
“But, you see, Jo wasn’t a heroine, she was only a struggling human girl like hundreds of others, and she just acted out her nature, being sad, cross, listless, or energetic, as the mood suggested”.
Alcott also created Jo to be resilient, but not an island all on her own: after Beth’s death, Mrs. March makes note of how she’s “very lonely” and that “sometimes there is a hungry look in your eyes that goes to my heart”. When Jo tries to explain her feelings to her mother, the result feels all too familiar to any young woman who’s struggling to reconcile their desire for independence with their need for intimacy:
“It’s very curious, but the more I try to satisfy myself with all sorts of natural affections, the more I seem to want. I’d no idea hearts could take in so many. Mine is so elastic, it never seems full now”.
Famously Alcott did not want Jo to end up married at the end of her novel; only after readers clamoured for a romantic resolution did she paired Jo up with the older Professor Bhaer. Alcott herself never married. (The line spoken by Jo in the new film adaptation directed by Greta Gerwig has been taken straight from one of Alcott’s own letters: “I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for, I’m so sick of it!”) It is fascinating and fun to imagine what a single Jo March would have been like in an alternate universe. Would she be like Alcott herself, working and writing and taking care of her family? Would she get to travel to Europe like she’s always wanted to? What kinds of affairs and friendships would she have later in life? In the novel Jo herself maps out her future with not much sentiment:
“An old maid, that’s what I’m to be. A literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children, and twenty years hence a morsel of fame, perhaps, when, like poor Johnson, I’m old and can’t enjoy it, solitary, and can’t share it, independent, and don’t need it”.
Knowing more details about Louisa May Alcott’s own life has also deepened my understanding of Jo’s relationship with Laurie. (Much of Alcott’s work was inspired by her own life: Alcott also had three sisters, one of whom passed away at a young age like Beth.) Laurie was partly inspired by a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewsk (nicknamed Laddie), with whom Alcott had a brief relationship with. After spending time in Paris with Wisniewsk alone for two weeks, Alcott crossed out sections in her diary detailing their time together and wrote only two blunt, devastating words in the margin: “Couldn’t be”. Despite my naive teenage pining over what could have been for Jo and her Teddy, how this affair ended made it very clear to me that Alcott must have never seriously entertained the thought of making Jo and Laurie a couple. And that it makes all the sense in the world that it should be Jo’s younger sister, Amy, who would eventually be his wife.
Amy March, so frequently short-changed in film adaptations, is actually one of Alcott’s most relatable and complex characters. She, along with Jo, has become the sister I’ve felt a kinship to the most since I came back to this story. Although she’s wrongly regarded by some as the consolation prize to Jo’s dazzling magnetism, the Amy in the novel grows from a spoiled and pretentious little girl into a very kind, intelligent and independent young woman. “I’m not afraid of storms,” she declares resolutely to her mother in a letter, “for I’m learning how to sail my ship”. Despite being in love with Laurie, Amy is never afraid to call him out on his shortcomings, and their romance has the maturity and compatibility that are never present in quite the same way in Laurie’s relationship with Jo:
“It is so beautiful to be loved as Laurie loves me. He isn’t sentimental, doesn’t say much about it, but I see and feel it in all he says and does, and it makes me so happy and so humble that I don’t seem to be the same girl I was. I never knew how good and generous and tender he was till now, for he lets me read his heart, and I find it full of noble impulses and hopes and purposes, and am so proud to know it’s mine.”
On the surface Little Women is a story about women and about people being decent to each other. About the simple things in life. A seemingly normal and heartwarming American fairytale. But falling in love with this story all over again has taught me that there is so much more to it than that. From the loss of Jo and Laurie’s childhood relationship (“Teddy, we never can be boy and girl again — the happy old times can’t come back, and we mustn’t expect it”), to Beth’s death, and to Amy and Laurie’s daughter’s frail health, Alcott never flinches away from the truth of what it’s really like to be alive. She never shies away from the pain and the suffering that we all must endure, nor does she turn away from the messiness within all of us.
As a young reader, Jo and her sisters and Laurie used to appear perfect and infinite, as though they would exist forever in a bubble of little happy-endings, neatly coddled in a warm place somewhere. Having grown up, I know now that that has never been the case:
“…beauty, youth, good fortune, even love itself, cannot keep care and pain, loss and sorrow, from the most blessed for …
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and sad and dreary.”
Like Alcott herself, Little Women is deeply realistic at heart. But it is also warm, loving and, above all, hopeful. It is not easy, Alcott seems to say through her characters — whether it be Jo, Amy or Laurie — to be our best selves or to care for others with such sincerity and let your hearts “take in so many”, especially in the face of tragedy. “It’s highly virtuous to say we’ll be good, but we can’t do it all at once,” Alcott writes, “and it takes a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull all together before some of us even get our feet set in the right way.” But what matters is that we try.