I figured this month I’d curl up by the metaphorical fire (because I can’t afford a real one) with another holiday classic, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. This story traumatized me as a child, so I figured I would see what it’s like a few decades later – I can tell you now, it did not get much better.
We begin our story with the four March sisters –Meg (AKA Margaret, age 16, pretty, vain), Jo (AKA Josephine, age 15, lanky, boyish), Beth (AKA Elizabeth, age 13, pleasant, bland as overcooked oatmeal), and Amy (age 12, pretty, self-important, proper) who are all complaining like normal kids about how awful it is to be poor because it means they won’t get any Christmas presents. Well, three of them are. Beth is one of those insufferable sanctimonious types who thinks they should be content with having a warm home and loving parents (even if their dad is off in the army and their mother canceled Christmas on account of poverty). Fortunately, the girls each have a hard-earned dollar from their child labor practices, and they decide to buy themselves presents – until someone (probably Beth) realizes that their mother is also poor and then they squabble over who is going to buy her a pair of new shoes. (As “the man” of the family, Jo argues that it’s her duty. Four guesses as to who my favorite sister is.) They agree to each get her something different. Their mother comes home with a letter from their father, who writes how proud he is of his “Little Women.” No pressure, young teenage girls. This letter, of course, causes them all to burst into tears of guilt for being so selfish (except for Beth, who is a perfect angel and has no such burden of shame).
On Christmas morning, they each wake to find a book under their pillows, but nothing exciting in their stockings. Before they can give Mother her presents, she tells them of a poor German woman, Mrs. Hummel, with six starving kids a block away and suggests they donate their fancy Christmas breakfast and eat bread instead. This fine example of giving generously without expectation of reward is somewhat ruined that evening when they get a surprise feast for dinner from old Mr. Lawrence, the next-door neighbor who was apparently impressed by the breakfast donation.
Later (I say “later” because these chapters tend to suddenly skip forward a few days or months without necessarily giving a solid time frame), Meg informs Jo that they are invited to a New Year’s Eve dance. While Meg frets in a girlish fashion over what to wear, Jo rolls her eyes because they really only have one nice dress each. Jo’s, of course, are full of stains and scorch marks. (The scorch marks should have been Meg’s first clue not to let Jo iron her hair, but oh well. I’m sure you can cover the burning smell with something.) While at the party, Jo looks for a hiding spot and runs into “the Laurence boy,” who had the same idea. He goes by the name of Laurie, because his real name is Theodore and people tend to call him Dora. In a short time, these next-door neighbors manage to strike up a friendship in the way that only people with androgynous nicknames can. Just as they decide to attempt dancing in the hall, Meg sprains her ankle. Jo tries to bring her coffee, but manages to spill it all over herself in the meantime, and Laurie comes to her rescue, bringing coffee and snacks to Meg and taking them home in his grandfather’s carriage. Wait, exactly how far apart are their houses?
The holidays end, and they all go back to work. Jo later sees Laurie again, who has been shut up in bed for a week with a cold. She brings him presents from her sisters (some food and a comfort kitten). He ends up confessing that he can hear them shouting at each other from his house and watches them from his window. Not at all creepy. She goes home to tell her family all about the Laurences, and they decide a visit should be paid en masse to the old rich man and his musical Italian grandson. Apparently they’ve never visited before, which seems a bit odd for the olden days. Beth is so timid that it takes her forever to work up the courage to ask to play on the piano. When she finally does, she makes the old man a pair of slippers as thanks, and he gives her a small piano in return. It seems like a rather dramatic escalation in gift-giving practices until she marches over to his house and gives him a kiss in return for the piano. Her sisters declare that the world is coming to an end. If Beth were anyone more interesting, one might fear for her maidenly virtue.
Meanwhile, lime-sucking is all the rage at school, so Amy hoards limes in her desk until her teacher has her throw them out the window and slaps her hands with a ruler. I will never understand kids these days. Later, Amy gets upset because Jo and Meg are going to see a play without her. She swears her vengeance and when the girls get home, Jo can’t find the book in which she has written and rewritten her stories over the course of several years. It turns out Amy’s revenge consisted of throwing it in the fire (which emotionally scarred me as a child, resulting in a pervasive fear of having my writings burnt to cinders by vindictive siblings and other nefarious people).
Jo is understandably sulky and refuses to forgive Amy even after she apologizes. (She doesn’t cry, though, because that would be unmanly.) She goes skating with Laurie the next day to avoid her sister, but Amy tags along anyway in hopes of catching her in a forgiving mood. Amy, of course, falls through the ice, because the March sisters are nothing if not dramatic. Through Laurie’s quick thinking, they rescue her before she gets too sick and frostbitten. At home, Amy manages to pull through and lives to annoy another day, while Jo is remorseful about her own temper (I’m not sure why she’s apologizing – Amy’s the one who caused all the damage in the first place). Her mother talks about her own hotheaded temperament, and Jo is amazed to discover that parents have personalities too.
Later, Meg gets to go to Vanity Fair and learns that everyone expects her to have designs on Laurie. They are surprised that she still thinks of him as a little boy. They are also surprised that she only has one nice dress, so one of her rich friends takes it upon herself to turn Meg into Cinderella. Meg tries her hand at flirting and is startled to see Laurie looking at her a little disapprovingly. He informs her that he is only here to report back to Jo about how Meg looks. Turns out he’s not a fan of “fuss and feathers” and doesn’t like that she doesn’t look like herself. He’s still willing to dance with her, though, and she manages not to break anything this time. Instead, Meg drinks too much and goes home to confess her (fairly tame) night of debauchery.
Days pass and the girls spend their time writing newspapers and conducting experiments to see whether “all play and no work” is a feasible life option. They determine that it isn’t, but that’s because they’re amateurs. Unfortunately Pip the Canary gets the bad end of that deal because he starves to death with no one feeding him. Jo learns that she can’t cook and manages to make a completely inedible dinner, which is an accomplishment in itself.
Laurie invites the girls camping with his British friends and they play games that seem to get a bit philosophical for their age levels. A few days later, Laurie sees the girls carrying their hobbies into the woods to work on, and since he’s a busybody, he tags along. They all end up discussing their life goals – Laurie wants to be a famous musician in Germany, Jo wants to be a famous author, Amy wants to be a famous artist, Meg just wants to be rich and famous, and Beth wants to take care of her parents. They swear to meet up in ten years to see how far along they’ve come.
Laurie catches Jo sneaking out one day with her manuscripts in her pocket. It turns out she’s left some stories with the newspaper to publish. In exchange for that tidbit, he tells her that someone has stolen one of Meg’s gloves. Jo is a bit grossed out at the thought of someone courting Meg, and when Meg teases her about all of her running around, Jo confesses she just wants to be a girl as long as she can. A few days later, her story appears in the newspaper, so it appears she’s in the lead with her goal-getting.
In the dreary month of November, Mrs. March gets a telegraph informing her that her husband is ill and that she should come at once. Everything is a flurry getting Mrs. March prepared for her journey, but Jo manages to sneak out and return with $25 for the “Making Father Comfortable” fund. It turns out she has cut her hair, and everyone is scandalized, remonstrating her with such dramatic phrases as “Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty.” Time passes, they write letters, and wait. Eventually they start to hear good news about their father.
Later, Beth visits Mrs. Hummel and her sick babies, despite having a headache of her own. While she’s there, one baby up and dies on her, and if that weren’t traumatizing enough, the doctor declares that all the kids have scarlet fever. Beth goes home and takes some belladonna for her own symptoms, and feels better. Problem solved. Except, no, things don’t work like that. Beth gets worse, and the housemaid sends Amy to Aunt March’s house just to be safe, while Jo stays to nurse Beth. Amy, of course, throws a fit until Laurie shows up and promises to take her out every day, while Aunt March’s pessimism lightens the mood with potential death and despair. They decide not to telegraph or write to their mother about Beth’s illness, even when the girl can no longer remember anyone’s names.
At the bidding of the doctor, Jo finally sends the telegram when Beth is at death’s door, and then has a breakdown of her own. Laurie tries to cheer her up with some wine, and confesses that he already sent a telegram yesterday. She flings some hugs and kisses at him when he offers to get Mother at the station, but she doesn’t pick up on his hint that more kisses in the future would be greatly appreciated. As they wait for their mother’s arrival, Beth’s fever breaks and they rejoice.
Meanwhile, Amy writes a will just in case she dies. Looks like Aunt March is having a great influence on her. Mother reunites with her family and Jo tells her mother that Mr. John Brooke, Laurie’s tutor, has Meg’s other glove because he fancies her. Jo rather dislikes this idea and wishes she could keep Meg safe in the family by marrying her herself. Sorry, Jo, I’m pretty sure that’s illegal. Mother assures her that no one is allowed to get married before they’re twenty years old.
Meg, it turns out, has gotten letters from Brooke declaring his love. Well, from someone who’s forged his writing, at any rate – Brooke doesn’t know a thing about them, and has recently been stationed with Mr. March in Washington. Laurie turns out to be the culprit, and he is more or less sorry. Jo pays him a visit, despite the warning that he’s been arguing with his grandfather. He encourages her to run away with him to Washington DC to visit Brooke and Mr. March, but Jo realizes she’s a girl and that is likely to be frowned upon. Jo instead convinces Laurie’s grandpa to write a letter of apology for yelling at him so that no one has to run away.
By the next Christmas, the invalids are nearly well and Mr. March returns home on the arm of Brooke. They all share a Christmas dinner with the Laurences and Jo glares daggers at Brooke the whole evening. Mr. March doesn’t notice this, and is pleased at all the growing up that his children have done. While out of his hearing, however, Jo still teases Meg about her beau and Meg warns her that she’ll have to deal with things like romance soon enough.
The next time Brooke comes around, however, Meg informs him that she’s too young to think of marriage and when he asks if she’ll try and learn to like him, she declines. I guess if you have to work and learn to like someone, it’s probably not going to happen. He leaves broken-hearted, but fortunately, Meg runs into Aunt March, who has misunderstood the whole encounter and refuses to leave her a penny if she marries Brooke. This, of course, makes him all the more appealing to Meg’s teenage rebel heart. Meg finds herself playing devil’s advocate and defending a decision to marry him. Brooke has apparently not actually left, but has instead overheard the conversation. After Aunt March leaves, he asks about it and finally gets the “yes” he was after. I will never understand kids these days.
Jo is devastated by this turn of events, and immediately goes to alert her parents with the phrase “John Brooke is acting dreadfully, and Meg likes it!” Her parents, of course, rush out of the room to put a stop to such impropriety but alas, they end up liking it too. Jo is unable to find anyone to share her misery because everyone else is happy for Meg. Even Laurie comes bearing flowers for “Mrs. John Brooke,” taking credit for bringing them together. Laurie tries to comfort Jo by offering to be her friend in Meg’s place and take her abroad for more adventures.
Act II (yes, we are only halfway through this 520 page “children’s” book with tiny font and no illustrations) begins with wedding preparations. Three years have passed – Meg trains to be a housewife, Jo continues to send her stories to the newspaper, Amy humors Aunt March, and Beth remains a delicate flower at home. John Brooke gets wounded at war, and Laurie goes to college long enough to please his grandfather and become a frat boy. He brings his friends home for visits, and Jo seems to fit right in with them. As Meg and Brooke plan their future home, Laurie bestows upon them a vast number of infomercial contraptions. Everyone needs a friend like Laurie.
Jo warns Laurie to be decent at the wedding and not look at her because he’ll make her laugh. He remarks she’ll be crying too much to see him. She remarks that she never cries unless greatly afflicted (like that time she cut her hair) or to keep her sisters company in their tears, and then goes on to mock his fashion sense. She promises him she’ll never be married because there should be at least one old maid in every family. He points out that she doesn’t give anyone a chance – just gets all prickly and changes the subject. Which she does as soon as he’s done talking.
Aunt March is scandalized at the wedding to see Meg running around greeting people, because Meg is only supposed to do the traditional model runway walk, followed by an impression of a showcase display. Instead, the wedding is as simple and homely as Meg desires (and Jo manages not to cry because Laurie is making faces at her). There is food and dancing after, and Meg promises to visit every day. Because of course that’s a realistic promise.
Time passes and Amy suffers for her art, mainly by catching colds from painting in damp grass and by spending money on picnics for art classmates who never show up. Jo, meanwhile, gets into a writing flurry once a month. She attends a writing lecture, but gets inspired to start a story right then and misses most of it. She sends it off and receives a $100 check for her work. She decides to send Beth and her mother to the seaside for a few months with the money, and goes about earning her next paycheck. When she gets a novel back with the suggestion to cut out a third of it before publication, she is left with a quandary. She decides to go through with it after Beth’s ominous “I should so like to see it printed soon” and gets $300 from it all. She is baffled by criticism because it’s all contradictory, and learns the valid life lesson that you can’t please everyone, especially trolls on the internet.
Meg, meanwhile, discovers that being a housewife isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She experiments with cooking (giving her cast-off rejects to the poor Hummel family) and spends a whole day messing with jelly that refuses to jell, which is, of course, the day her husband brings a friend home. They have their first quarrel as a married couple. She is later tempted by $50 silk for a dress despite her low finances, buys it anyway, and feels guilty about it afterwards. She confesses to her husband that she is tired of being poor, and later sells the silk to her friend to buy a coat for her husband. He’s so happy about it that they end up with twins the next summer. Laurie is somehow given the responsibility of giving them nicknames, so Daisy and Demi are welcomed into the world.
Later, Amy makes the mistake of dragging Jo with her to make formal calls at various mansions (which, to be honest, sounds excessively pointless and tedious, though Jo at least enjoys herself making fun of people). They pay a visit to Aunt March and Aunt Carol. Jo is her usual self, while Amy responds to their questions politely. Mother later informs them that the aunts want Amy to go with them abroad alone, because Jo is far too immature. (Readers of Pride and Prejudice everywhere clutch their chests in horror at the thought of the little flirt going off to Europe without her sisters.) Once abroad, Amy writes them letters from her hotels, detailing her carriage rides, her visits with Laurie’s old British friends, and the flowers she gets from various boys (including Fred, whom she is determined to marry for his riches. However, Fred’s brother gets ill and he has to go home, escaping Amy’s clutches for another day.)
Meanwhile, Beth is depressed. Mother enlists Jo to discover the cause, and after some spying, Jo somehow concludes that Beth is in love with Laurie. She watches them closely but eventually realizes that Laurie probably has affections for Jo rather than Beth. Jo thinks this is pretty awkward and decides to do the reasonable thing and move to New York to become a governess. Mother is pleased to hear that Jo doesn’t like Laurie back because apparently the two of them are too much alike. As she departs, Jo tells Beth to take care of Laurie while she’s gone. Laurie, for his part, leaves her with the ominous message that “It won’t do a bit of good, Jo. My eye is on you; so mind what you do, or I’ll come and bring you home.”
In New York, Jo enjoys the company of Professor Bhaer, a poor absentminded German tasked with the trouble of trying to teach the children. He tries to teach Jo some German as well, with some limited success. She returns to writing for the newspaper story columns, but since her editors want thrilling tales without morals, she starts to feel a little used and dirty. She is invited to mingle with the literary society, but is disillusioned when she learns that her heroes are actually flawed human beings, so she sits in a corner and chats with Bhaer instead. He becomes her new hero and she starts to feel embarrassed about her sensational stories so she jumps to the other end of the spectrum and write a sermon instead. Then she tries children’s stories. Then she gives up entirely. When it is time for her to return home to the Marches, she invites Bhaer to Laurie’s graduation, but he’s not especially impressed with the idea of competing with attractive young college graduates. He declines and bids her farewell.
When she sees Laurie again, Jo is a little bit terrified that he’s going to flirt with her. He doesn’t, and she’s relieved. Then she doesn’t take his arm the way she used to, and is concerned when he doesn’t complain. She shouts wildly into their awkward silences until she can no longer distract him from his confession. He tells her how he’s loved her the whole time, blah blah blah. She tells him she ran off to New York in hopes of dissuading him, and that even though he’s changed his life for her, she just can’t love him the way he wants. She tries to reason with him, tries to friendzone him, tries to explain that she doesn’t want to get married, and is possibly not heterosexual determined that they aren’t right for each other and so they shouldn’t do rash things like getting married. Like a properly dramatic Ivy League frat boy, Laurie gets into his boat and rows away (where did that even come from…). Jo goes to explain the whole upsetting course of events to Laurie’s grandfather. Mr. Laurence, in turn, takes Laurie to London with him so he’ll stop bothering Jo.
Jo turns her attention to her family and takes Beth to the sea because she appears to be wasting away (and she knows it). Beth confesses she never thought she would live long, and thus has never imagined growing up and living separately from her parents or developing a personality. Meanwhile in Nice, Amy runs into Laurie. It’s Christmas again, and she’s invited him to a party. He tries flirting with her a bit, but his heart isn’t in it. However, Amy now realizes that Laurie is pretty hot. They dance together all night, because hooking up with your rejected love’s sister is apparently also a tale as old as time.
Meanwhile, Meg becomes a full-time mother and her husband starts to feel neglected and very much like he is living in a nursery instead of a house. He goes to visit the neighbors to get out of the way and have some peace and quiet, which leads his wife to assume that she is old and ugly because her husband has gone to visit the cute neighbor girl. Then she buries herself deeper into motherhood. This vicious cycle continues until Mrs. March finds Meg in tears and tells her to suck it up and pay attention to her husband. So Meg tries to have a quiet dinner with John, but they are predictably prevented by toddlers. Meg coddles little Demi, while John insists on being firm and eventually gets him to bed. Meg has the sudden revelation that men can help with childrearing, too. When John comes back, Meg asks him about the exciting world of politics. John appreciates her sad attempt to find common interests, so he asks about her bonnet-making instead. They slowly start to become family again, with divided labors and (most importantly) a new nanny.
Meanwhile, Amy and Laurie spend time together, mainly for the sense of familiarity if nothing else. They go driving, and Amy starts to get annoyed at Laurie’s apathy towards life. She declares that she despises him for being selfish and lazy. Laurie laments that Jo doesn’t love him, and Amy thinks he’s being a baby about it and should make her love him. (Um, I don’t recommend trying that.) He takes her tongue-lashing to heart, however, and goes back to his neglected grandfather.
Back at home, Beth is still dying. Everyone has put all the best things in the house in her room like a cheerful death shrine. It’s beautiful for the first few months, but when she persists in living, everyone starts to find it a little morbid and tiring. Jo stays with her every waking hour, and writes depressing poetry to her. She dies in the spring, peacefully and easily, upsetting the hearts of young readers for years to come (though for some of us, it will still never be as tragic as that book burning).
Laurie, meanwhile, is taking Amy’s words to heart and goes to Vienna to learn to make music that properly reflects his inner torment, thus immortalizing Jo for eternity. Unfortunately, Jo isn’t very easy to immortalize. Time passes, and he realizes it isn’t as hard to forget his love for Jo as he thought it might be. He writes a letter to Jo, who is, at the time, writing poetry to her dying sister. She implores him to love someone else (and also not to tell Amy that her sister is dying, because those are the kinds of secrets we keep in this family). Laurie decides to put Jo’s mementos into a drawer and go to mass like he’s going to a funeral. He starts writing to Amy instead and thinks she might be a suitable replacement. Amy, meanwhile, is meeting up with Fred again, but declines his proposal, remembering how Laurie thought it was stupid to marry for money (which is easy to say when one is rich or has the means of becoming so). However, when Amy finally gets the letter informing her of her sister’s demise, she is all too glad to see Laurie again. They each silently decide the other is for them, and set about with the wooing. It ends up successful, this time, and Laurie proposes whilst rowing in a boat on the lake. (My childhood self is outraged by this sudden turn of events, as we all know that Jo is a much better character.)
Jo, meanwhile, is in mourning for her sister and for her life purpose. She spends more time with Meg (the only sister she has access to at this point) and when she hears of the engagement, admits that she is lonely and might have said yes to Laurie if he’d asked again. She thinks this again on her 25th birthday and resigns herself to literary spinsterhood. Laurie appears out of nowhere like the ghost of awkward timing and announces he’s gotten married to Amy in Paris. Jo is more or less happy to be his sister, but she’s a little sad they can no longer be children again. He invites her to live with them to mind their future children (which wouldn’t be weird at all). She takes a few minutes to excuse herself from the impromptu family gathering to weep for her loneliness.
Suddenly, Mr. Bhaer shows up at the door out of nowhere. He’s quickly ushered into the party and everyone seems to get along brilliantly. He apparently has business in town, but nobody believes that for a minute. Oddly, Laurie wishes the man were younger and richer for Jo’s sake. Jo and Bhaer meet several times and when he is done with business in town, she despairs that he’s moving so far away. He takes this as a good sign and proposes. She accepts. (My childhood self is outraged. My adult self pouts.)
Fast forward to a few years after they are married, and they decide to start up a school. They inherit Aunt March’s estate and get a few rich and poor boys for their school before having a couple of their own named Rob and Teddy. (Are you kidding me – you named your child Teddy Bhaer?! Whose idea was that? Was it Laurie’s? Was it?!) When all the families gather and the cousins play, the sisters (and their husbands) think back on their dreams of being famous and decide that having kids is much more rewarding than anything else, because they are, after all, proper little women.
Not gonna lie – this ending still annoys me. I am very likely projecting here, but it seems much more in-character for Jo to be a literary spinster with lots of family and friends and nieces and nephews, instead of having a husband and kids suddenly shoehorned in at the last minute. Then again, I suppose a Victorian novel intended to instill morality into little girls could not possibly end any differently: “Hear that, girls? Either you get married and have babies or you die.” They would never understand kids these days.