In the first of (possibly many this year) “books I can’t believe I haven’t read,” I give you: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.
I have a strong suspicion that as a child I lied about having read this for a some book reading competition or other. I’m not totally sure about that, but it’s well within the realm of possibility. I actually never had any real interest in reading the thing, until it got a shout-out on “Friends.” Somehow, Joey’s needing to put the book in the freezer made me feel like I was missing some crucial cultural touchstone, and that I should find time to read it.
So, in loading up my iPad with books for my recent vacation, I threw that one into the mix. Why not? (I was going through the available library books alpha by author… that’s how it got selected, to be honest.)
I’m not sure how I feel about the book. There’s so much that’s problematic from a modern sensibility: The “servant” Henrietta, who is such a non-character it’s startling. Readers know more about the children and home life of the poor homeless family whose baby dies (and who you never actually hear speak or anything) than about Henrietta. She’s always around the March house, and delights in the girls as if they were her own. But… doesn’t she have her own? Or some kind of family? Home life? Anything? We got nothing. And more importantly, the girls don’t seem to know anything about her or even mention her except in the context of her care for them. What about her birthday? Happy or sad occasions in her life? Are they even aware of her as a person? It doesn’t seem that way… It wouldn’t be so surprising, but Alcott was supposedly an abolitionist. This is a shockingly positive portrayal of what amounts to domestic slavery by an abolitionist.
Then there’s the character of Jo, who I liked so so so much more as a tomboy and a rebellious writer than as the “woman” she became. Every time she had some kind of religious epiphany about how she should spend her time sewing or praying or taking care of other people instead of writing or doing what she loved, I threw up a little bit in my mouth. Again, yes, it was a different time. But fucking Alcott was a woman making her living as a writer. She never even married, much less popped out a little brood of her own. Couldn’t Jo have done the same? Or at least not lived in constant shame of not being “womanly” enough? I don’t know if this reflected some deep self-loathing on Alcott’s part, or if she was just writing for her audience who probably shared more with the March point of view than with Alcott’s own lifestyle. I’m sure dissertations have been written on this shit, and honestly I don’t care enough to spend any more time with Alcott or her characters finding out more.
It was a surprisingly quick and engrossing read, despite its great length and the cultural disconnect I constantly felt with it. I do wonder two things:
- In 150 years, will people still be reading the YA “classics” of today like Harry Potter, and will they feel equally dated and culturally wrongheaded?
- If I had actually read this book when I was a kid (instead of possibly lying about reading it), what would I have thought? I suspect I would have become incredibly bored and put it down not 100 pages in, but I don’t know. I worry that I would have bought too much into the point of view about what women should be like, and it might have colored a lot of how I saw myself (science geek instead of writer, but equally “masculine” for its time), even for a short time.