Monday, December 26, 2011

Lessons from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

If your memories of Little Women have been muddied by watching the movie version, I highly recommend a re-read! Far from the feminist and transcendentalist overtones of the movie, this well-loved classic by Louisa May Alcott extols the virtues of home and homemaking and a simple faith in and dependence on God that is quite refreshing. I also found several gems of wisdom for mothers both in Marmee's gentle dealings with her girls and advice to her grown daughters. While some might find the moralistic tone of this novel a bit overbearing, I, for one, don't mind a bit being reminded of the ideals and virtues of a distant generation.

After re-reading Little Women, I also read Little Men and Jo's Boys recently, both of which were new to me. I enjoyed getting an expanded knowledge of the March family, although the main characters of Little Women take a secondary role to the boys at Jo & Mr. Bhaer's school. There is more emphasis on women's rights in the younger generation, but it is well-balanced with the wisdom and training of older women in home duties, as a picture of Titus 2 in action. My only complaint is that Jo and Laurie's relationship seems a bit unusual as they get older and raise families side by side. I thought some of their interchanges a bit odd, or at least a bit too chummy for sister-in-law and brother-in-law, even if they had been the best of friends as children. Let's just say that Amy was very gracious - much more so than I could ever be in a similar situation!

Here are some of my favorite passages from Little Women:

"The patience and the humility of the face she loved so well was a better lesson to Jo than the wisest lecture, the sharpest reproof. She felt comforted at once by the sympathy and confidence given her; the knowledge that her mother had a fault like hers, and tried to mend it, made her own easier to bear and strengthened her resolution to cure it; though forty years seemed rather a long time to watch and pray, to a girl of fifteen." (83, such wisdom about confessing and battling sin, in this case anger, over a lifetime.)

"'I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good; to be admired, loved, and respected; to have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to try them as God sees fit to send. To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman; and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience...My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world, -- marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting.'" (101)

"'I am quite satisfied with the experiment, and fancy that we shall not have to repeat it; only don't go to the other extreme, and delve like slaves. Have regular hours for work and play; make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well.'" (121)

"To outsiders, the five energetic women seemed to rule the house, and so they did in many things; but the quiet scholar, sitting among his books, was still the head of the family, the household conscience, anchor, and comforter; for to him the busy, anxious women always turned in troublous times, finding him, in the truest sense of those sacred words, husband and father." (244, nary a bit of feminism there!)

"I also doubt if any young matron ever began life with so rich a supply of dusters, holders, and piece-bags...People who hire all these things done for them never know what they lose; for the homeliest tasks get beautified if loving hands do them..." (247-248, a good reminder for one not so fond of dusting!)

"'Laurie, my lad, if you ever want to indulge in this sort of thing, get one of those little girls to help you, and I shall be perfectly satisfied,' said Mr. Laurence,settling himself in his easy chair to rest, after the excitement of [Meg's wedding in] the morning.'
   'I'll do my best to gratify you, sir,' was Laurie's unusually dutiful reply, as he carefully unpinned the posy Jo had put in his button-hole." (260-261, see, it's not all moral instruction!)

"Mrs. March knew that experience was an excellent teacher, and when it was possible she left her children to learn alone the lessons which she would gladly have made easier, if they had not objected to taking advice as much as they did salts and senna." (266)

"'Never deceive him by look or word, Meg, and he will give you the confidence you deserve, the support you need. He has a temper, not like ours, -- one flash, and then all over, -- but the white, still anger, that is seldom stirred, but once kindled, is hard to quench. Be careful, very careful, not to wake this anger against yourself, for peace and happiness depend on keeping his respect. Watch yourself, be the first to ask pardon if you both err, and guard against the little piques, misunderstandings, and hasty words that often pave the way for bitter sorrow and regret.'" (287)

"'Because they are mean is no reason why I should be. I hate such things, and though I think I've a right to be hurt, I don't intend to show it. They will feel that more than angry speeches or huffy actions, won't they, Marmee?'
   'That's the right spirit, my dear; a kiss for a blow is always best, though it's not very easy to give it sometimes,' said her mother, with the air of one who had learned the difference between preaching and practising (sic)." (310)

"'Ah, Jo, mothers may differ in their management, but the hope is the same in all, -- the desire to see their children happy. Meg is so, and I am content with her success. You I leave to enjoy your liberty till you tire of it; for only then will you find that there is something sweeter. Amy is my chief care now, but her good sense will help her. For Beth, I indulge no hopes except that she may be well.'" (339)

"The conversation was miles beyond Jo's comprehension, but she enjoyed it, though Kant and Hegel were unknown gods, the Subjective and Objective unintelligible terms; and the only thing 'evolved from here inner consciousness,' was a bad headache after it was all over. It dawned upon her gradually that the world was being picked to pieces, and put together on new, and, according to the talkers, on infinitely better principles than before; that religion was in a fair way to be reasoned into nothingness, and intellect was to be the only God...[Mr. Bhaer] bore it as long as he could; but wen he was appealed to for an opinion, he blazed up wit honest indignation, and defended religion with all the eloquence of truth...He had a hard fight, for the wise men argued well; but he didn't know when he was beaten, and stood to his colors like a man. Somehow, as he talked, the world got right again to Jo; the old beliefs, that had lasted so long, seemed better than the new; God was not a blind force, and immortality was not a pretty fable, but a blessed fact. She felt as if she had solid ground under her feet again..." (361-362)

"[Beth] did not rebuke Jo with saintly speeches, only loved her better for her passionate affection, and clung more closely to the dear human love, from which our Father never means us to be weaned, but through which He draws us closer to Himself. She could not say, 'I'm glad to go,' for life was very sweet to her; she could only sob out, 'I try to be willing,' while she held fast to Jo, as the first bitter wave of this great sorrow broke over them together." (382-383)

"[Meg] was nervous and worn out with watching and worry, and in that unreasonable frame of mind which the best of mothers occasionally experience when domestic cares oppress them." (398)

[Marmee's advice to Meg as a young mother] "'I  nearly spoilt [Jo] by indulgence. You were poorly, and I worried about you till I fell sick myself. Then father came to the rescue, quietly managed everything, and made himself so helpful that I saw my mistake, and never have been able to get on without him since. That is the secret of our home happiness: he does not let business wean him from the little cares and duties that affect us all, and I try not to let domestic worries destroy my interest in his pursuits. We each do our part alone in many things, but at home we work together, always.'" (400-401)

"She had often said she wanted to do something splendid, no matter how hard; and now she had her wish, for what could be more beautiful than to devote her life to father and mother, trying to make home as happy to them as they had to her? And, if difficulties were necessary to increase the splendor of the effort, what could be harder for a restless, ambitious girl than to give up her own hopes, plans, and desires, and cheerfully live for others?" (445)

1 comment:

Susan Bailey said...

I too found the tone of Little Women to be very comforting. I read it for the first time last year, having read about the author for years. My favorite character turned out to be Amy. She grew into a gracious and generous woman, paying attention to the small details (being faithful to the small things)

I have always been fascinated by Louisa May Alcott - her own story is so compelling. I started blogging about her last year as I work through her books and short stories. I did several posts on Little Women if you'd like to see - go to