Originally published in two volumes, Little Women is a semi-autobiographical novel by American writer Louisa May Alcott. It tells the story of four teenage sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March, as they make the complicated transition from childhood to adulthood. The four sisters have very different personalities. Each is trying to find a path in life that will combine her passions with her sense of duty. But the quest is not easy: the girls’ father is away in the American Civil War; serious illness threatens; and above all these are young women without financial independence.
Finding a path
In some ways, the story — now one hundred and fifty years old — does seem dated. For example, on Christmas morning the girls each receive a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress, a 1678 Christian book about the quest to live a moral life and avoid temptation. Mrs. March reminds her daughters of the Pilgrim’s Progress game they used to love playing as young children and tells them that their whole life is a form of the same game. Although The Pilgrim’s Progress won’t be relatable to most readers today, the central theme of Little Women — young women on a quest to make their way in a male-dominated world — is still right up to date:
“Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City.”
“I fardelli pesano sulle nostre spalle, la strada è davanti a noi e il desiderio di bontà e di felicità è la guida che ci conduce attraverso errori e difficoltà a quella pace che rappresenta la vera città celeste.”
Josephine (Jo), the second sister, is undoubtedly based on Louisa May Alcott herself. She is impatient and unconventional, loves writing, and dreams of being able to support herself and her family through her creative work. She is desperate to experience a world outside the domestic sphere and feels strongly disadvantaged by being a girl:
“I hate to think I’ve got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China aster! It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boy’s games and work and manners! I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy.”
“«Mi disgusta pensare che devo crescere, essere la signorina March, portare gonne lunghe e apparire composta come un fiore cinese. È già abbastanza noioso che io sia nata femmina, quando mi piacciono tanto i giochi, le occupazioni e le abitudini dei ragazzi. Non posso dimenticare il dispiacere di non essere un maschio [...]”.
Money and happiness
A central theme of the book is money and whether or not it can really bring happiness and freedom. The book opens with the girls complaining about their own lack of money:
“‘It’s so dreadful to be poor!’ sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress. ‘I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls to have nothing at all,’ added little Amy.”
“«È così triste esser poveri», sospirò Meg, guardando il suo vecchio abito.
«Non trovo giusto che certe ragazze abbiano tante cose belle e altre nulla del tutto», soggiunse la piccola Amy, con una smorfia di disprezzo.”
Boy next door
Laurie, the wealthy but lonely teenage boy next door, becomes like a part of the March family. He brings a frisson of excitement and possibility into the female-dominated household. Through the different relationships he has with each sister, Alcott explores different aspects of what it means to love someone. Towards the end of the book Jo recognises that her special childhood relationship with Laurie has changed:
“I shall miss my boy, but I shall love the man as much, and admire him more, because he means to be what I hoped he would. We can’t be little playmates any longer but we will be brother and sister, to love and help one another all our lives, won’t we, Laurie?”
“«Mi mancherà il mio ragazzo, ma vorr`altrettanto bene all’uomo che è diventato, e lo ammirerò di più perché so che intende essere quello che speravo che fosse. Non possiamo più essere i piccoli compagni di gioco, ma saremo fratello e sorella, e ci ameremo e aiuteremo per tutta la vita. Non è vero, Laurie?»”
Generation Z’s Little Women
Little Women was, in fact, the first book in a trilogy: Little Men was published in 1871, and Jo’s Boys fifteen years later in 1886. It is by far the best known of the three books, however, and there have been plenty of adaptations for stage and screen, including a popular 1994 film starring Winona Ryder as Jo and Christian Bale as Laurie. Now Little Women fans can look forward to Greta Gerwig’s new film adaptation with its star-studded cast that includes Saoirse Ronan as Jo, Emma Watson as Meg, and Timothée Chalamet as the handsome neighbour Laurie. While the book follows a simple chronological structure, Gerwig’s film takes a different approach, focusing on key moments as the girls enter adulthood and then using flashbacks to their childhood.