I had been to attend a family function few months back. Meeting a little cousin of mine after a long time, I was trying to get her to talk to me. She ignored me and joined a gang of little children. I tried engaging all of them together, but the little children just mocked me and kept playing their own games. The adult crowd around me scorned at my inability to engage little children. I decided to give one last try. Approaching them, I drew out my flute-like mobile phone and declared "who wants to play temple run?". With those magical words, I had transformed myself into Pied Piper. As the children surrounded me with glee, one little brat climbed over my shoulder, and hugged me with an affectionate "Anna!!". Needless to say, he got the first chance to play.
The children in Louisa May Alcott's brilliantly written Little Women (Volume 1) - a "children's classic" which laid untouched on my book-shelf for years until I picked it up on a severely insomniac night because I had few other choices - are from the late 18th century, and I wonder how they would have grown out to be if they were to be born today. Margeret (Meg), Josephine (Jo), Elizabeth (Beth), and Amy of the March family are the Little Women in this coming-of-age story. The March family is rich with happiness, but not too well-off financially. It is Christmas eve, and the girls are fretting over the fact that being poor, they need to work hard instead of having a good time like all the other children around. 'Marmee' March overhears them, and reads out a letter from their Father (who is away serving at the army) which starts thus :
"Give them all of my dear love and a kiss. Tell them I think of them by day, pray for them by night, and find my best comfort in their affection at all times. A year seems very long to wait before I see them, but remind them that while we wait we may all work, so that these hard days need not be wasted.."
As soon as their mother finishes reading the letter, the girls realize that while their father is away serving for his country, they are being "selfish" in thinking of themselves, and vow to work as hard as they can. This is where I started getting a little uncomfortable about the book. It is just a personal belief, but I am not a big fan of sacrificing everything for the country. A collective morality is bound to become immoral at some point. And I didn't like the fact that these little children were made to feel guilty of wanting to play - after all that's what children are meant to do. I compelled myself to persevere a little more. It is Christmas day now, and Marmee March convinces the children to sacrifice a thing they had been dearly looking forward to. Their sacrifice does not go in vain though, as fate (or God) rewards them amply before the end of the very day. At this point, I was so disappointing with the book that I decided I would be better off trying my luck falling asleep.
I discovered the next day - coincidentally (or through fate, or through God) - that Alcott's working title for The Little Women was "The Pathetic Family". The March family is indeed pathetic, pathetically good that is. A perfect Father who doesn't shirk at an opportunity to serve for his country, a mother who is a walking library of wisdom, and children who are adorable, intelligent, generous, hardworking and happy. In today's society, a similar family's ability to stick to such goodness would be challenged immensely. Probably Alcott realized this. Why else would she call them "pathetic"? With this thought, I decided to give the book another try.
And I am glad that I went on to read the book. Alcott's writing is alluring. The narration is largely third person, but she surprises us by unexpectedly shifting to commentary at times (For example, "As young readers like to know 'How people look', we will take this moment to give them a little sketch of the four sisters"). And there is a very subtle sense of humor permeating throughout. Each of the March sisters' character is well-delineated, and so are the supporting characters. Even the neighbor and close family-friend Laurence is almost the perfect boy that girls dream of (but he is not the macho type). The blurb of the book challenges us to pick one of the March girls to like the most, but it is pretty easy to make the choice. The tomboyish Joe (who is said to be an extension of the author herself) is the most likable of the lot, closely followed by Beth. Joe is completely unromantic, and her spontaneous burst on discovering the prospective romance of her sister is brilliant.
"..and she'll go and fall in love, and there's an end of peace and fun, and cozy times together. I see it all!! They'll go lovering around the house, and we shall have to dodge.."
Admittedly, the author is a little severe while describing Amy (the youngest of the lot, and therefore the most "selfish").
The short book is sprinkled generously with some delightful moments. My personal favorite was the episode of "Pickwick Club", a homage to Charles Dickens, where the girls publish a magnificent (and extremely witty) in-house (literally) newsletter. I really regretted that I had't done anything as exciting as a child. But the book is a little too preachy. Most chapters begin with the girls being a little lax about their work, and end with the girls learning a very useful lesson. Almost every single character is good-hearted, and the pinnacles of evil in the book are petty-jealousy, laziness, selfishness, anger and ambition. The book is a huge ball of goodness being thrust in your face like a cute smiling puppy, and challenges you to hate it.
Also, Little Women sound like religious propaganda at times. A conspiracy theorist can point at Little Women as literature aimed at curtailing the ambitions of the poor. But I will give the benefit-of-doubt to Alcott. There are also instances which would repel modern feminists ("Meg, my dear, I value the womanly skill which keeps home happy more than white hands of fashionable accomplishments") Despite its preachiness, Little Women works simply because Alcott's hold on writing. She makes us root for the characters though their little travails, and makes us feel their happiness when they come out unscathed (after learning a moral lesson or two).
I would have loved this book without any reservations if I had read it as a child. Little Women would have been a book that inspired me to an extent that Uncle Tom's Cabin (an easy English version) did. But at this age, I realize that the whole morality of Little Women, though romantic, is not very true. Life is more like a movie directed by Coen Brothers, filled with absolutely random justice (the hero gets shot in an unrelated gun battle between two completely insignificant gangs, the villain gets hit by an out-of-place and unexpected car). I loved this book enough though, and I would recommend this book as a must read, for it is fun, enjoyable, and has its heart in its right place. As Loius Mary Alcott says in a low-key line somewhere towards the end,
"Now and then, in this workday world, things do happen in the delightful storybook fashion, and what a comfort it is."
Useless Aside : Louisa May Alcott wrote a follow-up to this book titled Good Wives. For some strange reason, both the books published together as, again, Little Women. I discovered this in an unfortunate way when I tried to read some reviews of the first book, and ended up starring at some idiotic reviews giving away major spoilers from the second book. I hope that I haven't given away any such spoilers.