I read this classic American novel, first published in 1868, in the Norton Critical Edition, edited by Anne K. Phillips and Gregory Eiselein. In addition to the original text, published with very few corrections, the volume also contains a timeline, excerpts from Alcott’s journal, copies of letters with her first publisher, excerpts from texts cited in the manuscript (such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) and other writings by Alcott that relate to the book, including some of the juvenile plays that the Alcott sisters performed.
The original version, it should be noted, underwent significant revision in 1880 to “modernize” the text, so this original version is much closer to what Alcott intended when she wrote the book.
The story concerns the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, their family, including their mother (Marmee), father, Aunt March, their neighbors, Mr. Laurence and his grandson, Teddy (Laurie), as well as various men involved in their lives, but the book is concentrated in the person of Jo, the second daughter, who is fifteen when the novel opens.
Their father has just gone off to Union Army to serve as a pastor in the Civil War after a reversal of fortune has left them in some degree of poverty. Living in a small town just outside of Boston, the girls still give time to the local poor, help keep house, and perform various plays that Jo writes. They have their own little “Pickwick Club” that published a small paper that they all contribute to and they play the parts of men from the Dickens classic.
Noticing that the neighbor boy must spend much time alone toiling with his tutor, John Brooke, Jo decides to make friends with him. Laurie becomes friends with all four girls and they induct him as a member in the Pickwick Club. As time passes, their father returns home, Meg and John Brooke become a couple and eventually marry, and Laurie goes off to college. Upon his return, he proposes to Jo, but she tells him that she only likes him as a friend. Aunt March takes Amy off with her to Europe and also goes there to get over his rejection. Jo moves to New York City and begins her life as a writer, meeting Professor Bhaer, a German man looking over his two nephews in the boarding house where Jo serves as governess. Writing sensational stories for the newspaper, Jo finds herself upbraided by the Professor for writing vulgar tales and gives up writing altogether. At home, the always weak Beth, due to an earlier bout with scarlet fever, falls very ill and Jo returns to nurse her.
In Europe, Laurie courts the now womanly Beth and wins her heart. When Beth dies and Aunt March decides to stay in Europe, Laurie weds Beth so that they return to the family, but Beth dies before they can make it back. Aunt March also eventually dies, leaving her estate to Jo who married Bhaer and starts a school for boys in the old house, eventually having two boys of her own. Laurie and Amy have a girl, whom they name Beth, after the deceased sister.
Although there are a number of issues with the book, there are parts of it that still remain among some of the best written American prose ever.
There are a number of issues, especially to a modern reader. The purpose of the novel was to serve as an instruction guide to adolescent girls in how to live their lives, so it carries a heavy moral burden. Girls must not only love and support their parents wholeheartedly, but they must have a regular devotion to the Christian god. Indeed, page after page harps on these points over and over. All this preaching really gets in the way of the story that’s being told. The author frequently steps from behind her wall and speaks directly to the reader, telling us how she feels about the story, how the girls should behave, and so on.
Beyond that, the story has a few issues of its own. Alcott spends a great deal of time setting up Jo’s relationship with Laurie so that the reader expects it work out and it is quite a letdown when it doesn’t. They seem perfect for each other. Then, Jo’s relationship with Professor Bhaer seems really forced. He reveals himself to be a very shallow, narrow-minded man. When his actions result in Jo giving up writing, I really lost respect for her. That is a serious issue in a book where she is the protagonist. I believe the issue is compounded by her falling in love with him.
I don’t think that I’m the only one to see this. The movies adapted from the book have all changed not just the character of Professor Bhaer to make him more likable, they’ve actually changed the plot so that Jo continues to write. In the book, he is 40 years old and she is 19. I personally have no objection to the age difference and the people of that time had no objection to it, but I think that today’s audience might have some qualms. The movies almost all picture him as younger.
In spite of these various drawbacks, the scene where Jo rejects Laurie must be among the best ever written. It is heart-wrenching. Likewise, the love and care of the four girls for each other is so endearing that it literally makes the book successful on its own. Although Alcott seems self-deprecating about the poetry in book, I found it to be extremely well-written and a strong hit to the heart. Although I admit that I am prone to my Irish sentimentality, I am also quick to reject overt sentimentality and I found myself tearing up many times during the reading.
So, problems and all, I have to admit this is an amazing and wonderful book that everyone who is interested in American literature must read. If you are lucky, you will find that place in your heart that it is willing and waiting to touch.