Why You Should Reread "Little Women" as an Adult
Since it was published way back in 1868, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has been a fixture on bookcases and lists of the best novels of all time. For 150 years, readers have eagerly followed the bittersweet yet heartwarming story of the March sisters. There’s headstrong Jo, beautiful Meg, sweet Beth, and tempestuous Amy all following their dreams, facing their futures, and dealing with deep sorrow while holding on to what is most important—each other.
The somewhat autobiographical novel has resonated with readers throughout the years, and is earning new fans and new adaptations even today. In addition to finding a home as one of America’s 100 most favorite books, and being ranked among Time’s top 100 young adult books of all time, Alcott’s Civil War-era novel has spawned four movies, including a 1933 version with Katharine Hepburn and the 1994 version that starred Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Christian Bale, Kirsten Dunst, and Claire Danes which grossed $50 million. There have also been more than ten television adaptations, a Broadway play and a Broadway musical and an opera, and a graphic-novel retelling of the book. Just last year, PBS broadcast devoted three hours of air time to the BBC’s Little Women that had viewers around the world tuning in. Later this year, director Greta Gerwig’s take on the book will arrive in theaters undoubtedly endearing a new generation of young women to Alcott’s masterpiece. Not bad for a book that is set during the Civil War and features John Bunyan’s dry-as-unbuttered-toast tome, Pilgrim’s Progress, as a major plot device.
The story’s resonance with modern readers may have much to do with its most anachronistic character, Jo, who just so happens to be the character most like Alcott herself. The tomboyish Jo is determined to be a writer (much like Alcott) and wouldn’t let anyone get in her way. She set out to New York on her own with visions of becoming a published author. She even rejected the proposal of her family’s wealthy next door neighbor and life-long friend, Laurie, to stay focused on her dreams. It was an unlikely character to read about 150 years ago, and remains so today. Since Jo was first put to the page, she has been encouraging ambitious, adventure-seeking girls to chase their dreams. According to The New Yorker, Jo has inspired writers as diverse as Danielle Steel, J.K. Rowling, Nora Ephron, Gloria Steinem, Helen Keller, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Gertrude Stein, Simone de Beauvoir and national Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith. It’s not just women who love Little Women, either. As Smithsonian notes, even man’s man President Theodore Roosevelt admitted that “at the risk of being deemed effeminate,” he “worshipped” Little Women and its sequel, Little Men.
Of course, there are other characters besides Jo and Alcott does an incredible job bringing them to life and making them feel relatable, perhaps because they were inspired by her own family. All the more impressive because Alcott once commented that she “never liked girls or knew many except my sisters.” While young readers may find themselves drawn to selfish Amy, beautiful, sweet Beth, or the beautiful Meg who ends up marrying a cash-strapped tutor for love not money, those who re-read the book when they are older may find themselves relating to the hard-working Marmee. Or perhaps, as Humanities magazine notes, readers are simply drawn to complex female characters, who over the course of the novel move from adolescence, full of dreams of fame and wealth, evolve into more realistic goals of fulfilling, if somewhat more humble, lives.
Whatever it is that has lead the book to draw in readers for 150 years, hopefully it will continue to for 150 more.