Little Women and Good Wives by Louisa May Alcott

Because my TBR tote (a literal plastic box with books to be read) was getting full, Biscuit and I have worked hard for the last two years to get it down substantially by reading (for the most part) only books from the tote as part of our two-person book club. This go around, I chose Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (she/her), a chonky book about the March family, specifically four girls during the American Civil War. Their father, a religious leader, is off with the war effort, ministering to soldiers. Their mother, it is implied, works outside of the house, though I couldn’t tell you what she does. The four daughters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, are taught American work effort, and the oldest two contribute to the household as they can by nannying small children and their rich elderly aunt alike while the younger daughters focus on self-improvement activities, like piano and drawing. Constantly aware that they are broke, the sisters get on differently in their living situation, and it is their personalities that shape their futures.

Biscuit and I meet twice per week because we read our books in chunks. At the first meeting, she asked if Alcott hated children. I looked up the author and learned Alcott had no children, but was writing from experience with her own three sisters. I didn’t feel that the author hated children, per se, but did get weary of the moralistic approach to every moment. Not ethics, morals. At our last book club meeting, we had Lou @ Lou Lou Reads join us, who drew our attention to the week during which the four sisters are allowed to do nothing: no work, no chores, no responsibility. They quickly grow tired of their hobbies and become cross with one another. Meanwhile, their mother watches on, allowing the shenanigans to happen, and at the end of a miserable week, they all learn the joy in labor.

This led to quite a discussion spearheaded by Lou, who pointed out that the fictional family is very American in the sense that British people gleefully vacation about 5-7 weeks per week plus the national holidays. The most paid vacation days I’ve had in my life is five (plus the national holidays). I believe Biscuit mentioned something about two weeks. It’s true; Americans work so much that we often don’t choose to use the paltry vacation we’ve earned for fear of coming back to work that has piled up, or not going because we don’t want to inconvenience our coworkers/bosses/the company. In the far past, I’ve asked to use a vacation day and been told to switch shifts with someone instead because it is “a problem” when there is a gap in the schedule. But the point is to get money and not work, right?

Unfortunately, I’ve read recently (it was Reddit, where all human experiences go to be validated or destroyed) that Americans are moving to the U.K. and getting manager jobs, turning the office place into something that you would see in the U.S., and it’s making the Brits quite angry. Lou noted that some folks are even subscribing to the don’t-use-your-vacation mindset. I don’t know if it was that Apprentice show or what, but Americans love to fire each other at any sign of insubordination, such as, “No, I will not come in, HR approved today off for my father’s funeral.” Yes, this really happens.

Something else Lou pointed out: my copy of the book isn’t just Little Women, it is also Good Wives, the follow-up novel. I’m glad she pointed that out as she searched for which edition to use for our group. I noted one night to Biscuit that some of the old-fashioned spouse roles in Good Wives irritated me on principle, but that I subscribe to them myself. When Meg gets married to John, she has a horrible day during which she tries to make jelly, but it won’t jell. John brings home a friend for dinner without asking first, something Meg has encouraged him to do, and she gets mad that the house is a disaster and there’s runny jelly all over the place and this idiot brought home some friend without asking. Ugh! The couple quarrel.

But it was Meg’s admission that she wants a nice home for her husband to return to, and good dinner ready when he gets there, that struck me. I want those things, too, especially because in our situation, Nick makes the money and I manage it/the home — kind of like the wives from What Diantha Did. Yes, everyone, I go to school part-time, too, but I don’t work 40+ hours per week. Like a good 21st century husband, Nick will eat any burnt trash I make, despite me howling in his ear to quit scarfing that garbage. (This statement is largely about pancakes, but has included other foods in the past). It may be old-fashioned, but it’s still an element of my love and care.

Another stand-out point for me was clearly some folks have no idea what “poor” means. So, you don’t have a new bonnet every season. Are you poor? You can’t call the doctor when your baby is dying because you have no money. Are you poor? You are unable to enter “society” because you only have two good dresses. Are you poor? You were likely a slave and now you work 24/7 caring for six people’s needs in exchange for room and board. Are you poor? Isn’t this a fun game? Much like Sense and Sensibility, I got the feel those March girls weren’t poor, though the liked to think they were because they weren’t dawdling in carriages or meandering through Europe (well, not on their parents’ dime; someone else is happy to take them). Much is made of Amy trying to impress her rich friends by spending her savings on fancier food for a party, but is unclear about when said party starts, and no one shows. The family eats the fancy food for four days and ugh, aren’t they just worn out on it.

The lovely Lou has pointed out that the last two books, Jo’s Boys and Little Men are more interesting in their boarding house shenanigans and academic context. From my perspective, I can’t imagine every scenario being a learning lesson about morals, and all the lessons come from the same person (their mother). I did get wrapped up in whether tomboy Jo will get together with the rich playboy neighbor, but this is one of my flaws. By the end, I couldn’t help thinking what a wiener he is [insert big sigh].

CW: n/a

36 comments

  1. I really enjoyed discussing this with you! To be fair, I think the UK has always been closer to the US in management style than some other parts of Europe, but I’ve definitely noticed a shift over the past few years, especially since the start of the pandemic. I looked up our legislated leave entitlements in the UK after our conversation, and almost everyone should be entitled to 28 days’ paid leave here, including waged and zero-hour contract employees. Lots of my colleagues don’t take all of their contractual entitlement as in recent years it’s sometimes been an excuse not to promote people, but I’m going to keep using all of mine even if it holds me back professionally!

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    • This got me curious so I looked up vacation time for my province here in Canada because I didn’t think we are much better than the US. We get 2 weeks paid annually and then 3 weeks after you’ve been employed somewhere 5 years. But there is a lot of that same pressure not to actually use it. The big difference I see here in Canada is in our parental leave. Parental leave in the US seems horrifying.

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      • It *is* horrifying, Karissa. 🙂 It’s a joke. I was very lucky and got to take 16 weeks off, but only because I work for county government and had built up annual leave so I could still get a paycheck while I was home with my son. My husband worked a job with no paid leave and he could only take a week off.

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      • I remember Jackie @ Death by Tsundoku telling me about how she was doing her 6 weeks maternity leave, and it’s basically cobbling together all your vacation and sick time plus whatever little bit they give you for a birth. I had a coworker do this, too. If you can’t cobble it together, you have to come back.

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        • Six weeks is nothing! I had a c-section with Pearl and I was still struggling to do things like take long walks and drive at 6 weeks. Let alone all the stuff we know now about infant attachment and if you’re trying to establish breastfeeding.

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          • Oof. I hate that so much of social welfare in the U.S. is based on budget cuts and not science or what works. I’ve been reading Deaf schools closing because it’s expensive to have a school for far fewer children that you can send off to the mainstream public high school.

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            • It is unbelievably frustrating when health or education decisions are made based on money rather than best interests of those involved. Unfortunately a lot of schools have to make their choices that way.

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    • As you said during our talk, you’ve earned those days off. I can’t imagine a place that believes workers who never pause and enjoy life are somehow more productive. Most folks come back re-energized and willing to forget all the petty annoyances from pre-vacation.

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  2. Love hearing your thoughts on this! Like I said, I just finished reading it with my girls and I had forgotten how moralizing it is in parts. Peter and I had a good laugh over Meg’s jelly and her fight with John because we could see us in a similar situation. I want to be the wife and stay-at-home mom who can gracefully entertain guests at a moment’s notice but I’m not naturally like that. And my husband knows better than to ever expect it of me! He too is a delightful 21st century husband who will happily make dinner on the fly when he comes home from work and finds me exhausted and the house a mess!

    The focus on the Marchs’ “poverty” didn’t sit well with me either and I had a few conversations with my girls about it. I guess it’s supposed to be relative to their previous status and thus the social circles they still move in but the way they focus on it didn’t sit well. Especially when compared with people like the Hummels who are literally dying from lack of care.

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    • It’s only a brief mention that the March family had more money and then the father lost it, so I honestly forgot several times. Now that I’m thinking more about it, in what way did this family learn such a graceful way to live with less when in the past they didn’t. Living with nothing is a skill that you have to learn, in my opinion. For instance, if you have the money to buy things on sale rather than out of necessity, you at least have money to budget. People in poverty only buy things when they really, really have to.

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      • I would actually love to read a book about Mrs and Mr March in that transition time period, when they had very young children and lost their money. You’re right, it’s a skill, and it’s not an easy one to learn.

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  3. I reread Little Women in 2016 (needing comfort after the horrid election) and I found it very sweet. It’s very moralistic but I can forgive it because of when it was written and the audience it was aimed at. I enjoyed being amongst all the decent characters trying to do their best and to treat one another well most of the time. the second half dragged a bit but I was okay with it.

    The latest movie adaptation in 2019 done by Greta Gerwig is AMAZING. One of my favorite movies ever. She really focused on the best possible interpretation of the characters and plot. Oh man, I want to go back and watch it again!

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  4. I enjoyed your take on this – I read it as an impressionable child and I don’t think I’ve read it since, so I loved Jo of course and fortunately didn’t absorb too many moral lessons (I learned most of my ethics from Iris Murdoch, good and bad). I get really cross when my husband doesn’t take all his leave and shout about the Working Time Directive and how hard union folks pushed to get people paid holidays. I’m self-employed and most of my clients don’t have bank holidays but I do now try to give myself 28 ish days a year, too. Not paid as such, of course!

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    • My uncles, twins, are both union leaders at their workplace and will scold workers who do not take advantage of their benefits. For example, someone who clocks out early from a break instead of taking the whole thing. They remind people of all the turmoil that’s gone into workers’ rights and how easily we could lose them.

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  5. The interesting thing about the moralistic side is that when I was a child, I didn’t like the books for that reason, while as an adult I appreciate it! Alcott herself didn’t title the follow-up Good Wives, the publisher did. I’ve never liked that title.

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  6. I loved these books when I was a child but reading them again as an adult (for a university module) the didactic nature of the book really irritated me. As you say, every episode seems to have to end with a homily. Yuk.

    I do think however that Alcott was very clever in how she structured her story. The sister’s characters are so individual that readers can find it easy to relate to one of them. Domestic Meg, tom boy Jo, arty Amy etc. The chapters then rotate through each of these sisters to keep up readers interest in their chosen favourite.

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    • I do like the rotation of characters. There almost isn’t even an overarching plot to follow, which makes Little Women more like an early sitcom. Yes, there are big event markers, but we don’t even have to read the chapters in order if we don’t feel like it.

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  7. So I lol’d at your line that Nick will eat any burnt trash you make – god bless him! I also eat burnt trash my husband makes – although I do most of the cooking. Now that we have kids, we have to pretend it isn’t burnt trash and tell them it’s yummy so they just effing eat it.

    Anyway! Little Women – it’s been years since I’ve read it, but I like your point about being poor and what that really means – so so subjective. i had no idea there were other books in this series!

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    • This is so evil, but I have a list of my favorite moms in my head, and you’re so on it, lol. Just, moms who are realistic and awesome and good moms but not coddling, granola crunchy goofballs. As for burnt garbage, my favorite move is scraping the burnt stuff off, but I always do it so violently that charred crap goes flying all over the place and Nick ends up sweeping and cleaning and spot-checking the walls.

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  8. I read Little Women for the first time a couple of years ago, about the same time that latest movie came out (my take on the movie was that it seemed to be about Jo writing Little Women). I enjoyed it but I can’t understand why a book about getting ready to get married is so popular with young girls.
    I like your approach of comparing your experiences with the protagonists’. I’m not sure there’s any intersection with my own life – though my father did go away for two weeks military service (Army reserve) once.
    As for holidays, the longest I took and was paid for was 5 weeks. In my last job – before I returned to being self employed – we would work extra long weeks, and then accumulate the excess over 85 hours as paid leave.

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    • I know the 2019 Little Women movie was a huge hit, but I always think of the one with Winona Ryder as being canon. I will confess that being married was VERY IMPORTANT to me as a girl. Everything I saw, media-wise, was about getting married. That’s what lovable, important people do. I mean, being single, even when I was in middle school was torturous to me. Isn’t that awful?? I get sad just thinking about it. And as I got older, I was even more sad that my parents were happily married and my brother was dating someone seriously. So then there was me, toddling along like a loser. Or, at least, that’s how it felt.

      As far as comparing my experiences with what happens in a book, you’d be surprised how far off track things get, especially when Biscuit and I are discussing a book. And I feel like that’s something cool books can do: make us turn inward and examine our own experiences. I know that we’re supposed to turn outward and see other people, experience new cultures, and I do, but if I don’t then turn inward, it all seems different, or “other” instead of something that I can take in and inspect and add to my own experiences. If that makes sense.

      In my interpreting class we’ve been talking about how challenging self-employment can be and evaluating the benefits of being a staff interpreter vs. a contract/freelance interpreter.

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      • Most of my ‘difficult’ feelings are about my parents and growing up in general. I do read books to discover how other people deal with that stuff but the last person I’d discuss it with is my mother (ok, the very last would have been my late father). If my brothers have told her I write a blog then she doesn’t mention it and I don’t mention it.

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        • Ahhhh, I see. Now I wonder if your mom reads or has read a lot. If she reads different kinds of books, you’d think she’d become more open-minded or sympathetic as she aged. Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to discuss the books with her, but perhaps she’d be a little….softer?…in her heart. If a person reads the same kinds of books over and over again — say, Amish drama — then they just live in that world and do not grow.

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  9. I want to move to the UK to get that type of work environment, don’t let the Americans ruin it! (I will never move to the UK, but a girl can dream that Americans start adopting some UK work ideas.) I feel like we’re having a work revolution right now so why not pepper in more vacation time and less guilt?
    This is one of those classics that I have teetered on whether to read or not. I pretty much get to a classic once a year so maybe in the next couple of years or ten.

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