'Little Women' Read by Girls but Remembered by Women

April 12, 1992|By NORRIE EPSTEIN

I'll never forget the summer I first read "Little Women." Twenty-six years later, that memorable opening (" 'Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,' grumbled Jo, lying on the rug") is a literary madeleine, taking me back to an earlier time when reading was an unmixed pleasure and a book a magical charm that sealed me off from the world.

I recently turned to "Little Women" again, partly out of a need to recapture that old feeling -- I had just moved and felt lost and disconnected -- and partly out of a critic's curiosity to see if it "held up." I expected, and feared, that I would find it sentimental and preachy. Instead I found myself reading it, not with the patronizing air of an adult turning to a child's book, but with all the voracious intensity of the first time. Once again I was my

childhood self, the "girl who reads."

I'm not alone in my feelings for this book. "Little Women" may be read by girls, but it's remembered by women. Whenever I ask friends if they recall reading this book, the tenor of our conversation takes another turn. Whatever we were talking about is forgotten and their voices grow warm with pleasure as the memory of this one book returns. In startling detail, often down to the exact words, we recited favorite scenes: the time Amy threw Jo's manuscript into the fire; the day Jo cut off her hair ("her one beauty"); Meg's first ball; Laurie's proposal of marriage. But chiefly we remembered Beth's death. Her final remark, "The needle is too heavy," must have been indelibly branded into the collective unconscious of generations of morbid adolescents. And of course, we all loved Jo, though one -- perhaps the most honest -- confessed to identifying with Amy, who, she said, would have been addicted to aerobics today. We talked about the March girls as easily and happily if gossiping about mutual friends. Among women who read, "Little Women" is a bond, no less than the first date or bra or any other ritual of growing up.

Why did this book stay with us when others, even better written ones, were forgotten? For, me, and, I suspect, others, "Little Women" was a rite of passage, marking my progress from the world of children's stories into the tantalizing realm of full-length women's fiction. From "Little Women" I graduated to "Jane Eyre," "Pride and Prejudice," "Marjorie Morningstar," "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," "Gone with the Wind" and a smuggled copy of "The Valley of the Dolls" (the "Kama Sutra" of Newton, Massachusetts).

"Little Women" was a novel of firsts. It was my first book with a grown-up love story and the first with a death. It taught me that fiction could be a window into other lives and that reading could satisfy my curiousity about people who were not myself, who lived beyond my narrow world. I learned that stories don't have to end with the final page and that characters could live and stay with you long after a book was finished. When a young reader picks up "Little Women," she encounters, perhaps for the first time in her reading life, a fully imagined world populated by characters with human depth. What I would later call "Literature" was simply stories about people who interested me.

Before I read "Little Women" I never bothered with authors. Thtale, not the teller, was what counted. For the first time, I yearned to know more about the writer behind the book, and I yearned to see a face I could attach to the words. I was sure we would have been friends. Quite simply, I became a fan. When I learned that Louisa May Alcott was the real Jo, I had to see her house, now a literary shrine, in Concord, Mass. The trip, as such pilgrimages usually are, was an unspeakable disappointment. Wandering among Alcottian relics, I discovered that authors never rival the glamour of their creations. The four Alcott girls ere nothing like the March girls of my imagination. Miss Alcott was a New England spinster, square-jawed, and depressingly homely. She was nothing like Jo, the wild heroine with the flying hair.

In the one hundred and thirty years since "Little Women" was written, the idea of womanhood has been radically redefined, and the notion of spinsterhood has become as obsolete as a quilting bee. Yet "Little Women" has outlasted the domestic code it depicted and the society it portrayed. It's deeper message transcends social movements and manners, and I now see why it spoke so poignantly to my adolescent self. Standing at the cusp of life, poised between girl and woman, I was frightened of my future and sad about losing my past. "Little Women" dramatized my private fears and hopes, making them comforting and manageable.

The book is about accepting being a woman. Jo's rebellion, her desire to be a boy, coincides with a young reader's sexual ambivalence. Like many girls, I read "Little Women" just as I was securing my own sexual identity, and the mere act of reading it confirmed my femininity: boys don't read "Little Women".

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