During 2011 leading American evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania argued in a new book that ‘WE’, each of us, are part of a discrete but interacting life support system, whose constant conflicts shape our interactions with each other and our experience of the world at large.^
The ‘WE’ concept is one I grew up with in a society in which books had a huge influence. Apart from reading contemporary stories, such as the heart wrenching Diary of Anne Frank, works of classical literature were also an integral part of my 50’s reading experiences. This included the timeless and groundbreaking tale about “Little Women”, first published in 1868 and 1869.
Interestingly it was one that many Australian children of my era related to, despite it being set in America nearly a century before. It resonated with the similarities between our two countries cultures, each originally founded on English Christian principles, and at a period in history when people were challenging the status quo in their endeavours to move forward, after the war to end all wars, and live a meaningful life.
In her trilogy of novels, published in the late nineteenth century, American author Louise May Alcott (1832-1888) wrote about the four ‘March sisters’ Amy, Beth, Meg, Jo and their mother, whom they called “Marmee”. They lived in New England during the Civil War in America, where Mrs March has assumed the role as the head of her family.
They are coping with the emotional and financial struggles of life while her husband, and the girl’s father, is away at war. The novel Little Women is a coming-of-age story about love, loss, hardship, friendship and struggle. It is unashamedly emotional.
Despite her straightened circumstances Mrs March continually engages in charitable (good) works, while guiding her daughter’s moral development, seeking to shape their adult characters. It’s all about the cultural spaces that the women of her time occupied.
There was so much about the society they lived in that the ‘little Women’ were excluded from being part of. In this thought-provoking tale Louisa May-Alcott produced a beautifully defined and well-drawn portrait of her four sisters, who are in different ways, all struggling to come to terms with what their lot in life is really all about.
Marmee confesses to these her ‘Little Women’ that she personally has a temper, but has learned how to control it. She communicates well and honestly, seeking both their understanding and co-operation in all things. She encourages her daughters to think beyond the square in a story about both platonic and loving relationships.
These are not a picture perfect family of saints, but flawed and interesting characters, who just like the rest of us, have to make it up as they go along, learning life’s lessons through the mistakes they make. It’s all about picking themselves up following their failures and moving forward caring for those in their circle.
In Little Women Marmee encourages her headstrong tomboy daughter Jo, who wants to be a writer, She says that to become one she must write about what she knows. She is not to let the thought of money cloud her thoughts, her thinking or judgment, even though she knows that she must earn it. She also has to learn how to take criticism and turn it into a productive force, not let it be destructive.
Jo’s sister Beth, while being ill and frail, has a heart that is kind and true. Ultimately when faced with her death the girls all learn that their own impact, no matter how small it is, in the grand scheme of things is very important.
Amy, the youngest is terribly vain and throws tantrums a lot, her road is a hard one to hoe. However, in the end as she reaches maturity, and with the help of those she loves, becomes a more fully rounded human being at peace within herself.
The eldest Meg is genteel, well mannered and a beauty; who tends to put hard issues on hold. The road she chooses is not easy either, but it is filled with love, which is surely what life is all about? With the support of her family around her she not only finds that out, but also learns to cherish her choice.
When these ‘little women’ are involved in the family meetings they hold to discuss the many challenges they are facing, and the decisions they need to make, their prejudices and thoughts often surface and sometimes erupt. Marmee as a true leader does, quietly and patiently guides them while they think through, and talk about the issues, until eventually they reach a solution. She does not make their decisions for them, but empowers them all to arrive at one they can live with.
You could say that Marmee’s journey is a small lesson in life for us all about how we should behave to benefit ourselves, each other and wider society so that we can aid its cultural development, by thinking creatively outside the box.
Little Women was a book whose moral lessons about life rang home. Its story was a universal one that could be transposed in time and place all around the world and, in any culture. The character traits developed in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women were those parents all over the world were working hard to instill in their own children so the novel had their approval and that of educational authorities.
The novel opens with the girls all discussing the coming of Christmas and the purchase of presents, mainly for themselves. Their father is away at the civil war, working as a chaplain to help the men through terrible times and how to face death.
They each have a dollar given to them by their Aunt March. It is literally burning a hole in their pockets while they discuss what they should buy to fulfill their own needs. The room they are in is comfortable, the furniture plain, with a few good pictures on the walls. Books abound and flowers give it ‘a pleasant atmosphere of home peace pervaded’. Pretty Meg is 16, Jo the tomboy 15, Beth is 13 and Amy, filled with her own importance, brings up the rear at 12.
They have finally convinced themselves they should buy what they like when Jo suddenly spies her mother’s slippers near the fire. They are very worn and need replacing. As she speaks her thoughts out loud they are all instantly filled with remorse at their own selfishness. So they each decide to each spend the dollar on their mother, fetching her new shoes, slippers, gloves and cologne.
Once that is out of the way they begin to discuss their families coming Christmas night theatricals.
Marmee arrives home and they all gather around the fire as she reads a letter from their father which says …
“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. I know they will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.”**
When they wake on Christmas morning their mother is out on errands, looking to help a poor family in the neighbourhood whose mother, despite having a growing brood, has given birth again. Hannah, who has lived with the family since Meg was born, and considered by them all more as a friend than a servant, has miraculously produced a sumptuous breakfast feast.
Marmee arrives home hastily telling them that not far away lies a poor woman with a little newborn baby and six children who are huddled together into one bed to keep from freezing, for they have no fire and nothing to eat.
My girls, will you give them your breakfast as a Christmas present?” she asks?
The story within the tale of ‘Little Women’, and the rest of the book, creatively illustrates a universal truth. It reveals how, when we give of ourselves through understanding, then we can, and will live a meaningful life.
Suffice to say that the book is filled with many more wonderful characters, just as finely drawn who constantly challenge our ideas about who we are and what we are seeking in life. They weave and interconnect together in a myriad of ways that is emboldening. It is a powerhouse example about the sharing of simple pleasures that completely refreshes the heart.
The men involved in the lives of these ‘Little Women” also have their character strengths, and weaknesses, but on the whole, they are the sort of men most women would want to love.
Laurie, the boy who comes to live next door, is faced with the same societal limitations currently dictating his own ‘gender’ role. He travels outside the safety of his own norm as he befriends the girls. He seeks to support their struggles, along with dealing with his own. In generously balancing the ambitions of the girls next door with his own needs and wants, seeking to understand their plight as females in a patriarchal society, he is given a whole new opportunity to participate in being part of an extended family life.
Laurie sadly does not have the same sort of male model in his life, encouraging him to reach his own potential, as Marmee does with her little women. His grandfather fits into a perceived role of many men in the society of Louisa May Alcott’s time. Laurie’s reality is about the lonely anguished one he has previously shared with his grandfather that is about all work and no play. That is until the girls came along.
Their friendship helps him to heal old wounds surrounding his own losses, as well as those of his grandfather. Grandfather has ignored the family next door for years, because they had fallen from ‘social grace’. Having re-connected with them he changes his own outlook and viewpoint. But does the meeting open up new horizons for Laurie, at least in terms of what he wants to do with his life? Not likely!
It all comes down to Louisa Alcott’s personal view about the reality of a man’s life at the time. Most of the men in Little Women, no matter how diverse their characters are, end up by fulfilling the romantic fantasies of the little women she matches them with, so that the girls can have a life of their own choosing. In many ways it is a picture perfect world.
Laurie like all the men of his time has serious responsibilities. However what Laurie really wants is to be a musician, but his grandfather is hell bent on him becoming a ‘merchant’, taking on the responsibilities required if he is to be a family man generating enough income for his expected family of the future to live on. His ideas are those of his time and would have rung true for the majority of fathers of young men.
Being a musician would have been seen as an entirely frivolous profession at this time, not one that was solid and secure. So Laurie’s role model keeps him housebound and under the thumb, where he studies all of the time so that he can go away to college and university.
Bringing someone like Jo’s personality into his sphere, with her tomboy outlook, thinking creative mind, a little woman so completely and vocally defiant of accepting her ‘woman’s lot’ in life, shatters his well laid out planned world. Laurie is allowed to know joy for the first time, because just like everyone else he is yearning for sheltered domesticity.
‘Laurie colored up, but answered frankly, “Why, you see I often hear you calling to one another, and when I’m alone up here, I can’t help looking over at your house, you always seem to be having such good times. I beg your pardon for being so rude, but sometimes you forget to put down the curtain at the window where the flowers are. And when the lamps are lighted, it’s like looking at a picture to see the fire, and you all around the table with your mother. Her face is right opposite, and it looks so sweet behind the flowers, I can’t help watching it. I haven’t got any mother, you know.” And Laurie poked the fire to hide a little twitching of the lips that he could not control‘**
There are some that may disagree with many of the ideas espoused in the original novel of Little Women. However if we seek to find the real essence of the story, we will find that it is really all about how we should treat ourselves, and each other, with honour, respect and dignity.
Are these ideas outmoded in the twenty first century? Well let’s hope not. They do come down to us from our ancient ancestors. Just the sheer fact that in their persistence, they have continued to live on, despite the extraordinary passage of time should be enough to convince us all that they do have merit.
They are certainly worth re-visiting, thinking about and considering as we move forward and face the uncertainties of the future.
The 1994 film version of Little Women, directed by Gillian Armstrong received three Academy and other award nominations for its outstanding ensemble casting. It was ‘meticulously crafted and warmly acted’ inviting attention in an elegantly drawn and intelligent telling of this terrific tale. I am glad so that I caught up with it at last, as well as read the novel ‘Little Women’ again recently. Such a positive experience.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2012
Watch the Trailer
^Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite by Robert Kurzban
*Edward de Bono – Father of Creative Thinking
** Extract from Little Women – Available to read free online at Project Gutenberg
Original novel Louis May-Alcott
Screenplay written by Robin Swicord
Winona Ryder as Jo
Susan Sarandon as Marmee
Trini Alvarado as Meg
Claire Danes as Beth
Kirsten Dunst as Young Amy
Christian Bale as Laurie
Gabriel Byrne as Professor Bauer
Samantha Mathis as the older Amy
Eric Stoltz as John Brooke
Matthew Walker as Laurie’s Grandfather, Mr Laurence
Released December 1994
Directed by Gillian Armstrong
Produced by Denise Di Novi
Distributed by Columbia Pictures