What Keeps Me Calm: Re-reading ‘Little Women’
“Amidst all the chaos, ‘Little Women’ was what kept me rooted to reality”
Welcome to What Keeps Me Calm, a series of movies, television shows, albums, books, and other works of media that are comforting us during these incredibly stressful times. On particularly sad and disheartening days, there’s nothing better and more consoling than to turn to our favorite things to read, watch, and listen, as these offer a respite from the hardships we face collectively and individually.
I’ve read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women exactly twice in my entire life, each time with a crippling sense of wanting to escape to someplace far where the winds blew colder and the warmth of a fire was distinctly reassuring. To a 12-year-old kid, the book was like a good confidante you could share secrets with. The main characters were relatable. They played and laughed and cried and did crazy things every now and then. Their adventures became your own, and in the shadows of their troubles you were able to find a little bit of yourself.
Alcott’s moving picture of the lives of the four March sisters and their mother, affectionately referred to as Marmee, is commonly attributed to her own personal experiences of being a sister to three other young women. But the allure of the novel goes beyond just a simple telling and re-telling of 19th century everyday life from the perspective of four young girls living on the brink of genteel poverty. Sisters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are as real as any girl from today or two centuries prior. They each have their own interests and dreams, and from the onset, as the story opens on Christmas Eve, we see that they too, like many of us in our younger years, are absorbed in their own petty troubles, whether they be tiresome domestic chores or old dresses that need proper mending.
Looking back, I think what attracted me most to the lively March household was the warmth not only of the individuals who lived there, but of the collective whole. Even in the story, the Marches had this innate ability to reach outward, whether it be to the next-door Laurences (who eventually, and quite literally, becomes family), the Hummels, and the many other characters who inevitably found refuge in their welcoming home. More than a novel, to my younger self, Little Women was like an illustration in a children’s book—colorful, vivid in recollection, but also stuck in an eternal loop of Christmas presents, seaside getaways, and the charming, idyllic life of a simple and happy family.
I picked up the book for the second time nearly twelve years later, at the height of the enhanced community quarantine a few months ago. Having been locked indoors for over two months, with no sun, no friends, and no work to keep myself occupied, it seemed only natural that my thoughts harkened back to simpler times. There was an adrenaline rush that kept me awake on most days, unable to sleep, and always anticipating the next major event that could potentially alter life as I know it, for better or for worse. But amidst all the chaos, Little Women was what kept me rooted to reality. This strong sense of wanting to escape to a foreign land and time period was an attractive notion, but I soon found that in between my childhood recollections of Beth playing soft melodies on her piano, to Jo and Laurie chasing each other down sloping roads lined with lush greenery, there was an abundance of things to learn from the real and at times, very visceral, responses the characters made as they were thrust into certain situations. The nuances of their personalities suddenly became more apparent and, to an extent, comforting. I was no longer reading a book about four sisters in 19th century New England America; instead, I was looking at myself in between each spoken line and silent action, sorting through my own emotions as the characters did their own.
Re-reading the book as a 23-year old put into perspective the brilliance with which Alcott fleshed out the four heroines’ transition to womanhood, and allowed me to better comprehend their ambitions, faults, and the decisions they made as the world around them changed. They grew more layered, and some of the rather brash traits which I, in my own childish approach, once lauded, began to reveal themselves in a different light. Even so, I still admired each of the characters’ resilience in facing these challenges, and in my lowest moments have sought to emulate them. Their flaws, if anything, only added to their already complex characters, and demonstrated how even the kindest and most indomitable of people are afflicted with their own internal struggles.
But what stands out most in this timeless tale is how each of the women are powerful in their own right. They have agency, and the liberty to choose how to interpret their own fate. Despite being caged by 19th century social norms, they manage to masterfully weave their way around various obstacles, creating a future that was theirs and only theirs. Each of their decisions were made wholeheartedly and deliberately, not because they were expected to, but because they genuinely and sincerely wanted them. And perhaps that is the reason behind the persistence of Alcott’s tour de force even centuries after its initial publication. The notion of womanhood that the March sisters and Marmee represent was, to an extent, ahead of its time, and in today’s era where the question of what it is to be a woman continues to be explored, the women’s actions and choices in this story were nothing short of heroic.
Early on in the book when the girls and Laurie discuss their “castles in the air,” there is much hope. But as the story comes to a close, we find that not everything they dreamt for has come to pass; and yet, there isn’t any sadness. They learn to find joy in the cards they are dealt, and continue to be unafraid to step out and beyond what is expected of them, and pursue their own passions and interests. In the novel’s final chapter titled “Harvest Time,” Amy says, “My castle is very different from what I planned, but I would not alter it, though, like Jo, I don’t relinquish all my artistic hopes, or confine myself to helping others fulfill their dreams of beauty.” In times like this when the future is uncertain, and it feels like the world is slowly falling apart, the gentle hope that all is not lost is both comforting and encouraging.
In the 2012 Signet Classics reprint of Little Women, Susan Straight writes in the afterword, “I think [Alcott] wanted us to laugh and cry and ache, which would not necessarily have made us happier. But she made us live and breathe elsewhere for a time, in the realm of her own imagined version of March family life, which is what writers want.”
To a 23-year-old girl reliving her childhood amidst the pages of a worn-out paperback, sometimes, that is enough.