Summer Reading – Little Women

June 24th, 2012

As a child, I read omnivorously – as I imagine many of you might have, as well. I originally approached this review from the perspective that I was too busy reading books about cowboys and horses and soldiers to have properly read a much girls’ literature, but upon retrospect, I find that I actually did read quite a bit of girls’ lit – both books for girls and about girls. So it kind of stuck out that, among all the books about soldiers and cowboys and barbarians and horses, I managed to read Pollyanna and Pippi Longstocking and all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, but I had never read Little Women.

This wasn’t much of a problem until I became involved with anime and manga. No one ever asked if I’d read it. I didn’t need it for a book report or a research paper (although I imagine that if the me I am now were back in school for literature, it would surely appear in any footnotes that this alternate me might create.) It’s awkward to have read so many materials that refer to Little Women and never have actually read the thing itself.

The story is more bound up with Yuri than you might initially expect. The first Japanese lesbian organization was known as the Wakakusa no Kai. Wakakusa (young grass) also happens to be the Japanese title for the Little Women. (These two facts are not likely to be related, it may well be a coincidence. Wakakusa is also a term that is analogous to the political meaning of  “grassroots” in English.) And, well-known to long time Yuri fans, the characters of Bakuretsu Tenshi are named Meg, Jo, Amy…and Sei. Lastly and probably highest on the list of motivation for me was the fact that contained in Maria-sama ga Miteru: Soeur Audition, is the the magnificent story titled “Joanna,” which is the specific moment in which Yumi and Touko’s relationship alters permanently. In this story we learn that Touko, despite being a first year student, has earned the role of Amy in the Drama Club’s rendition of Little Women.

So now, I have read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. And to my surprise, I did not hate it. Although deeply bound in morality and gender roles that I myself do not particularly care for, the characters were real enough that I felt that the setting – and the lectures on morality that filled the corners of that setting – paled in comparison with the characters themselves. Meg was by far and away the least interesting to me. Amy is at first is quite annoying, but by the end is quite possibly the most interesting character, and Jo will always be an appealing character to anyone who is or was a tomboy. Beth wasn’t easy to like, being so pale, tragic and perfect. And now I think I understand why Sei is not named Beth and why in other references to the story, Beth is not named, but referred to. Aside from Beth being pale and tragic and ultimately sloughing her mortal coil, Amy’s eventual child is also named Beth…and is also weak and possibly not long for the world. Well, clearly we’re not going to name a character “Beth” unless we plan on killing her off.

Amy and Jo deserve center stage, precisely because they are both wildly imperfect. It’s not their accomplishments that make them interesting, or their successes, but their faults and their failures. Even though both end up married with children, neither really lose any of their essence in any way. Of course the morality play tells us that they set aside their artistic pursuits….but neither did so in order to be good wife, wise mother. Amy realized on her own that talent is not the same thing as genius and set her brush aside voluntarily since she did not have genius. Jo stops writing after she’s reached a certain level of success because…she’s done with it. Neither connects the artistic drive to unfulfilled desires or replaces it with more common, more “feminine,” desserts of marriage and family.

Okay, yes, I would have loved for Jo to be the crazy aunt, traveling the world and writing fabulous, famous stories from afar, but hey, this wasn’t my book. ^_^

When I began the book, I started as a fan of Jo. Now, finished, I stand with Amy. Like Touko before her, she charmed me, eventually.

Not a bad read.

Ratings:

Characters – 8
Story – 7

Overall – 8

As I fill in random gaps in my reading, I’ll review them here, because it makes sense to do so when they are relevant. Little Women was surely relevant. Next up in this series, that classic of lesbian vampire literature – Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu.

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4 Responses

  1. Cryssoberyl says:

    This is also a gap in my reading, and frankly not one I was in a hurry to fill, since I assumed a married-with-children ending – an all too safe assumption much of the time with “classic” works. However, you’ve piqued my interest sufficiently to have a look.

    By the way, have you ever read I Capture the Castle? That’s another book that I’d consider worth it due to the main character Cassandra having moments of personal growth and reflection that aren’t entirely bound up in the inevitable romance.

    (The same can be said of Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Lucy in A Room with a View, but I can assume you’ve read these already.)

  2. @Cryssoberyl – I haven’t read any of those, in fact. Italo Calvino, I’ve read, Betty Smith, I haven’t.

  3. Cryssoberyl says:

    Well then, allow me to encourage you. :) All of E. M. Forster’s works have what I would call ahead-of-their-time depictions of and attitudes toward women, but A Room with a View is a rare treat. As a woman in 1908, Lucy is standing on the border between all the old stuffy Victorian morality (as exemplified by her cousin Charlotte) and…something else. A new way of life, a new way of being a woman.

    “In [woman’s] heart also there are springing up strange desires. She too is enamored of heavy winds, and vast panoramas, and green expanses of the sea. She has marked the kingdom of this world, how full it is of wealth, and beauty, and war – a radiant crust, built around the central fires, spinning towards the receding heavens. Men, declaring that she inspires them to it, move joyfully over the surface, happy, not because they are masculine, but because they are alive. Before the show breaks up she would like to drop the august title of the Eternal Woman, and go there as her transitory self.”

    Although aware of the conflict within herself, she only dimly perceives the possibilities at first, and it’s wonderful to watch her burgeoning perspective and self-confidence with some inspiration from unconventional sources.

    This culminates in her launching a glorious tirade against her smothering, condescending fiance as she breaks off the engagement. One of her phrases has always stuck with me as a statement on the full, self-determining humanity of women: “I won’t be protected. I will choose for myself what is ladylike and right. To shield me is an insult.”

    There’s more, but I’ll leave it to you to enjoy. She does still end up with another man, but it’s one of her choosing, who she defied her family’s wishes to elope with, and one who respects her as a thinking, feeling, whole human being. It’s truly a favorite of mine.

  4. @Cryssoberyl – I know the story, of course and have read other of Forster’s work, just, for whatever reason, not that one. ^_^

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