Teachers at Work

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Sister(s), Sister(s): Teaching "Little Women"

I do not have any sisters. I have but one sibling, a beloved brother, Poopie (not his real name). I'm blessed in that over the course of my life, I have made very close female friends who feel like family to me, but no actual sisters of the Lord-Help-The-Mister-Who-Comes-Between-Me-and-My-Sister type. Maybe that is why I've long been fascinated with Louisa May Alcott's classic American novel, Little Women, about four sisters.

No other novel has been pleasing so many people, for so many years (since 1868!), with its precise and loving depictions of a New England family going about their daily lives, heartache and triumph.  The heart of the book is, of course, the little women themselves: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March.

Why, It's as Popular as The Simpsons!

Is there anyone who doesn't know those names? You know, I often mention to my friends and colleagues which work of literature I'm planning to write about for a column, and inevitably, someone isn't familiar with it. Not this one. Everyone, but everyone, knows Little Women, from the former students who clasped their hands in rapture at its mention to my school's gym teacher who rolled his eyes as he turned back to Yankees.com on the computer after I brought this book up.

What is it about this novel? Well, one thing that assures its fame is the way it has seeped into our national culture. Just like practically everyone can crack a "To be or not to be" joke without necessarily knowing Hamlet, people have experienced Little Women in film, radio and TV, as well as a myriad of widely available abridged versions. (I believe I was 7 when I pored through a Readers' Digest condensed version at my grandmother's house.) I bet that, by now, at least some of your sisters have seen the excellent Christian Bale/Winona Ryder/Susan Sarandon film version from the 1990s, which seems to always be on one basic cable station or 'tother. It's one of those books that's just in the air.

Another reason for the fame is the most memorable plot point. (SPOILER ALERT!) When talking with people, what I heard over and over was "Beth dies!" For many readers, this was the first time they mourned over a fictional character's passing. Beth is indeed a rare creation, a truly good character who doesn't come off as prissy, so when she shuffles off this mortal coil, readers rarely keep it together. More on Beth in a bit.

I also would argue that this is a book by, about, and — to some extent (I refer you to the eye-rolling above) — for women. We forget, living in an age when female writers enjoy wide renown and feminist literature is commonplace, that Alcott was a female writer at a time when female writers did not often become famous. Moreover, she was writing about domestic life (I hope I'm not ruining it for you, but there are no gun battles nor dragons in the novel), affairs of the heart (but not the sexual body), and familial love, which was atypical for the dashing, romantic big-idea novels popular then. Yet people then and now must have been clamoring for just such a novel, because it became a huge best-seller immediately, and Alcott soon wrote a sequel (originally called Good Wives; both parts are published under the title Little Women these days). Then, as now, we like fantasy, mystery, and drama, of course, but we also want literature to reflect who we are, in our hearts and in our homes.

If you intend to teach Little Women in your language arts classroom, an idea I heartily encourage, here are some things to keep in mind.

"Bootjack"? "Niminy-Piminy"? Oh Yeah, This Book is Over 120 Years Old.

There are three kinds of words used in this novel: first, words we know and use now. Second, words that people with big vocabularies know and use now. Third, words that people now have never heard of. There's a vocab list for this book (using the first and second kind of word!) here. As for the third kind of word, of which bootjack, niminy-piminy, seedcake, and rattlepated are good examples, you'll need to make sure your kids understand that these words are on their way, once they begin reading this novel. (And they come up soon — you'll won't be off the first page before you hit hearth-brush and kettle-holder. Ah yes, kettle-holder. As in "I like to keep my iPhone in my kettle holder," no doubt.) This novel, wonderfully, shows how people really did talk in the mid-1800s. But that's a challenge, too, when your students are struggling to understand just what is going on.

I've written before about the importance of historical context for the language arts classroom, here and here. Making sure your students are prepared to enter a world radically different from our own — no cell phones, no cars, no Lil Wayne — is the key to their acceptance of this novel. They must know that the world of the novel had its own vocabulary, slang and lingo, just as we do today.

My only tip for the language, which baffles me to some extent too (seriously, a warming pan? What now?) is to encourage your students to read for understanding the entirety of the text, not a word-for-word comprehension. The book is already 500 pages long. We can't stop to look up every difficult word like southernwood (many of which will not be in a classroom edition of a dictionary anyway). If a particular word catches your class's interest, by all means, investigate. But for the most part, encourage your kids to plow forward, trying to envision a whole world, even if the details are a bit sketchy.

As an aside, this tip applies to plot points as well. I, for one, do not have any real understanding of what the "fair" that Amy participates in is — like a bazaar? With dancing? But boys buy things? I don't get it, and it doesn't really tell me anything new about anyone in the book. It's OK to pick and choose which chapters your students will read. Amy-at-the-Fair chapter defenders, post your rebuttals below!

Daddy's Girls: The Father in Little Women

One more plug for historical context. This novel begins as the Civil War is still raging south of the March family's home. Mr. March is at the fighting, serving as a chaplain. The women's discussion of his work begins the novel, and for the first part of the book, his absence lingers in the air constantly. I happen to think that this is the strongest part of the book, truly capturing the pain of many American families as they waited for news of a loved one on the battlefield.

When Mr. March does come back, he is often referenced, but his character never really becomes as clear as the others. Some critics feel that Alcott couldn't write male characters very well, but I find that harsh — Mr. Laurence, Laurie, and the Professor all jump off the page, fully formed. I think the real issue is Alcott's own difficulty in understanding her father. Amos Bronson Alcott was a teacher and Abolitionist and encouraged Louisa to live a life of independence. Yet he was — to put this delicately — kind of hard to get a bead on. He moved his family (four girls and a wife, natch) off to upstate New York to open a commune called "Fruitlands," and it was a huge failure. They almost died from cold and stavation, and the whole thing fell apart quickly. The writer John Matteson tells the whole story in his fabulous book, Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. Not to belabor the point, but it's worth noting this to your students and having them ponder if Alcott's depiction of Mr. March might be affected by her own relationship with her father.

Ah, Yes, The Pilgrim's Progress. That's Available on PS3, Right?

As I re-read this book for this column, I was shocked to see how often the narrative grinds to a halt so that Marmee (Mrs. March) can give the girls a little lecture in moral values. They seem to be constantly committing some small sin — vanity, sloth, pride (although never lust!) — and learning a small lesson in combating it in the future. They take these lectures with an appreciation that any teacher would cry her eyes out to receive, always chorusing "We will, Marmee, we will!" or some such nonsense. It is sweet at first, but then kinda set my teeth on edge. I like that what the girls want most is to be good people, which is a nice contrast to what my students seem to want most — to be rich, or famous, or hott. However, does anyone really want to be good above all else? Is this an accurate depiction of humanity, or is this a way to write about girlish exploits but keep it all Christian and moral? Maybe your students will have some thoughts.

Early on in the novel, the girls decide to pretend that their lives are taking place in line with the novel The Pilgrim's Progress, a Christian allegory by John Bunyan. It is highly unlikely that your students are familiar with this novel, but it's worth sketching out the plot line for them. A good summary is here at Wikipedia. Alcott has the girls talk about it quite a bit at the beginning of the novel, but then it drops away as the plot winds on. Ask your kids, though, if the lives of the four girls match what happens in The Pilgrim's Progress, especially Beth's short life, and why Louisa May Alcott forces this comparison.

Back to Beth

I've already mentioned Beth and her most famous act — dying — which is the most memorable scene in the novel. But don't forget that Beth lives quite a long time before she dies. Our memories often forget that before she accepts her inevitable death, Beth struggles with her mortality, desperately unhappy that her family will go on living after she is gone. Jo mistakes this struggle as a masked crush on Laurie, but when the truth comes out, when the two sisters are at the shore, it is a deeply touching and wise scene. My heart truly does break for Beth as she explains that her own death has troubled her so much, but she is finally at peace with what is to come, explaining that she never had dreams or plans like her sisters, and has lived a happy life. I earlier mentioned that Beth is one of the few truly good characters in literature that we readers do not hate. This shows us why — she has real struggles, she has real regrets, she has thought and felt her way to a place of acceptance and thanks. When she goes, we truly miss her, just like her sisters.

Love: Driving People to Distraction since 1868

Now we've arrived at my coup de grace, the reason why I adore Little Women despite one too many stories about Amy's vanity and one too many sermons about being good wives from Marmee. That is: This book talks a lot about love, and boy, does it get it right. Romantic love is well-depicted here — Meg and Mr. Brooke at home, Amy and Laurie in Europe, the Professor walking Jo home under his big umbrella — but so are all of its complications too.

I love the scene in which Mr. Brooke, confident of winning Meg's hand, instead causes her to do a 180 and get snippy about it. They almost lose each other, except for a providential visit from Aunt March that brings them back together. (Poor Aunt March. All she does is make providential visits in this book.)

Or, more famously, there is the devastating scene in which Laurie asks Jo to marry him, and she turns him down. Re-read that scene. It will ruin your sleep. He asks and asks, and over and over she must say no. She even ends up going to his grandfather to tell him of their quarrel so that Laurie doesn't have to tell him. They really do love each other, but they really can't be together. How cruel and difficult! It's a devastating twist, completely justified, and absolutely heartbreaking, especially for anyone who's ever loved well but not wisely.

I love that in this novel, true love does not run smooth. It doesn't end in suicide and court scenes, but it sure ain't easy. To me, that is an accurate depiction of love in real life, more like my own life than Romeo & Juliet. I have fallen in love with the wrong person. I have not faked my own suicide and entombed myself so as to eventually run away with a boy I met 72 hours prior. But perhaps I am in the minority. 

Also, be sure your students notice how often the women in the novel talk about love with their mother. Sure, too often it's about how completely and totally awesome it will be to keep house for some guy, which I'm not so wild about, but it's also about wanting someone you are compatible with, someone who will support you, someone who will be a good person to live a full life with. These are worthy goals for all of us, and it's touching to hear Marmee's hopes for her girls.

Heart and Soul

The four March girls, flawed as they are, are the heartbeat of the novel, and lead readers to feel that they were once alive, and lived lives of good intent and loving acts. It's easy to say that they were too intent on snagging husbands but I would say that they are no more so than the women of Sex and the City. Yet their fates range from conventional (Meg) to unconventional (Jo) to unfulfilled (Beth) in a way that was startlingly ahead of their — and perhaps even our — time.

Spend some time with these little women in your classroom. It will be worth your while. Just skip any passage that begins, "Marmee sat down with the girls and said..."

Next, Please.

We're getting near the end of the school year, folks. I actually only have two more months of school, and then I'll be off to Scotland, South Carolina, Boston and the world of the novel I'm writing, Bottom of the Bounce. Any works of literature I should discuss before the end of the year? Let me know!

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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Comments from our users:

Monday April 27th 2009, 10:53 AM
Comment by: Echo P. (Creston, IA)
This was a very enjoyable article and I'm going to look for the book Eden's Outcasts.

I first read Little Women because my dad said I had to read at least one of her novels. It was the first book that made me cry. Once I'd read Little Women I went on to Little Men, Jo's Boys, Under the the Lilacs, Eight Cousins. I was hooked. This lead me to Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice and unnumbered other such novels. Never could stomach Wuthering Heights, however. I just wanted to kick Catherine and Heathcliff off the nearest cliff.

I'm so glad to know that someone still appreciates this novel enough to teach it. I consider it a small window on the attitudes of an era.
Monday April 27th 2009, 6:22 PM
Comment by: Lynne S.
I had a friend visiting from Canada. She needed a book to read and picked Little Women from a bookshelf. Close to bedtime, I saw that the light in her room was still on, knocked and went in. My friend was crying. "Oh, dear, what's wrong?" I asked. She looked at me, "Beth's dying." "Again? The book didn't change?" "No." I just nodded and went to get her more Kleenex.
Monday April 27th 2009, 8:52 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I recently read March by Geraldine Brooks. It tells the imagined backstory of Mr. March and it's fabulous. A must-read novel for anyone who loved Little Women.
Tuesday April 28th 2009, 7:25 AM
Comment by: Shannon R. (Brooklyn, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for telling us about that book, Daphne. I have never heard of it before and will add it to my summer reading list!
Wednesday April 29th 2009, 10:56 AM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
Do you think Little Women could be appropriate for middle school students?
Wednesday April 29th 2009, 10:17 PM
Comment by: Shannon R. (Brooklyn, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hi Elissa. In my opinion, it would resonate with 8th graders quite well. I'd be a little leary of taking it younger with male students because it is such a feminine book and it might be too hard a sell. But I'd love to hear from other teachers/readers who perhaps have had success with it?
Friday May 1st 2009, 7:04 AM
Comment by: gretchen W.
It's astonishing to me to learn that my affinity for Little Women (I was proud in my early years that I'd read it 27 times!) is so universal. As an only child with no father in my life I remember relishing the close relationships and the honesty in the girls' interactions. I still have my copy and believe I'll read it again this weekend!

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Shannon's tips on teaching historical context in the language arts classroom.
Shannon continues her survey of useful sites for teaching historical context.
"Little Women" came in third in the NEA's list of great books for young readers.