Book Excerpt: The Enduring Power of ‘Little Women’

J. Courtney Sullivan's foreword to the new 150th anniversary edition speaks to the reader's personal investment in Louisa May Alcott's book.

The greatness of Little Women is one of those things that’s become such conventional wisdom, it’s almost taken for granted — as though everyone so accepts the book’s brilliance, it’s become strangely underrated. That’s part of why Little, Brown’s new 150th anniversary edition of Louisa May Alcott’s classic is so valuable; the volume’s gorgeous design and handsome illustrations underscore the warmth of the prose, and the new foreword by New York Times bestselling author J. Courtney Sullivan (Maine, Commencement) lays out, in strikingly personal terms, how the book continues to connect with young readers.

We’re proud to present this excerpt from that essay; the anniversary edition of Little Women is out now.

In my childhood home in Massachusetts, one book on the living room shelf always stood out from the rest. It was old and beautiful, with a fraying red cover and bright yellow endpapers. Interspersed with the text were watercolor illustrations — one depicted a big brown house surrounded by trees and lilac bushes; another showed four girls huddled close together, as if posing for a portrait. Even before I could read, I used to pull that book out, look at the pictures, and imagine who the girls might be.

The book, of course, was Little Women. The much-loved copy had belonged to my great-aunt Dot when she was a girl in the 1930s. Auntie Dot handed it down to my mother. When I was ten, my mother gave it to me.

Like so many girls before me, I fell in love with the March sisters and their world. I loved Meg, beautiful and responsible, the classic oldest child; Beth, so pure-hearted that she risks contracting scarlet fever from the impoverished family she’s trying to help; and Amy, a bit bratty, a future artist, and the youngest. I loved Laurie, the boy next door; prickly old Aunt March (a dead ringer for Auntie Dot); and Hannah, the family’s Irish cook, who was “considered by them all more as a friend than a servant.”

Most of all, I loved Jo. I too was outspoken, dramatic. I sometimes had a temper. And I shared her passion for writing. Many afternoons, while the other kids in my neighborhood played kickball in the street, I was tucked away in my bedroom, writing stories and plays. I didn’t know any writers in real life. Through Jo, I learned that writing could be a profession, that one day somebody might actually pay me to do the thing I loved.

Little Women remained with me after I turned the final page. I memorized Beth’s confession of her impending death, and often performed it when my parents had friends over for dinner. I learned that Alcott based the sisters on herself and her own three sisters, and I soon knew their true story as well as I knew the story of the March girls. In this way, I came to understand how the very best fiction is often drawn from life.

Those four fictional sisters could only have been conjured by one who understood that particular dynamic — the way sisters play together, fight together, love one another, and yet harbor resentments. “I detest rude, unlady-like girls,” Amy says, in protest of Jo’s whistling. Jo shoots back, “I hate affected, niminy-piminy chits.” When Amy burns Jo’s novel as punishment for excluding her from a night out, it’s so wicked. So sisterly. Jo can’t forgive it until Amy falls through the ice while skating and Jo must briefly imagine life without her.

Orchard House, Alcott’s childhood home, was only a half-hour drive from where I lived as a child. On Sunday mornings, I’d beg my parents to take me. Grand and brown and set back from the road by an expanse of green grass, it was clearly the same house I’d seen illustrated in my copy of Little Women. I returned again and again, amazed by the fact that I was looking at the actual desk where, 120 years earlier, my favorite book was written. In the room of Abigail May Alcott, the inspiration for Amy, figure drawings covered the walls and windowsill. After seeing them for the first time, I went home and drew on my own bedroom walls immediately. (My mother was less than thrilled.)

I was thirteen when the film version starring Winona Ryder came out. I went to see it the day it was released, with my grandmother, who had also loved the story when she was a child. After the movie, we had our first fight. I said I couldn’t fathom how Laurie could end up with Amy instead of Jo. My grandmother said it made perfect sense to her and that I’d understand when I was older. I can still picture us, on the sidewalk in front of the theater, each so attached to these fictional characters that we went several rounds over our choices, and did not speak for the entire drive home.

Little Women has grown with me as I’ve grown up. Its meaning and depth become ever more clear. As a child, the only thing I didn’t have in common with Jo was her desire to be a boy. Now I understand the feminist underpinnings of her story. Jo says she wants to be a boy, when perhaps what she actually wants are the privileges afforded to Laurie — an education, the chance for adventure.

As a new mother, I found myself, on my most recent reading, identifying with a character to whom I had previously paid little attention — Marmee, the strong and gentle matriarch. When I reached the part about Meg; her husband, John; and their infant twins, I realized how extraordinary it is that a nineteenth-century novel should provide perhaps the first-ever scene in which a couple argues over whether to let their baby cry it out. I cheered when Marmee advises Meg, “Don’t shut [ John] out of the nursery, but teach him how to help in it. His place is there as well as yours, and the children need him.” In the same conversation, Marmee also says, “Don’t shut yourself up in a bandbox because you are a woman, but understand what is going on, and educate yourself to take your part in the world’s work, for it all affects you and yours.”

In Little Women, the domestic is presented against a backdrop of the Civil War. Neither topic seems more important or urgent than the other. The threat of death on the battlefield is no more meaningful than the poor infant who dies in Beth’s lap for lack of medical care. Instead, all of this is intertwined. Faced with a country torn apart, the March family focuses on helping those in need closer to home. The parents model goodness, and their daughters respond in kind.

Little Women is known as a children’s book, but it’s really about growing up, making the transition from child to adult. Like life itself, it’s full of moments both sweet and bittersweet. I wish I could tell my grandmother that, at thirty-seven, I still don’t understand how Laurie could end up with Amy instead of Jo. But my grandmother is gone. I have a one-year-old son and a daughter on the way. The fraying red copy of Little Women sits on my living room bookshelf now, waiting to be discovered.

From “Little Women: 150th Anniversary Illustrated Edition” by Louisa May Alcott (Author), Shreya Gupta (Illustrator), and J. Courtney Sullivan (Foreword). Courtesy of Little, Brown.