There’s a quote by William Faulkner that “the only story worth telling is of the human heart at war with itself.” I thought of this plot every time I started getting frustrated with the moralizing in “Little Women.”
Let me explain: Little Women is super moralistic. Most modern society=bad, acting badly=feeling badly, femininity=good. But, irritating as it can be to read sermons or have acting un-tomboyish praised at every turn, the power of the story Alcott is telling is rather impressive.
Jo, as the protagonist, is the woman who contains the greatest war within herself. Firstly she is, of course, a tomboy, and it’s judged as natural and good that she become more feminine (although she never becomes so feminine that she feels truly untrue to herself). She also has a terrible temper, which she inherited from her mother. She works against this temper, fighting with her instinct in order to be forgiving and kind. Then there is her writing, which she pursues for purely mercenary reasons and out of genuine passion, the two drives battling with one another within her heart. Finally there is her love for Laurie, which she actively tries to change from sisterhood to romance, and fails.
Then there’s Meg, who essentially leaves the story halfway through after her marriage. Yet, she too is at war with herself, trying not to value things like finery and high society, trying to be innocent and pure. She basically overcomes these character flaws at the same time that she leaves the main narrative, which makes sense: hers is no longer a story worth telling.
And finally we come to Amy (I’m skipping Beth because she’s pretty colorless). Amy probably makes more mistakes than any other character, from failing to hide her limes at the age of 12 to almost making a marriage from purely mercenary motives. Her story rises and falls, moving from passion to detachment and back again.
Just about every time the book gets moralistic on you, what Alcott’s doing is trying to put these wars into language. And although the value judgements characteristic of the time can be irritating to a modern reader like me, it doesn’t diminish the strength of the story.