“I don’t understand it. What can there be in a simple little story like that to make people praise it so?” she said quite bewildered.
“There is truth in it, Jo, that’s the secret…”
From its first publication, Little Women was a sensation. Though one of the characters jokes that no one would want to read a domestic story about the home, the fact that it was and continues to be so popular hints at the answer. We live in the domestic, for better or for worse. Our hopes and dreams are caught up in the everyday activities of the home–of childhood, of marriage, of parenting, of grief, and of hope. In fact, my own readings of Little Women have traversed the different eras of my life.
I first read Little Women as a teenaged girl. I was a voracious reader who had taken a turn at writing some fiction now and then. I, of course, related to Jo and her passion for story. I felt a connection with her feeling of wrongness-an awkwardness around others where others seem so natural. I felt we were both someone out of step with her own time. I hoped for her success throughout the story–angry at Amy’s destruction of her novel, miffed at Aunt March’s decision to not take her to Europe, and excited with her final success at publishing.
My second reading, however, would change this perspective. I read the book again as a newly married woman in my mid-twenties. This time when I read, I enjoyed the shy romancing of Meg by Mr. Brook, the sweet and unostentatious wedding, and the beginnings of their domestic life. I myself was being born anew into a world where saying wife and husband gave me thrills of delight. I was as amazed as Meg was at the idea of keeping my own home, my first forays into what I believed was real adulthood. I commiserated with poor Meg when her cooking fell flat and her attempts to entertain were a disaster. I even walked with her through the wonders of becoming a mother of young children with its joy and exhaustion.
The next time I read the book, my children were no longer babies and toddlers, instead, they were school age and creeping towards the teen years. This time, my eyes were fixed upon Marmie–her wisdom, her loving direction, and her sacrificial example. I stood, as it were, in the shadow of a giant and wanted to be a mother who could create a home as lovely as the March home was in the novel. It was in this reading that I realized that the book was organized around the elements of Pilgrim’s Progress with a definite emphasis on the spiritual and moral growth of each character.
I have not reread the book since then, but I have happily watched and rewatched the many film and TV adaptations of this beloved story. To be honest, I wasn’t particularly interested in watching the most recent attempt of this story (being thoroughly satisfied with the 1994 version). I didn’t think I had anything more to learn from these characters either. I’d already run the gamut of relating to the characters through the various time periods of my life. What I didn’t expect was to connect with an entirely different element–I connected with Jo’s grief.
In my first few readings, personal tragedy had not yet laid its hand on me too firmly, at least not in ways that carved me out on the inside. This time, however, I came to the film, prepared to not see anything new, and instead found myself once again within Jo’s mind and heart, feeling the pulsing of her pain and in it my own. I am a grown woman now, one who has now not only brushed grief but been lost in its ebb and flow. I know intimately the depth of grief Jo experiences at the loss of Beth. Standing in the darkened attic that used to be the place of light and merriment as children, Jo confesses her anguish to her mother. She reveals her desperate thought of marrying Lorrie just to ease the pain a little, to not feel alone. The bleached out scenes during the day set alongside the darkened, empty rooms showcase Jo’s lostness.
It is the telling of their story which brings Jo back. Like a typical hero, she has walked through her own abyss of darkness, experienced a death of her old self, and is resurrected into life and hope and a future. She pours out her soul into her book and reaps life. The final scenes of the film encapsulate this–where there was barrenness before, now she is surrounded by those she loves, bathed in sunlight and hope. It isn’t her romance with Dr. Baaer that saves her but the celebration of her life.
A good story will speak to us differently every time we read it because it has truth in it. It may not be the truth we expect, but it will find us nevertheless. And it is, for this reason, that Little Women will continue in its many adaptations to be my favorite story of domestic hope and struggle.