Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

In the final chapter of the novel, “Harvesttime,” the March family gathers on an October day to celebrate a New England apple picking festival and reap the abundant fruit waiting to be picked. They have also come to celebrate Mrs.March’s sixtieth birthday and the fruits of her married love.  Her husband, three happily married daughters, three sons-in-law, and the grandchildren all honor a mother and grandmother with simple gifts, songs, and compliments that express gratitude to a beloved woman who marvels at the exquisite joy and overflowing happiness of this special moment. This episode that concludes the novel not only depicts the bountiful harvest of the earth in the glory of autumn but also portrays the blessings of sowing and reaping in family life. Deeply moved by all the displays of warm affection and heartfelt appreciation for a lifetime of care and devotion to her family, Mrs. March’s cup overflows: “Touched to the heart, Mrs. March could stretch out her arms, as if to gather children and grandchildren to herself and say, with voice full of motherly love, gratitude, and humility: ‘Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!’ ” The reaping is beyond her expectations.

Little Women bookcoverEarlier in the novel in a chapter entitled “Castles in the Air,” the March sisters imagined their future lives and the source of their greatest happiness. Meg, the oldest daughter, fantasizes about the glamour and privileges of wealth: “I should like a lovely house, full of all sorts of luxurious things—nice food, pretty clothes, handsome furniture, pleasant people, and heaps of money.” Jo, the second daughter, associates happiness with fame and pictures herself as a published author: “… I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous.” Amy, the youngest, is equally ambitious and aspires to win acclaim in the field of art: “to be an artist, and go to Rome, and do fine pictures, and be the best artist in the whole world.” None of these castles in air, however, come to fruition. Instead the March sisters discover a greater source of happiness than wealth, fame, and social prestige. They begin to know the heartfelt joy their mother wishes upon them on her birthday, her hope that they too will someday live to see both their children’s and grandchildren’s happiness as the harvest of their lives—the cornucopia of love’s blessings that beggars description.

To behold the joy of her grandchildren and her happily married daughters and to know that a lifetime of sowing and nurturing has produced such plentiful fruit testifies to the harvest of love that abounds in families.  Alcott portrays the blessings of family, the fruitfulness of Christian marriage, and the vocations of motherhood and fatherhood as life’s greatest prizes. It is not only Mrs. March’s happiness that is replete and overflowing but also her daughters’ deep sense of fulfillment as mothers and wives experiencing the gifts of love. Meg, who once hoped to marry into wealth, rejoices in the simple pleasures of domestic happiness that her modest home affords: “I asked for splendid things, to be sure, but in my heart I knew I should be satisfied if I had a little home, and John, and some dear children like these. I’ve got them all, thank God, and am the happiest woman in the world.” This fulfillment of the deepest desires of the heart surpasses Meg’s fanciful wishes about marriage to an affluent man.

Jo, who imagined herself a renowned author, “glancing from her good husband to chubby children,” cannot contain her feelings: “there’s no need for me to say it, for everyone can see that I’m far happier than I deserve.” Blessed in her husband, children, and marriage, Jo finds her vocation joyous and her debt to her mother unrepayable: “… we never can thank you enough for the patient sowing and reaping you have done.”   Amy, grieving over her sick child, nevertheless acknowledges the richness of her married life, remarking that she once daydreamed of being a famous artist but now would never sacrifice her happiness in marriage for a career (“I would not alter it”), reassuring her mother, “So, in spite of my one cross, I can say with Meg, ‘Thank God, I’m a happy woman.’ ” The actual experience of marriage exceeds all the “castles in the air” the sisters pictured in their minds as they ruminated about their future in terms of wealth, fame, and worldly success.

Mrs. March passed on to her children not only a mother’s unconditional love but also a timeless Christian wisdom about marriage and the family that never dates. When Jo and Amy quarrel and Jo stubbornly refuses to talk to her younger sister, Mrs. March advises, “My dear, do not let the sun go down upon your anger; forgive each other, help each other, and begin again tomorrow.” When Meg feels exasperated after her first marital quarrel, Mrs. March counsels, “Watch yourself, be the first to ask pardon if you both err, and guard against the little piques, misunderstandings, and hasty words that often pave the way for bitter sorrow and regret.” When Meg lets overwork rob her of cheerfulness, the mother tells the daughter to balance work and play, reminding Meg that she determines the mood and atmosphere of the home: “Go out more, keep cheerful as well as busy, for you are the sunshine maker of the family, and if you get dismal there is no fair weather.” When the sisters feel envious of other girls who can afford style and elegance and imagine themselves at a disadvantage for marriage, their mother assures them, “Some of the best and most honored women I know were poor, but so love-worthy that they were not allowed to be old maids.”  The March sisters cannot thank their mother enough because of the wealth of love and treasury of wisdom they have received.

The harvest of life, then, like the abundance of the orchard and field, evokes wonder at the bounty of Nature’s fruitfulness and God’s generosity. The joy of the harvest goes beyond “enough” or “sufficient” to “extra” and “more”—the cup of blessings that overflows when man sows but reaps beyond measure, when man gives without expecting to receive but receives more than he can count, when man does humble work but finds himself blessed by God’s graces. In a postmodern world that trivializes, deconstructs, or reinvents marriage, that does not honor God’s commandment to “be fruitful and multiply,” and that does not honor motherhood or fatherhood as noble vocations, Little Women dares to reiterate the truth about one of “the permanent things” that feminists, ideologues, and the media avoid. In Jo’s words as she, like her mother, feels the greatness of love in her life, “I do think that families are the most beautiful things in all the world!”

Mitchell Kalpakgian

By

Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian is a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children s Literature.

  • poetcomic1

    Mitch, you bring out the childish delight in me! Does anyone remember this?”:

    http://hellopoetry.com/poem/in-the-garret/

    • Katy

      Very pleasant poem by Louisa May Alcott.

  • daisy

    I love Little Women and then one day I couldn’t stomach it. Mr. March was a terrible father and even Louisa May Alcott described the book as moral pap for the young.

    • Mitchell Kalpakgian

      Why could you not stomach the novel? Why would you object to Mr. March. He does not do or say one thing in the novel that anyone could call unjust or uncharitable. He is praised by his wife and all his daughters.

      • poetcomic1

        I think Daisy is confusing Mr. March with Bronson Alcott.

  • Lee

    Growing up I lived in a home of divorce so Little Women was read until the copy fell apart. It was my ideal. Now I am 80 and I have had 8 children, all fine adults, 25 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren (so far). Little Women taught me what a family should be like and the Catholic Church supported and taught me in the building (with a wonderful husband and father) of that family.

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