Reading by Ear: Little Women

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
read by Barbara Caruso

Oh, Little Women. It’s one of the very few “classics” (y’all know I feel about that word) that I actually read as a kid—I think I read it in middle school or high school, casting around for something to read (and still not having my act together library-wise). We had a copy lying around the house, and so I read it, enjoying the domestic drama, identifying with Jo (I think everyone who reads Little Women identifies with Jo), and, towards the end, becoming a soldier in what I believe is one of the oldest shipping wars in fandom. It left an impact on me, needless to say, but I didn’t revisit it (save in film form) until I randomly grabbed the audiobook at my local library.

Little Women, for the few that don’t know, follows the lives of four New England sisters during the Civil War; sweet Meg, tomboy Jo, prissy Amy, and shy Beth. With their father in service as a chaplain, the March sisters—and their beloved Marmee—navigate adolescence and young womanhood as best they can, with the help of their new friend Laurie, the rich and lonely boy across the way. The serialized novel follows the sisters from adolescence to married life, carefully detailing the trials and tribulations as they strive to be good people.

Nothing much happens in Little Women. It’s like Austen, in that respect—but you keep turning the page. (I know that’s taken from someone much wittier than I am, but my copy of Pride and Prejudice is still in the bin o’ books from moving back from college.) I never absolutely had to find out how everything turned out (which was compounded by the fact that I’d already read the book), but I always found myself putting it on while walking the dog or cleaning. Yes, there’s a death, but it’s mostly the events of ordinary lives led by ordinary girls trying to be good people. Meg must struggle with her taste for luxury, Jo with her wild spirits and boyishness (…more on that in a bit), Amy with her vanity and snobbish tendencies, and Beth with her shyness. And I hardly think it’s a spoiler to tell you that Beth ultimately fails, although the character, her life, and her death are all idealized by the family and Alcott, which made me look askance at them. Beth can never truly arm herself for the life to come, even in Alcott’s world, where innocence is valued greatly over knowledge—wow, that came out cynical. But I personally find that when we use the word innocence, we’re referring to a state of ignorance we want to keep children in, so to see it valued in grown women threw me for a loop. In fact, I never realized, before listening to this audiobook presentation, that Beth is eighteen when she dies—prior to that, I’d always thought she’d died as a child.

I am a fervent Jo and Laurie shipper, like my New England foremothers before me. After this “reading”, however, I am willingly to accept that Jo is more reticent than I remember her being; she always fends off Laurie’s affections and explains why she thinks they won’t work well together. But this hasn’t stopped me. You see, this was the first time I’d read the book since I realized I was queer, so to find Jo’s boyish tendencies drummed smartly out of her by the end of the novel made me feel for her at the beginning of a novel—a smart, capable, rowdy girl who, as she can’t leave to help her father, stays home and assumes the role of the man of the house. Yes, Jo in the beginning of the novel needs to have her spirits reigned in, but not her wings clipped. A lot of this, obviously, comes from the time period in which it was written—I hardly expect to see a slightly butch heroine with her gender identity intact and celebrated at the end in the 1800s. (I think I actually cited Little Women in a paper I wrote on androcentrism to discuss how, despite the fact that, for girls, being masculine is valued, being too masculine is punished.) But the thing about Laurie is that he understands this about her; he relates to her on an equal level, calls her a capital fellow quite a lot, and often defers to her as his better half. So to see them pulled apart by the socialization that reigns in Jo farther than she needs and makes her fear any affection between them is, well, sad for me. But don’t think it escapes me that Laurie honestly thinks he can make putting Amy in Jo’s place (his words!) actually work

It’s a slice of life novel, ultimately, and its charm and readability lies in the humanity and goodness of its well-rendered characters. I also imagine anyone interested in Civil War-era America would find it fascinating. And it comes with a bonus shipping war, which is certainly one way to get the kids interested in the “classics”. Barbara Caruso is a wonderful reader for this—I think she’s the first female audiobook narrator I’ve encountered! Each character is distinct, but not glaringly so; it’s a subtle difference, and her voice is pleasant to listen to without disengaging you from the story. I didn’t care for the accent she gave Hannah, the Marchs’ cook—it borders on parody, and sounds out of place among the gentler, subtler accents Caruso uses for Bhaer and the Hummels. The audiobook starts with a short history of Alcott and the book before launching into the almost twenty hours of reading. It’s long, but the serial nature of Little Women helps make it go down smoother. It’s very well-done, and, if you’re interested, you could do a lot worse.

Bottom line: Oh, Little Women—a “classic” whose eternal charm and readability lies in the humanity and goodness of its well-rendered characters, as well as boasting one of the earliest shipping wars in fandom. Revisiting as an adult made me look askance at the idealization of Beth and the extent to which Jo’s spirits are reigned in, but it’s still a comforting read. Barbara Caruso’s narration is pleasant without inviting you to nod off, and her subtle characterizations (except for Hannah) are lovely.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

8 thoughts on “Reading by Ear: Little Women

  1. I love this book so much with my whole heart. Except for Mr. Bhaer. If Jo wasn’t going to marry Laurie, I don’t know why she had to marry this totally random guy who made her stop writing fun adventure stories. Louisa May Alcott could be such a killjoy sometimes. I love what you said about Laurie relating to Jo as an equal — exactly right! Exactly what I love about their relationship.

    However, I’m not sure I agree with what you’re saying about Beth. Innocence is valued in the March family (and by innocence I mean valuing unselfishness and unself-consciousness and belief in people), but I think what the family values so particularly much in Beth is that she’s good to the people in her small sphere. She’s terribly shy, and they all want her to move past that, but the quality they value in her is that she’s very giving (to them, to Mr. Lawrence, to the Hummels).

  2. I haven’t read this in so long, the details escape me. I may have to pick it up again at some time just to read it from a more critical perspective. It sounds like there is a lot to think about with this one.

  3. The bit with Jo discarding her pulpy writings is especially infuriating because May Alcott wrote the damned things. At that point, it felt like she was just giving readers the finger.

    Also, I hated Amy. So. Much.

    • I actually kind of like Amy, but that may just be because Kristen Dunst’s Amy manages to be snotty, vain, and haughty while making it endearing.

      I do think Jo discarding her writing and rejecting Laurie are both part of Alcott’s backlash against her works; I’m given to understand that Laurie was based on a friend of Alcott’s and Jo on her, and she couldn’t separate out their avatars enough to even consider pairing them off.

  4. I did read somewhere that Louisa May Alcott may have been pressed by marketing concerns (considering her financial circumstances) to be sentimental and moralistic and that in reality, she really did prefer to write pulpy lurid novels.

    I always loved those books and sweet humanity of them (and have a soft spot for Bhaer although the whole situation still smacks of author backlash). Have you ever read Little Men and Jo’s Boys?

  5. Pingback: Review: An Old-Fashioned Girl « The Literary Omnivore

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