Louisa May Alcott, whose 186th birthday is today, by all accounts did not enjoy writing Little Women. And yet Little Women is by far Alcott’s most famous — and least favorite — work.
"I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this kind of thing," Alcott wrote in her journal as she began work on the novel. A month later she’d completed 12 chapters and pronounced them all "dull." Although she allowed that the finished story "reads better than I expected," and she delighted in the fame and money it and its sequels brought her, she later confided to her journal that she was "tired of providing moral pap for the young."
Alcott’s "natural ambition," she said, was for "the lurid style," for the sensational, gothic, blood-and-thunder stories she cut her teeth on as a young reader writer. "I indulge in gorgeous fancies," she told a friend, "and wished that I dared inscribe them upon my pages and set them before the public."
Alcott actually had dared to inscribe those gorgeous, lurid fantasies on her pages — she just didn’t do it under her own name. Under the name M. Barnard, she published the stories she called "blood & thunder tales" — pulpy, gothic fantasies of vengeance and horror and incest. Under her own name, she published Little Women, in which Jo writes blood-and-thunder stories for profit, is thoroughly ashamed of herself, and virtuously puts them aside.
But it’s Little Women that endures, and it’s because of Little Women that we remember Alcott in 2018.
In large part, that’s because of Jo, and because of all the thrilling, visceral rage and anger Jo sublimates into her writing before she (tragically, from the point of view of most readers) learns to renounce it. Jo is a kind of avatar for feminine discontent, raging at housework and men and the idea that her sisters must eventually leave her to get married and start families of their own — right up until Marmee, inevitably, instructs her to swallow her anger, smile, and clean the house.
Jo’s most powerful, violent, and satisfying rage comes as she goes looking for her lost manuscript, and determines that Amy must know something about it:
"Amy, you’ve got it!"
"No, I haven’t."
"You know where it is, then!"
"No, I don’t."
"That’s a fib!" cried Jo, taking her by the shoulders, and looking fierce enough to frighten a much braver child than Amy.
"It isn’t. I haven’t got it, don’t know where it is now, and don’t care."
"You know something about it, and you’d better tell at once, or I’ll make you," and Jo gave her a slight shake.
"Scold as much as you like, you’ll never get your silly old story again," cried Amy, getting excited in her turn.
"I burnt it up."
"What! my little book I was so fond of, and worked over, and meant to finish before father got home? Have you really burnt it?" said Jo, turning very pale, while her eyes kindled and her hands clutched Amy nervously.
"Yes, I did! I told you I’d make you pay for being so cross yesterday, and I have, so —"
Amy got no farther, for Jo’s hot temper mastered her, and she shook Amy till her teeth chattered in her head; crying, in a passion of grief and anger, —
"You wicked, wicked girl! I never can write it again, and I’ll never forgive you as long as I live."
Meg flew to rescue Amy, and Beth to pacify Jo, but Jo was quite beside herself; and, with a parting box on her sister’s ear, she rushed out of the room up to the old sofa in the garret, and finished her fight alone.
Amy’s act is nearly unforgivable — in fact, many a reader has decided that it’s entirely unforgivable — and Jo’s passionate outburst is immensely cathartic. It’s much more powerful and memorable than Jo’s subsequent, traitorous remorse ("everything was forgiven and forgotten in one hearty kiss"), and Marmee’s advice to learn patience and trust in God to cure her quick temper.
You love Little Women for Jo’s righteous rages and her blood-and-thunder aesthetic; they are why you tolerate Marmee’s moralizing speeches and Jo’s virtuous and sentimental poetry. You sit through Amy’s fall from grace for her thrilling, immoral vanity and lust for pickled limes; through Meg’s disgrace for her forbidden love of fashionable dresses and high heels. (Poor Beth has too little to do to pick up an interesting vice.)
Little Women may have been designed as "moral pap," but it’s written by a woman who lived and died for the "lurid style," and it shows. The forbidden emotions and desires of Jo’s beloved, forbidden sensationalistic thrillers run through everything, try as the characters might to disavow them. In the end, Little Women is far more memorable for its sins than it is for its repentances.
Update: This article originally ran in 2016 in recognition of a Louisa May Alcott-themed Google Doodle. It has been updated to reference the 2018 PBS miniseries and in celebration of Alcott’s 286th birthday.