Good Wives, a serial novel by Louisa May Alcott (as I understand it, each chapter was published in a newspaper much like Dickens’ writing) is now usually sold bound together with Little Women and serving as the second half. When I purchased Little Women at a thrift store earlier this year, I made the mistake of buying a copy that lacked this second half. After finding and reading a separate copy of Good Wives, I can say that I am actually quite pleased with this mistake. The two truly function as two separate novels, rather than one large one divided into two parts. Not only is there a gap in time – Good Wives picks up three years after Little Women left off – there are huge differences in theme.
Little Women is a book about children. I hesitate to say that it is a children’s book, because I suspect that many modern children would have trouble sinking their teeth into it. A brief digression here, if I may: when I was a child, my wonderful mother purchased for me the complete sets of Little Women and Anne of Green Gables books. In a completely inexcusable fit of stubbornness (or perhaps simply because I was too wrapped up in my fantasy books to be interested in fiction about such real, normal lives), I never once read any of them. Heinous! In any case, Little Women is about childhood and the lessons children learn. Picnics, school experiences, parental love, and big dreams of the future all play a part.
Good Wives is separated only by three years, but the result of this short time is a complete shift from childhood to adulthood. Adolescence is somewhat nonexistent. The concept of irresponsible, rebellious teenage years doesn’t seem to have been a part of Alcott’s experience. (In fact, the cultural understanding of teenage years is quite a modern construction. I’m interested now to find out when that came about and what impact it had on literature, as well as real-life experiences of growing up and accepting adult responsibilities.) In this novel, the March girls are grown up and facing grown-up tasks and troubles. Moralizing is also much more prominent, and Alcott refers to it quite directly and, on occasion, humorously.
(Spoiler alert.) In this novel, the four girls’ lives take different directions, but remain fundamentally intertwined, as Alcott believes families should. Superficially, the book focuses on three of the March girls’ finding husbands, but it would be more accurate to say that this book traces their journeys into adulthood and the changes each must undergo. Meg’s wedding to John Brooke takes place in the second chapter; her trial is not the finding of a husband but learning to live peacefully and prudently with one, and she finds that the raising of children is no easy task. Over the course of the novel, Jo’s tempestuous nature turns self-reflective. She discovers new tenderness within herself, and she is rewarded by success in publishing her writing and with a husband who complements her nature far better than her impassioned childhood friend Laurie ever could. Laurie, too, finds his own perfect compliment in Amy, who grows from a selfish, vain child into an elegant, thoughtful, and artistic lady. My mother once told me that she was always disappointed that Jo and Laurie never ended up together, but I think everyone ended up the better for ending up with spouses that compliment, rather than match, their wild passions. My one complaint is that a discussion of the changes that take place over the course of this book is limited largely to only three of the four girls. While Beth’s is a beautiful soul, her character remains rather flat. She alone changes little, and is never given the chance at romantic love. Alcott often holds Beth up as a model of womanly perfection, through Beth’s devotion to domestic duties and family, but I can’t help feeling that her character exists only to impact the other girls.
While I can imagine that Little Women could be enjoyed by children and treasured throughout one’s life, I have difficulty thinking that children would understand or enjoy the real beauty of Good Wives. I myself would have found aspects of it quite boring until only recently. Meg’s process of exploring and mastering her new roles as wife and mother would have been difficult to connect with even just a few years ago – but now, the lessons she learns as she struggles to manage her new roles really resonates with me. There is some really great advice for newlyweds and new parents in here. In retrospect, I’m (surprisingly) glad that I never read this book until now. I suspect that familiarity with the plot would have muted the similarities to my own situation and thus dimmed the freshness of Alcott’s insights.
Things to consider:
When you first encountered this book, did you read it as part two of Little Women or as a separate novel? How did that color your experience of the two? I read it as a separate book and was thus predisposed to analyze them as separate novels. If you read them together, did you focus more on the continuity of the March sisters’ stories? Which sister resonates most with you – and did this change as you reread the book over time?
Things I’m reading:
Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
Musicology and Difference, Ruth A. Solie, ed.
The Country of the Pointed Firs, Sarah Orne Jewett