Little Women Literature Origins

Niina Pekantytär
columbia pictures

Today´s comment shutout goes to Melodie. This is what she says:

I wish, instead of remaking “Little Women” into a story where Jo is happy as a spinster, they’d give us a movie about Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau. I want to see THAT story! Maybe folks would understand that Friedrich was the real prize then. And maybe they could understand better that Louisa did not remain unmarried because she wished it. She needed meeting of the minds, mutual respect sort of love.

It’s my experience that Jo and Laurie shippers are usually folks who haven’t read the book. Or, if they read it, it was when they were very young and it was still only as a companion to the 1994 movie. I love your comparison to “The Notebook.” I’m always horrified when I hear that’s someone’s idea of romantic. It’s so toxic. And Jo and Laurie together would be just that. I think one of the beautiful things about “Little Women” is it shows the difference between immature and mature love. When we are young, love often looks like what Jo and Laurie had. I think Laurie just wanted to be in love, so he latched onto the idea of Jo. It’s hard to see it this way, though, because of the movie portrayal. How do you say no to a young and beautiful Christian Bale?!

Melodie, I agree 100%. Perhaps the problem is not the way the book is written, but that society at large romanticizes that type of toxic behaviour. Louisa found Henry very attractive even though he wasn´t conventionally attractive. It wasn´t just about his looks but the connection that they shared. Laddie Wisniewski, who was one of the real-life Lauries. He was conventionally attractive but he and Louisa didn´t have that connection.

Romanticizing possessive behaviour in a male character runs very deeply in our culture. There are double standards because when a man is pursuing the woman, no matter what the woman says, a lot of people think it´s romantic, but when a woman does the same to a man, she is automatically labelled as crazy.
image from the German film "Goethe!"Seven Pictures Film

Louisa May Alcott and Goethe

Johan Wolfgang von Goethe was one of the most praised German authors of his time. Louisa May Alcott was a big Goethe fan. Louisa was a transcendentalist. The whole world view of the transcendentalists could be described as a nature-centric form of Christianity and it was based on German philosophy and German romanticism. Goethe was one of the most important literal inspirations for the transcendentalists because he captured the essence of their beliefs into poetic form.

Louisa, according to her own words “grew up hearing stories of Goethe on her father´s knee”. Bronson Alcott´s library included a contemporary translation of Goethe´s biography and we can assume that it was one of the first books that Louisa read. One of Louisa´s most famous literal characters, Laurie from Little Women, is partially based on Goethe and Goethe´s literal heroes (Doyle).

Goethe was born into great wealth. His father was a doctor of jurisprudence and came from a prestigious family in Frankfurt. Goethe was homeschooled. He had tutors and he studied history, mathematics, music, languages, dancing and fencing. Goethe was fluent in French, a language he spoke as well as his native German.

At the age of 16, Goethe began to study law at the University of Leipzig but he mostly focused on deepening his love for literature and partying.

After graduating as the licentiate of law in 1771 Goethe worked as a lawyer in Frankfurt for a while. Around the same time, he began to receive more fame as an author. Goethe published his first novel the Sorrows of Young Werther at the age of 24 and it became a massive best-seller. At the time “Werther” was the second most sold book in Germany, only surpassed by the German Bible.
public domain

Sturm und Drang /Stress and Thunder

Goethe was one of the most prominent figures of the German Sturm und Drang movement. Sturm und Drang refers to deep emotional stress. The name of the movement originates from a play called Sturm und Drang written by Friedrich Maximilian von Klinger. The two most prominent figures of the movement were Goethe and Friedrich Schiller and the movement affected the German art world, music, literature and theatre.

Louisa described herself as “a creature of moods” so finding an author who managed to capture Louisa´s own emotional stress into words must have been both exciting and comforting. In Little Women Laurie, Jo and Friedrich can be described as Goethean characters, Laurie notably the most. We can trace Laurie´s character arc in Little Women to two of Goethe´s novels: “Sorrows of Young Werther” and “Wilhelm Meister´s apprenticeship” and to Goethe himself.

In Little Women Laurie is born into great wealth. He lives with his grandfather and he has a home tutor, Mr Brooke. In boarding school, he studied fencing and dancing. In college, Laurie is a party boy and not very interested in the world of academics (unlike Jo). Laurie is also fluent in French. He has, most of the time, nice manners and he is a talented musician. Laurie is very temperamental. He was born out of a forbidden marriage, between his American father and Italian mother, and this is one of the reasons why he struggles to bond with his grandfather, and they both feel a great deal of resentment towards one another when Laurie moves to live with him. ​
Seven Pictures Film

Sorrows of Young Werther

Sorrows of Young Werther is a novel written in a letter form. This is an important fact because this makes an immediate effect on the reader. There is no narrator. Letters are written by Werther and addressed to his friend Wilhelm. Werther is a story of a young man who falls in love with Charlotta “Lotte”, who is engaged to another worthy man, Albert. Werther suffers from constant emotional stress and he also has quite a temper.

At the beginning of the novel, Werther travels to the countryside. He is impressed by the unpretentious country people and envies their happy and simple lifestyle. Often he wonders what is the secret of their happiness when they have way less than he has. Werther spends a great deal of time thinking about the meaning of life and he is a great admirer of beauty and the natural world. He spends his time writing and drawing the things he sees. Nature comforts him and that is where he feels happy and safe.

When Werther meets Lotte for the first time he is invited to her home and he sees her feeding her younger sisters and brothers and what Werther is attracted to is the feeling of warmth and home that he sees around him. Something that he doesn´t seem to have in his own urban home.

The same happens in Little Women when Laurie meets the March family for the first time and Jo sees the “hungry look in his eyes” when he looks at her family.
public domain

Amy is in there

Louisa´s younger sister May was a talented professional artist but perhaps Louisa was also inspired by Werther´s artistic talents.

“I am so happy, my dear friend, so absorbed in the exquisite sense of mere tranquil existence, that I neglect my talents. I should be incapable of drawing a single stroke at the present moment; and yet I feel that I never was a greater artist than now. When, while the lovely valley teems with vapour around me, and the meridian sun strikes the upper surface of the impenetrable foliage of my trees, and but a few stray gleams steal into the inner sanctuary, I throw myself down among the tall grass by the trickling stream; and, as I lie close to the earth, a thousand unknown plants are noticed by me: when I hear the buzz of the little world among the stalks, and grow familiar with the countless indescribable forms of the insects and flies, then I feel the presence of the Almighty, who formed us in his own image, and the breath of that universal love which bears and sustains us, as it floats around us in an eternity of bliss; and then, my friend, when darkness overspreads my eyes, and heaven and earth seem to dwell in my soul and absorb its power, like the form of a beloved mistress, then I often think with longing, Oh, would I could describe these conceptions, could impress upon paper all that is living so full and warm within me, that it might be the mirror of my soul, as my soul is the mirror of the infinite God! O my friend — but it is too much for my strength — I sink under the weight of the splendour of these visions!”

​-Sorrows of Young Werther, chapter 1
public domain

We must talk about Fritz and Coffee

Friedrich is also in the Sorrows of Young Werther.

The other day I went to the fountain, and found a young servant-girl, who had set her pitcher on the lowest step, and looked around to see if one of her companions was approaching to place it on her head. I ran down and looked at her. “Shall I help you, pretty lass?” said I. She blushed deeply. “Oh, sir!” she exclaimed. “No ceremony!” I replied. She adjusted her head-gear, and I helped her. She thanked me and ascended the steps.

- Sorrows of Young Werther

In Little Women when Jo sees Friedrich for the first time he is helping a poor servant girl to carry a heavy hold of coal and this makes a good impression on Jo.

Werther´s body type is more similar to Friedrich than Laurie. Laurie is described to be a skinny and androgynous young man. Werther on the other hand is a tall, solidly built man with broad shoulders. He has blue eyes and a fine forehead. Similar to the way Friedrich is described to look like in Little Women. Louisa was attracted to very masculine looking Teutonic heroes and all her romantic interests in her novels look like Werther/Goethe.

In Little Women, Jo and Friedrich have a very strong flirt game and it´s often connected to coffee. When Friedrich comes to court Jo, Jo tells Hannah to make coffee because “Friedrich..I mean professor Bhaer, doesn´t like tea”. Jo would love to make German foods for Fritz but she is not a great cook and she is sad, but he constantly praises her for how she makes the best coffee. They are adorable.

Werther never fails to mention to Wilhelm how much he enjoys drinking coffee with his new acquaintances and he writes these long descriptions of how they all went to a picnic and drank lots of coffee. I counted that coffee is mentioned at least 10 times. It seems that Goethe´s novels became Louisa´s early guides to Germany, and she did visit Germany on her first trip to Europe.

Podcast Laurie and Werther harassment romanticized

Comments / 0

Published by

Folklorist and historian. Alcott essayist. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

Finland, MN

More from Niina Pekantytär

Comments / 0