Little Women and Stories behind it

Niina Pekantytär

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Louisa May Alcott was born into New England´s transcendentalist movement. Transcendentalism was very much an American movement but its roots were within German philosophy and romanticism. Especially in the transnational ideas of Immanuel Kant and his new ethic of “universal hospitality”. There are a couple of basic principles within transcendentalist philosophy; Human beings are inherently good and pure. Nature was the ultimate mediator and expression of God who was present all around. Self-reflection and being true to-one self was encouraged. From a very early age, Louisa practised self-reflection and observance and her novels, Little Women and Old Fashioned girl have the biggest transcendentalist influences.

Little Women film from 1994 is one of the rare adaptations with clear references to transcendentalism. When Jo meets Friedrich they talk about German philosophy. Jo mentions that her parents were part of “rather an unusual circle in Concord” and she mentions that she adores Goethe. Friedrich quotes a poem from another transcendentalist, Walt Whitman and Jo join him. Transcendentalists believed that it was through the observation and appreciation of nature that the human soul was enlightened. The idea of being truly authentic self becomes part of their conversation.

Transcendentalist love for nature can be seen in the movie in the presence of flowers and plants outdoors and indoors. The proposal scene in the movie and in the book takes place in nature and it correlates the way in the book Friedrich has kept Jo´s poem.

“Be worthy, love, and love will come,” In the falling summer rain.

Louisa May Alcott was surrounded by the greatest thinkers of her time, Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emmerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Her father, Bronson Alcott, showed her an idealistic and ultimately unworkable version of the movement. Throughout Louisa’s childhood, Bronson pursued philosophical ideas by establishing the Temple School where he sought to teach children according to his transcendental ideas. Some of Bronson´s ideas were too radical for the parents and eventually, he was forced to resign when he took a black child as a student. Soon after the closing of the Temple School, the family moved to a farmstead to establish a Utopian society called Fruitlands. There, they attempted to live off the land, follow a strict vegetarian diet, and more fully implement the ideas that Bronson deemed important. Fruitlands was a terrible failure. The Alcotts were subjected to backbreaking work but barely survived the winter. After a little less than a year on the homestead, they left Although Louisa had seen her father’s transcendentalist projects fail, she still believed in the philosophy as much as he did, and blamed the setbacks on poor planning and execution. In her books, she would correct his mistakes.

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It was after this that they moved to Concord, Massachusetts, where the transcendentalist movement started to take shape. Emmerson was a good friend of Bronson and Louisa frequently borrowed books from Emmerson´s library and learned about nature from Thoreau. Margaret Fuller made an everlasting impression on Louisa with her philosophy and feminist ideas. It was unusual for the time for the mother to work outside the home but Abba Alcott did. Bronson had the determination to give his daughter a proper education, also unusual for the time. Abba had less interest in the ideological side of transcendentalism but more in what practical tools transcendentalism offered. Alcott has mixed emotions about Transcendentalism. Intrigued and inspired by the ideal of self-reliance, she still knew from first-hand experience that ‘self-reliance really meant reliance on others and required the self-sacrifice of family members’” (Boyd). Louisa wanted to tie the two opposite knots of her parent's ideas.

This drew her to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s theories and ideas, as they presented a more complete way of living out the transcendental philosophy. Her journals illustrate her love for his philosophies, calling him “the man who has helped me most by his life, his books, his society”. Emmerson´s philosophy on how good deeds bring happiness and satisfaction to one´s life deeply affected Louisa and her written works. Louisa was as well heavily affected by Goethe´s ideas of self-reliance. The topic of self-reliance is a constant theme in Little Women and is essentially important when getting to know the characters.

As a German immigrant, Professor Bhaer understands and experiences hard work and struggle. He bears in mind the responsibility he has in caring for a woman if he is to marry. He is more grounded and stable than Laurie, whose idealized hopes of marriage remind me of Louisa’s own descriptions of her imprudent father (“…he was a man in a balloon, with his family holding the ropes trying to hold him down to Earth”) (Rhone)

In a minute a hand came down over the page so that she could not draw, and Laurie’s voice said, with a droll imitation of a penitent child, “I will be good, oh, I will be good!”

But Amy did not laugh, for she was in earnest, and tapping on the outspread hand with her pencil, said soberly, “Aren’t you ashamed of a hand like that? It’s as soft and white as a woman’s and looks as if it never did anything but wear Jouvin’s best gloves and pick flowers for ladies” (Little Women, Chapter 39).

Amy being a working-class girl she doesn´t have any problems reminding Laurie that he has not worked a day in his life.

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

Finland, MN
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