Louisa May Alcott´s Little Men and Tender Parenthood

Niina Pekantytär


I think I was about 17 when I read Little Men for the first time. It did not make that huge impression on me as Good Wives did but I still enjoyed it as I have enjoyed all of Alcott´s books. It was about 10 years ago since I had read the book last time I didn´t really remember all the things that had happened in it. This was the first time I read the book in English and either in the past, the Finnish version I read was shortened a lot or maybe I have simply grown up more as a person and more easily pick nuisances from the story since I discovered so many new things from this read.

My old Finnish copy of Little Men sadly seems to be lost for the ages so in the spring I ordered an English version to myself.

Jo and Fritz are living their juggling/traffic years since their kids are small and the school is finally doing well. I love Jo in Little Men because she is such a multi-tasker. She runs the house, takes care of 20 kids and continues writing and Fritz supports his wife´s writing career and takes care of teaching. School is run with feminist values and each child is treated as an individual. A mixture of boys and girls makes the gender roles more blurry and children’s aspirations are supported.

But what if aunt March would not have left Plumfield for Jo?

I don´t think that a life where Fritz would go to work each day to teach somewhere else and Jo would stay at home writing and hanging out with Franz and Emil would have been suitable for either one of them in the long run. Jo may be more introverted but she needed life around her and she and Fritz also shared a love for academics. Jo´s nature also needed challenges and those became inspirations to her stories. Definitely, Plumfield would have become reality one way or another.

Jo and Fritz would have stayed in Concord close to Jo´s family and saved money for that. Fritz would have worked as a teacher in a local school and Jo would have continued writing and if necessary she would have taken another job as well (Louisa May Alcott did work as a teacher and as a nurse at one point).

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When I read Little Men for the first time my favourite character was actually Nat. It was probably because Little Men is told from the perspective of three people; Jo, Fritz and Nat but now that I read the book again I still cared about him but he wasn´t my focus and I came to the realisation that the reason why I used to love Nat back in the days was the same reason why I used to like young Laurie much more when I was 12 when I read Little Women for the first time. It was some kind of mixture of pity and maternal feelings because they were both orphans who liked to play music and had had a hard life.

When I re-read Little Women some years later my take on Laurie was completely different because young Laurie can be great but he can also be very irritating. Nat was never as intrusive as Laurie was but Nat was a bit like Pinocchio in Collodi´s fairy-tale. When there came times when he had to choose the right from wrong Nat would often choose the wrong even when he knew that it was wrong. Luckily the more time he spends in Plumfield he starts to see how self-harming that kind of behaviour can be.

​Little Rob became my new favourite character. He is freaking adorable and I love that he is a chatterbox. Mini-Friedrich inherited his father's optimistic life attitude and Jo´s curious nature. Little Men also introduced the character of Dan and I found his relationship with Jo really interesting because they are very similar. Both are observers. Another reference to tender masculinity is Little Ted´s affection for Dan. Dan is quieter, more of a grumpy teenager and at least in the beginning he tries very hard to hide his vulnerability and it is with his interactions with Ted when his kind nature comes out and that is the quality in him that Jo and Fritz wish to support. For Nat it is difficult to censor or hide his emotions. Another famous highly sensitive person in Little Women universe is of course Beth.

public domain

Daisy has not changed a bit from the way she was in Good Wives. She is very similar to her mother and Daisy is a very active character. She makes things happen. Amy´s and Laurie´s daughter Bess is as pretty as her parents but she is so young she doesn´t really have a developed personality yet but she is as graceful as her mother

​During the years between Good Wives and Little Men, Amy suffered multiple miscarriages, which must have had an effect on Laurie as well. Yet because these are children´s books there are no deeper explorations to the characters emotional world of what it is like to lose a child but if the “children book” was not the structure of the book and Louisa would have had more liberties I believe many would have different views on Amy and Laurie. Imagine how it would be like to be part of a tight-knit family as Bhaers-Brooks-Marches-Lawrences are and to see your sisters and your friends becoming mothers and fathers. If I remember right Meg and John were married about 2 years before Meg got pregnant and Jo and Fritz after the first year.

​As much as I love Little Men my biggest criticism is that there isn´t enough Amy in it. I recently found out that Louisa´s sister May Alcott who was the main inspiration for Amy´s character asked Louisa not to write that much about Amy because she was constantly bombarded by both Amy lovers and Amy haters and that distracted her own artistic work. Little Men, is a great book but it is unbalanced because there isn´t so much Amy yet May´s request for Louisa not to write so much about Amy was completely valid.

Good Wives is one of my favourite books of all time and Laurie is a complete mess in it and Amy is the only person who gets through him (and the only one who he listens). In this house, we stand for Amy March. Especially during his party boy phase, Laurie was in many ways a very selfish character and largely thanks to the positive influence from Amy he starts to take responsibility for himself for the very first time. There were years that were very hard on both Laurie and Amy because of their struggles of having a child so in Little Men when Laurie does help with some of the students (mainly with Nat´s music) he has gotten into the same level as John Brooke and Friedrich, Who in the terms of Little Women were the only two male characters that were always able to look after themselves and other people. Because of the losses that he and Amy have gone through, he does not take children for granted and the philanthropist work that he and Amy do gives him the feeling of purpose which is something that Laurie was lacking for the most part in his youth. I love both Amy´s and Laurie´s interactions with their daughter.

​Then there are the parallels between Beth and Bess. Beth was described as an angel child and after multiple miscarriages when Amy finally gives birth to a baby girl it´s a blessing and they named her after her angelic aunt. It also parallels with Laurie´s journey the way it took forever for him to come to terms with himself and finally get a family of his own. There is a scene in Jo´s boys where Emil gives Amy a necklace with Madonna and a child and tells how it reminded him of the time of Bess birth which highlights all of that.

​There was a small scene that I think speaks a great deal. After the death of John, Brooke Fritz talks to Demi and the boys about John and tells how both he and Laurie looked up to him when they became parents. This is an interaction that I would have loved to read more about and when I think of my un-comforts with Laurie´s character is that the Hollywood portrayal of him is 100 % inaccurate. After my least read of Jo´s boys, I realised how perfectly Laurie and Amy are mirroring Nat and Daisy. Both Meg and Jo are worried that Nat because he is so very effeminate and sensitive can´t provide for Daisy but then Jo also thinks that Nat would need a strong woman like Daisy to bring him back to reality. This is exactly what happened with Jo and Laurie. Because Laurie was sensitive, very unaware of his own privileged position and constantly drifting without a direction first Jo wished that Meg would marry him, then she wished that Beth would marry him and then she thought that Laurie and Amy would make a great couple and they did since Amy was the only one who Laurie actually listened.

​My Little Women marathon is still continuing and I must say I have become more critical towards Hollywood´s adaptive attractiveness. Laurie in the books is very delicate and effeminate and Jo has more “masculine” features and she has a very masculine trajectory. Of course, she loves Laurie as a brother but she is not attracted to him because he has such “effeminate” looks but then she is really fixated on Fritz since he has such clear “masculine” looks. I always found it cute and quite funny how obviously thirsty she is for him in New York and he is completely unaware of it. Films in many ways ignore this by hiring more masculine/handsome Lauries, feminine Jo´s and tones down Jo´s “masculinity” but it´s Hollywood and the gender fluidly has become a more understood subject just more recently. This is also why it is very difficult to turn Little Women into the screen like the way it is in the books.

Gender fluidly continues in the character of Nan who is a tomboy and someone in who Jo sees herself in. Nan is delightful and her desire to become a nurse is supported by everyone. There are so many characters in this book I am probably forgetting some of them. I absolutely love the relationship between Jo and Franz. Franz´s brother Emil is more hot-headed but Franz is more mild-tempered like his uncle and he wants to become a teacher and I am pretty convinced that Franz was Jo´s favourite because he was so much like Fritz. Because Fritz was the one who raised his nephews he is much more than just an uncle but somewhere between an uncle and a father. When Jo and Fritz marry Jo became the boy's aunt but for Franz, she is more of a mother and I can´t really think of a better step-mom for Emil than Jo since Jo also knew how to be strict if needed. You don´t really see it that that much in Little Men but definitely in Jo´s boys where the Bhaers-Marches-Lawrences-Brookes all become together as a community to raise children.

The lesson that I took from this book is that Little Women is about childhood and the beginning in the terms of shaping one's identity, Good Wives is about entering the world of adulthood and finding meaningful work and true love (and learning to love oneself as well), Little Men is largely about parenthood and like all Little Women books it constantly breaks the 19th-century gender stereotypes.

I think that having children and becoming a mother did frighten Jo since she was so used to her autonomy and I think (no one can ever change my mind about this) Louisa was a genius when she gave Jo a partner who was as fond of kids as Jo was but who also had experience raising them. Fritz is a very attentive parent. In Little Men, he is always holding little Ted or he is playing with Rob. Jo does manage to combine love, family and career but a person like Jo can only do that when she is with a partner like Fritz who tells her to slow down if she is going too fast and who believes in her and gives her confidence to be herself.

In Good Wives, there is a scene where Fritz is wondering what it would be like to be in a relationship with Jo and start a family with her. Sadly it is Friedrich´s love for children that is used against him when people criticise his character and it is ignored how much Jo actually loves children in the books, boys especially. Men can dream about having a family as much as women. We should not take the scene out of its context. It happens when Fritz is feeling rather lonely and is missing his home country and even though he has friends in New York he is an outsider and what are the odds? he meets Jo (who has always felt like an outsider) and falls in love with her and she is very fond of him and in the book, Jo is also much more interested in the doings of Franz and Emil than her two female charges Kittie and Minny which once again shows Jo´s love and affection towards male over female and there is a scene in Little Men where Jo wants to cheer up Daisy and she is thinking to herself how in the house that is filled with boys the only girl is sometimes the most difficult to please which shows how hard it sometimes still is for Jo to understand the world of the feminine. But Jo loves Daisy and the adult Jo who has grown out from the teen age-Jo who scoffed and made fun of the more feminine girls lets Daisy to be herself and supports her in terms of finding her own identity.

​I love everything about the way Louisa describes Jo´s and Fritz´s marriage in Little Men but then again I am one of those who in general love the way Louisa writes about love and romance was it then Fritz thinking what an amazing woman Jo is and how lucky he is and Jo always feeling her neurotic all over the place nature calming down when he is there or Amy and Laurie rowing the same both together enjoying each others company or Meg and John happily getting married in the most topsy-turvy wedding.

I might be the only person in the world who has come to this conclusion but ever since I read Little Men for the first time I've believed that John Brooke was Friedrich´s best friend in Concord. Both Fritz and Jo are really upset when John dies since they both liked him a lot and there is a scene where Jo is comforting Fritz and it is said that they were good friends. In many ways, it makes perfect sense. John was a very kind and sweet man but also a bit shy and many times more introverted people enjoy the company of more extroverted people like Fritz (Jo and Fritz are also a good example of this but I see Jo more as an ambivert than an introvert) John also spoke German and in many ways, he and Fritz had similar values; strong work ethics, both had worked as teachers, they were close to each other's age. It is Victorian bromance and I am totally shipping it.

But my favourite part in this book is the fact that Jo and Fritz have a dog called Christopher Columbus.

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

Finland, MN

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