Classics Club Challenge #1: Little Men

Little MenLittle Men
by Louisa May Alcott
originally published in 1871 by Robert Brothers, later bought by Little, Brown
(thus the caption “From the Original Publisher”)

It took me a few weeks or a year to read this book, depending on how you count. I started Little Men about a year ago on my Kindle. I finished it on March 7th this year. I made it through about three-fourth of the book before switching to the paperback edition – a wise decision, too. I just don’t like the font type of my Kindle.

I didn’t go into Little Men expecting it to be like Little Women. In Little Women, and to a certain extent also in Good Wives, Part II of Little Women, we meet the March girls as they go from young, creative, blundering girls to mature women who go their own path – although many grumble that the separate ways all led back to marital bliss. In the back of my edition of Little Women, there is an essay about how Louisa May Alcott didn’t want to write a sequel and thus “married [them] off in a very stupid style”.

Little Men is about Jo and Fritz Bhaer’s school for boys (and a few girls) in Plumfield that the readers saw as established at the end of Little Women (or Good Wives, if you have separate editions of these two). We meet a bunch of new characters, some more important and some less so. They study, play and learn to be amiable and good. Sometimes it’s very touching, often cozy and every now and then rather dull.

My only(?) complaint was that Little Men was so set on making good men out of these little lads that the adults around them who acted as inspiration were just too good. Too saint-like. Not at all realistic. Mother and Father Bhaer, as they are called, had a bottomless well of patience and pocketful of second chances. They knew just what to say, or do, to make the boys realize their mistakes, and ingrain the lessons with love.
Same goes for all the other adults whose teenagerhood we had watched in the previous book(s): Meg and John Brooke, Amy and Laurie. I grew up reading and re-reading about their struggles to overcome, or at least deal with, their faults: Meg with her vanity, Amy with her primness, Laurie with his laziness, and Jo with her temper. Now they were adults with no faults at all, which made me sad because they weren’t real anymore. They had become robots who say the right thing at the right time.
Especially Laurie and Amy just fell flat, flat, flat. They are sponsors for young, struggling artists but other than that they have no remarkable characteristics.
Meg was serene and a dutiful mother, wife, woman and Christian. Her husband’s more so – he is like the most disciplined man in the world. He didn’t make much money but he saved all he had, without indulging himself in any way except for the charity (which is an indulgence per se), so he could pay back all the debts he had and secure an independent future for his wife and children should he die early (which he did). And Meg takes all this quite calmly – no dramatic heaving fits, no despair over the loss of her beloved husband. No, it’s more like: He’s at a better place now. We should all be happy for him. Ugh.

That’s another point that bothered me – the whole Christian lecture in every chapter. It’s not like a Bible study, or even preach-y. In Little Women Marmee told her girls to be good and how to overcome their ego and be helpful, all the while leaning on the Christian values. It’s similarly done in Little Men, but amplified by times ten.
I don’t have anything against Christianity as a religion (what some people do in the name of Christianity – or any other religion – is another thing), and I accept Christian values as something people should remind themselves of, or even aspire to be. But I draw a line at remaining realistic, and being true to yourself and your nature.
I’m no Hobbes, I don’t believe humans are doomed from the moment of birth, but I do see that most of them (the humans) grow up to be rather self-centered and greedy. Greedy for love, material goods, attention, you name it. Maybe Louisa May Alcott was trying to beat these tendencies down at the young age, but to me Plumfield was a utopia.
The boys themselves are no angels. They make mistakes, they are sometimes spiteful, they tease each other. They are children still – carefree and childish, full of excitement. Especially the new characters – Nat and Dan, bless them both – had trouble adapting to Plumfield. But the way how they all came to understand the morals of the events in the end of the chapters was just too good to be true.

Here is what I did like: the boys. Jo’s boys with their foolish jokes and tender hearts, ignorant remarks and helpful hands. Especially Dan, Demi, Nat and Tommy Bangs took to my heart in all different ways. I also appreciated the character of Nan, who is a tomboy, loud and opinionated, but also a free spirit and aspiring to become a doctor. Her character represented a part of the female population whose ambition isn’t to settle down and live in domestic bliss (there is nothing wrong with it if you do). Later in Jo’s Boys she is studying Medicine and I just really like Nan’s independence and her way of thinking.

Louisa May Alcott also values the nature greatly – or at least Mr and Mrs Bhaer do, anyway. For them, growing up and learning don’t mean studying textbooks only. It also means going out, taking walks, learning the cycle and system of the nature. Being a bookworm like Demi isn’t always a good thing according to them. It was a different perspective compared to the time period and culture I grew up in.

Should you read Little Men?
Only if you 1) have read Little Women, 2) like reading stories about children, and 3) wish to go back to a childhood you didn’t have.
But please do not expect the same atmosphere as Little Women. You are bound to be disappointed if you do. Little Men is part charming and part frustrating all on its own way.


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