Does Reading Shape Moral Vision? Little Women and Don Quixote

My generation of women was raised on rock music and Louisa May Alcott. And the two are not as different as you think: they turned us into resistors of the status quo.  Alcott’s writing is more polished and pointed than rock lyrics, though:  Little Women is a transcendentalist classic, the first book I read that articulated issues of moral philosophy.  I loved it when I was seven, and I love it equally now.

Alcott’s best-selling 19th-century children’s classic is a brilliant, lively, and often riotously funny autobiographical novel about the coming-of-age of four sisters in the Civil War era.  She traces their history from girlhood through marriage, careers, and motherhood, and delineates the development of their ethics as well as character.  She lightly comments on moral philosophy, materialism, the role of women, education, etc., usually in a few lines of breezy dialogue.

Louisa, the daughter of the philosopher Bronson Alcott, came of age in Concord, Mass., where her neighbors were  Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, on whom she had a crush, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. As Susan Cheever points out in her book American Bloomsbury, “the Transcendentalists…were the original hippies.”  She adds, “The Concord group of Transcendentalists was part of a wave of liberalism and a passion for freedom that seemed to be sweeping through the new United States.”

And that liberalism and passion for freedom are reflected in Little Women.  Like the Alcotts, the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, grow up in an impoverished household, where, encouraged by Marmee, they learn to value  social justice and charity.  In the second chapter, they reluctantly agree to give away their Christmas breakfast to Mrs. Hummel, a poor woman with a newborn baby and six children in a house with no fire or food.  And  the appalling poverty makes them glad they have done it.  That night, they merrily put on a play Jo has written, which is both entertaining and characteristic of their self-expression, complete with sword fights, forgotten lines, and,  at one point, the collapse of a makeshift tower.  Their friends shriek with laughter, and afterwards they eat ice cream, sent to the Marches by the wealthy man next door, who had heard about their charity to the Hummels.

But the four sisters struggle with poverty.  Charming Meg hates her job as a governess for a wealthy family, because it makes her envious of their leisure and beautiful clothes. Jo, an aspiring writer, wishes she were a boy, whistles, and says she hates “affected, niminy-piminy chits!”  She is equally dissatisfied with her day job as a companion for Aunt March.   Beth is sweet and agoraphobic, good at housework and the piano, too shy to go to school.  And Amy, who is as strong-willed as Jo, has a talent for art and is popular at school…until the pickled limes incident.  (You must read the book.)

Some bloggers (many seem to be British; maybe because our cultures are so different?) complain about Alcott’s “morals” and “preachiness.” This startles me, since I can’t think of any children’s classics that don’t explore moral issues: Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, E. Nesbit’s The Wouldbegoods, E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond, John Verney’s Friday’s Tunnel,  and the list goes on.  For me, who read Alcott’s books as a child, these were as stimulating as I would later find Plato’s dialogues.

Years ago, a teacher friend and I agreed we were “raised on Louisa May Alcott.”  We thought it had made us see the world differently.  But did our students read her?  One day we did an informal poll in our classes:  who had read Little Women?  In my five classes of approximately 125 students, only three had read it.  In my friend’s four classes of approximately 100 students, two had read it.  That’s 2.2222222222222223 percent.  Isn’t that sad?  And I can only imagine it would be less today, in the day of Y.A. literature.

Does the reading of Little Women change you if you read it as a girl?  Well, perhaps.  My friend and I were both creative types who resisted the social trends and pressures.  Perhaps different generations of readers take different things from the classics?

God only knows.  But it is always good to read the classics!

WHO READS DON QUIXOTE?   A friend who teaches a non-credit grammar course at a community college recently tried to give away a copy of her favorite book, Don Quixote.  There were no takers.

Well, that’s teaching.

Then she asked if anyone would give a brief talk on a favorite book, and the answer was No.   Did anyone read books?  No.  Did anyone have books at home?  No.  Were they sure they didn’t want her extra copy of Don Quixote?  Yes.

Teaching remedial classes for students with deficiencies can be discouraging.  But, as I told her, you might as well keep your standards high, because this class is the only place they’ll ever hear of the Don.

14 thoughts on “Does Reading Shape Moral Vision? Little Women and Don Quixote

  1. Gosh I hadn’t thought about the fact that people might not be reading Alcott. Terrifying! Similarly terrifying, I held a screening of a performance of “Uncle Vanya” recently. Not only had none of my students at this elite private liberal arts college seen it before, none of them had heard of Chekhov. I don’t know what they spend all that time in grade school learning, but it certainly isn’t history, foreign languages, or literature. Seems like they should be getting a little more out of their 12-16 years of pre-university school.

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    • It’s very strange: presumably they should at least have seen books by Chekhov at bookstores. And I’d expect bookishness at a liberal arts college! Honestly, at online Millennial publications like BookRiot and Bustle (neither of which I can recommend), many of the reviews are of Y.A. books. Perhaps they don’t read outside this genre? No, I know that’s too simplistic!

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      • I think the only thing most of them have ever read for pleasure are the Harry Potter books (which I also love, so I’m not criticizing), and otherwise they just grind through a bunch of whatever is trendy at their elite prep schools. Most of them have spent their entire lives horrendously overscheduled and don’t have time to go exploring literature on their own, and they don’t seem to be reading the classics for their schoolwork, or at least not the Russians. Most of them have never even heard of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky either.

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  2. Yes, Little Women! It was certainly a book which influenced me and others of my age, but I doubt that my grandchildren have read it. I once taught a class about Louisa May Alcott and Concord to my fellow seniors and all the women in the class had read it as girls, some in other languages (Japanese, Polish). Not everyone agrees it sets a good example. I addressed that question in a guest post at a feminist website:
    https://feministclassics.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/little-women-feminist-novel/

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    • Nancy, what a brilliant post! Thank you for the link. I find it cheering that you taught a class on Alcott and Concord. Little Women certainly had an effect on many American women.

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  3. I am profoundly depressed by the thought of a house without books – what would you *do* with yourself??? I feel like going off to read Don Quixote in protest now. As for Little Women, I read that when young but I suspect it was an edited version. I have the pretty edition in your picture so I shall have to see what I think of it as a much older person….

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  4. I started to read Little Women to my son, but it didn’t quite work. Anne of Green Gables was terrific, though. (I’m determined to ignore the girl book/boy book bias with him.) His teacher read Little Men to the class, so at least he’s had exposure to Alcott.

    It’s easy to miss the subversive and quite radical nature of the moral teachings in Little Women. People get fooled by the nineteenth century trappings, I think, and see what they expect to see. It’s not about conformity and conventional piety, but about independently connecting to moral principles, to goodness, truth, and justice, and above all to love as a guiding star. This is a message that can never be outdated, and that indeed we are still struggling to learn in our supposedly advanced age. Rock on LMA!

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  5. Oh, dear, I’ve been struggling to finish Don Quixote for over a year, maybe two years. I read Part 1 in high school, so I started over. The story, or stories, are great, but it’s so long and the copy I have has small print. Listening to an audio version helped me finish Moby Dick, but I haven’t found a suitable audio version of Don Quixote. I swear I will finish it! Someday!
    We passes a furniture store yesterday called something like Furniture 4 You. I told my husband I’d never buy furniture from a store that couldn’t spell. I wondered if that’s the only way people can read theses days. For more business, maybe they should have called the store Furniture 4 U.

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    • DQ is VERY long. I admit I could never tackle it a second time, though I enjoyed it many years ago.

      Yes, Furniture 4 U! It makes “donuts” look like classic prose!

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  6. If I remember rightly, Don Quixote was the book Italo Calvino chose to epitomise the idea that a “classic” was a book you knew about without reading it – without needing to read it, even!
    I read a children’s version years ago and have a copy of Smollett’s translation, but I still haven’t got any further with it. Perhaps looking at Heath Robinson’s and Doré’s Quixotes means there’s no need to bother with Cervantes’.

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    • I loved Don Quixote when I read it for a Renaissance Lit class,but we only spent a day on it–I think because we had fallen behind on our schedule of heavy reading.

      I thoroughly enjoyed the first 500 pages of the Starkie translation, but had to skim the last 500 because I read it in a weekend!

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