Thursday, November 10, 2011

Little Men, by Louisa May Alcott

Little Men forms part two of Louisa May Alcott’s unofficial Little Women trilogy. In it she mixes her peerless naturalistic writing style with a Christian world-view. The novel extols unorthodox teaching methods, childhood creativity, and self-realisation through practical moral example.

For such a naturalistic children’s writer, you’d never know that Louisa May Alcott needed persuading into writing her instant classic, Little Women (1868-69). Initially she struggled writing for children, was unsure of her work, and plodded along with little hope of success. Once Alcott knew that readers loved Little Women, her confidence grew, and she quickly wrote the sequel Good Wives. The two books are now commonly published together as the single novel, Little Women. Three years later, in 1871, Alcott published what is now unofficially recognised as part two in the Little Women trilogy, the aptly titled Little Men. (Jo’s Boys, published in 1886, makes for the third.)

The main character of Little Women, the impetuous tomboy Jo, is now grown up and happily married to Professor Bhaer. The couple run Plumfield School, an unorthodox, almost progressive establishment where the students are also boarders. The novel opens with the introduction of a new student, the street fiddler Nat, whose father has died. In line with their notions of Christian charity, the Bhaers take on the young orphan.

Most of the dozen or so students at Plumfield are male (hence the novel’s title), although there are a few girls, the feminine Daisy, and the wilder Nan, who is brought to the school in an attempt to try and make it more co-educational. A street friend of Nat’s named Dan is introduced about a third of the way into the novel. Dan is border line out of control, and needs some tough love to bring him into line with the Bhaer’s Christian values. At one stage he is sent off to another school, as he is seen as far too disruptive, but runs off again. Eventually he returns to Plumfield, with an injured foot, and finally manages to surmount his pride and become a contributing member of the school’s community. Jo and her husband’s faith in their Christian principles pays off.

Little Men is very much a novel with a Christian moral. The Bhaers practice what they preach. When Nat misbehaves, Professor Bhaer insists that the boy strike his own hand with the cane, rather than Nat receive the punishment himself. In this way, the boy will realise how much it pains the Professor when Nat misbehaves. In this scene, Nat finds such ‘punishment’ absolutely excruciating. Professor Bhaer’s methods are shown to be psychologically effective, making deep inroads into Nat’s moral understanding, and reforming his bad behaviour accordingly.

Mrs Jo Bhaer, for her part, believes in encouraging the children in their creativity, and generally treating them with respect as little adults. Childlike whimsies are indulged, as they may lead to more serious avenues of investigation and study. Jo even approves of a weekly pillow fight, as she can see the benefits of play and a little contained anarchy. This makes the novel seem quite modern and progressive in its attitude to teaching. In Little Men, the children come to realise the value of self discipline and virtue by the constant example they get from their teachers, the Bhaers. Discipline is not enforced top down authoritatively, rather the students learn in an organic way about right and wrong, thus absorbing its lessons more deeply. They see the benefits of exemplary behaviour acted out in practical ways, and eventually adopt that behaviour as their own.

Little Men can be read without any prior knowledge of Little Women. It’s a completely self-contained novel on its own. There’s barely anything of the original tomboy Jo in the mature schoolmistress Mrs Jo Bhaer. Professor Bhaer is given his German accent in the opening pages (as he had for the duration of Good Wives), but then Alcott simply drops or forgets the accent for the rest of the novel. What remains from Little Women is Alcott’s blooming, springtime prose.

Here she describes Jo finding her son Rob after she feared he was lost in the woods after an adventure gathering huckleberries:

“A little farther on Nan's hat appeared, and after passing the place more than once, they came at last upon the babes in the wood, both sound asleep. Dan never forgot the little picture on which the light of his lantern shone that night. He thought Mrs. Jo would cry out, but she only whispered, "Hush!" as she softly lifted away the apron, and saw the little ruddy face below. The berry-stained lips were half-open as the breath came and went, the yellow hair lay damp on the hot forehead, and both the chubby hands held fast the little pail still full.”

The main triumph of the novel is Alcott’s marriage of her naturalistic writing style with her Christian world view, making Little Men a novel of great authenticity. Plumfield School is a wishful dream of how children should come to adulthood, with boys and girls put on the right track with careful and responsible instruction. This perfect world of creativity realised and human relationships harmonised is one we all long for, which is why Little Men is so appealing.

Little Men, by Louisa May Alcott. Published by Wordsworth Classics. ISBN: 978-1840221763

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