“Do you remember our castles in the air?”
I feel as though I should have liked this book more than I did. By no means does this render the book bad or a waste of time by any stretch of the imagination. I like it. I only wish I liked it more.
Alcott’s story of four young sisters coming of age in young America subtly encapsulates themes of feminism and universal human growth. I often found myself playing my own devil’s advocate when Alcott presents scenes of domestic bliss wrought with the stench of romanticized femininity resurrected from a future yet to transpire in the 1950s. See? She actually advocates for quiet women contented in child-rearing and home-making. Yet, amid the often grueling moralizing and “telling” rather than “showing” in Alott’s style, I sensed a deeper, more universal experience dressed in the circumstantial guise surrounding these women. For someone looking to defend feminist suppression, they can contrive arguments from this book. However, perhaps to a mind unconvinced that a modern audience will fall for such filth and remembering that this modern audience still loves this book, a broader idea may begin to take shape.
Consider the breath of the story. Alcott keenly begins it with young children – very little, barely women – and presents them under circumstances unbecoming to girls who define happiness in life according to material prosperity and social positioning – or, perhaps, according to self-gratification and ideas of fame, leisure and pleasure. Any feminist with static and compartmentalized ideas of feminine freedoms may encourage some of these ambitions but condemn others. Go after fame! Stand tall next to other men who have done so! But do not dream of defining your quality of life according to the social quality of your wedding match.
Alcott models her story’s finale in a romantic Austen style displaying the world’s most contented middle-aged women who learned much, tumultuously shaped their own characters around the iron-clad morality of Marmee, and prospered because of it despite the surprise brought with that prosperity. Yet their lives in no way emulate their dreams and ambitions – ideas which they had all but completely given up. For shame! To mandate how women live happiest when living a socially prototypical existence as a domestic, finding solace in marriage and abandoning their individual dreams. Go back to the 50s, Alcott!
Whoa, slow down.
As young girls, their ambitious dreams proved the tools of their unhappiness. While living in the moment, they found their true happiness in companionship, friendship and family. They erected their imagined castles in the air according to immature ideas which unfoundedly lead to happiness. They don’t necessarily want their fame or their fortune. They want happiness – as do all men and women. We can’t easily argue how happiness for women lies only in domestic servitude or ordained maternal occupation. Laurie himself found the same enlightenment as the other girls and found his happiness after abandoning hi mis-founded ambition to shock the world as the next Mozart. Learn to feel contented with yourself, not according to any social ideas either for or against the characteristics of your body or circumstances.
As youth degenerates, maturity begins. The girls shed the skins of their ambitions, the keys to their castles in the sky, not as settling souls dejected by social norms but as elated spirits freed from the chains of their misconceptions about paths to happiness. The knights do not save these damsels in distress, but fill a void defined by the women as individuals who come to understand themselves and choose their futures accordingly. I cannot condone any social idiom, whether sanctioned by bigots or pioneers, which prevents a person from searching, struggling and finally understanding the key to their castle in the air.
I say I wish I liked this story more, even though it subtly matches its ideas with its presentation, by describing these characters’ struggles and ultimate enlightenment toward their happiness as individual rather than as social blueprinting, because Alcott deters me a bit with her moralizing (though I hate to imagine myself as Jo’s editor who cut all such passages from her stories) and “corny” language. Fortunately, the lack of preferential styling does not hinder the discovery of these ideas. Perhaps Alcott intended for such language and style to serve the ideas somehow. I do, however, imagine Alcott and Tolstoy would have gotten along capitally.
Now, having said that, who narrated this story?!?! That’s just brilliant.