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The Little Womenby Katharine Weber
Reading Group Guide
1. In The Little Women, the daughters are cast as the moral arbiters of their parents. Do you consider the Green familys situation to be unusual, or does it represent a universal coming-of-age experience? Do you believe that family dynamics have changed significantly since the 1868 publication of Little Women, or have writers simply become more realistic in their depictions of authority figures?
2. Like Louisa May Alcott, Joanna Green credits her family with inspiring her to write her novel. Louisa May Alcott, in the preface to her final book, Jos Boys, even pays tribute to a sister who “was here to suggest, criticize, and laugh over her namesake.” What is the effect of reading the Green sisters debates? How might you have mediated some of their disagreements? Should novelists strive to invent entirely imaginary scenarios and characters rather than draw on their own lives for material?
3. Materialism figures prominently in both novels as the sisters try to navigate household finances and social status on a tight budget. This is especially evident in Amys botched attempt to win friends through sharing sushi (in Alcotts version, Amys fashionable contraband was pickled limes). Does life in New Haven impart any sort of awakening among the Green girls about consumerism? Are they more concerned about creature comforts than their nineteenth-century counterparts were?
4. During Alcotts lifetime, American women were vulnerable in ways that the Green sisters are not, especially in terms of property ownership, the right to vote, and access to reproductive health services. Are the edgy situations encountered by the women in Webers novel— including Janet Green—therefore less gender specific than in Alcotts Little Women? Would the story line have been equally compelling with brothers as protagonists instead?
5. Teddy observes that Beth does make an appearance in the form of the sisters symbolically dead idealism. Alcott chose to let Beth survive scarlet fever in the first volume of Little Women, not having her succumb until the books sequel, Good Wives. The effect is that Beth originally conveyed a kind of miraculous hope, in addition to eventually achieving martyr status. In what ways is the absence of such a character necessary in Webers novel?
6. Webers captivating, accessible plot is laced with clever commentary on the community of authors, critics, and academicians she has inhabited throughout her career. In The Little Women, Weber addresses New Criticism, which scorns the use of historical context and author biography as valid venues for interpreting fiction. She raises the issue of whether novelists are transgressing when they fictionalize the private lives of their friends and family. She also engages in intertextuality, responding to another novelists fiction through the medium of fiction itself. What insight did you gather about the sometimes disparate motivations of authors, critics, and academicians? How might Louisa May Alcott have weighed in on such debates?
7. Did you experience The Little Women as satire or homage? Melodrama or realism? Tragedy or comedy?
8. While Alcotts Little Women series is steeped in matters of the heart, her books contain no overt referenc- es to sexuality. In Webers hands, Jo (described ambiguously by Alcott as a tomboy who on stage “played male parts to her hearts content”) wins the unambiguous attentions of a lesbian. Extramarital affairs and the morning-after pill not only drive Webers narrative but also establish the time period of the novel. Do these features characterize contemporary “womens fiction” in general? Was Alcotts chaste depiction of her characters essential to the success of her books?
9. In both books, Teddy is sometimes mischievous and sometimes the households voice of wisdom. Do you perceive him as divisive or helpful? How does his lack of parents shape his attitude toward the sisters?
10. Which of the three sisters garnered the most empathy from you? Compared with your own sibling experience, is the dynamic among the Green sisters typical or unusual?
11. Harriet, the photographer, was a character in Webers novel Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear. In what ways does Harriets photography mirror Joannas fiction writing? How has Harriet evolved since Weber introduced her in the 1990s?
12. The various locales in The Little Women are depicted in vivid detail. Discuss the study in contrasts offered by Manhattan and New Haven, private school and public school, the apartment where the sisters were raised and the one to which they retreat with Meg. What makes the novels overall geographic setting so appropriate?
13. What is the significance of that small definite article (“the”) in the title of The Little Women?
14. The characters in Alcotts books derive their moral sensibilities from religion; the family patriarch is even a chaplain, and Jos son Teddy becomes a clergyman. What prism do the Green sisters use for determining their code of ethics? What are your parameters for assessing whether the characters are noble?
15. The Green sisters debate whether Joannas closing scenes make for a satisfying ending to the novel. Were she to write a sequel, what outcomes would you predict for her and her family?
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