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The surprisingly great spiritual advice in ‘Little Women’

LITTLE WOMEN
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The classic novel offers practical, timeless ways to change your life for the better.

When I first read Little Women at age 10, it captured my heart completely and reigned as “favorite book” for years (until I stumbled across the little-known masterpiece A Lantern in Her Hand). Lately I’ve been revisiting it with my book club and I’m surprised and impressed at how well it stands up to the test of time (which certainly can’t be said of every other childhood favorite!).

My memories of the book left a vague impression of flowery sentimentality, not helped by reading about the idealistic beliefs of author Louisa May Alcott’s parents. But instead, the book is remarkably clear-eyed and practical—especially when it comes to character formation.

Explicitly modeled after the allegorical Christian novel The Pilgrim’s Progress, Little Women, it turns out, is a guide for growing in virtue. Each chapter features one of the March sisters struggling against some kind of temptation—vanity, anger, jealousy, negative peer pressure—and growing in holiness as they strive to do better again and again.

A fantastic example of how Little Women models character formation for its readers is the chapter “Jo Meets Apollyon,” one of the most memorable, in which little sister Amy burns Jo’s beloved book manuscript and then almost drowns in a frozen river when Jo fails to warn her that the ice is dangerously thin. Jo repents of her anger and resolves to conquer it. The series of steps she follows in making this resolution are a sound template for anyone looking to make lasting change for the better in their own lives:

1
Self-awareness to admit your faults

They say that the first step to change is admitting you have a problem, and at first, after Amy burns Jo’s manuscript, Jo feels justified in her anger and refuses to give it up even when Amy begs forgiveness and her mother urges her to make amends. After the terrifying near-drowning, however, Jo is shaken to her core: “Jo dropped down beside the bed, in a passion of penitent tears, telling all that had happened, bitterly condemning her hardness of heart.”

2
Sincere desire to change

Jo has been tempted to anger before, and tried to overcome it: “I try to cure [my temper]; I think I have, and then it breaks out worse than ever.” But something is different this time. She realizes just how destructive anger is, and fears what will happen if it continues to rule her: “I’m afraid I shall do something dreadful some day, and spoil my life,” she says. At last, she truly wants to overcome this temptation, and is ready to take the steps necessary to do so: “What shall I do? Do help me!” she tells her mother.

3
Honest confession to a wise adviser

Jo did well to confide in her mother, who is a wise and good woman. Catholics would most likely confess to a priest, and anyone could seek counsel from a spiritual director, mentor, or trusted and prudent friend. Her mother agrees with Jo that she needs to change for the better, and encourages her that change is possible: “Watch and pray, dear; never get tired of trying; and never think it is impossible to conquer your fault.”

4
A plan to replace the bad habit

Marmee shares with Jo something that shocks the girl: She also struggles with anger, saying, “I am angry nearly every day of my life.” Her strategy for dealing with it is to leave the room if she feels that her anger is about to explode out of her in hurtful and impatient words.

Leaving the room when she feels angry is her way of replacing the bad habit of lashing out in anger. If you have a bad habit you want to change, think of a way you can replace the action with something neutral or positive instead.

5
Reminders from an accountability partner

Marmee shares with Jo that she asked for help from her own mother and, later, from her husband in controlling her temper. Jo realizes that she has seen her father helping her mother to remember her resolution: “I used to see father sometimes put his finger on his lips, and look at you with a very kind, but sober face; and you always folded your lips tight, or went away.” Now Marmee promises to help Jo in the same way.

If you’re trying to change a bad habit, find someone to remind you and encourage you in your resolution. It’s even better if they personally know and understand your struggle, as Marmee does with Jo.

6
Remember your “why”

Making real change to a stubborn bad habit is not easy, as Marmee and Jo knew well. Marmee found motivation to stick to this resolution through the years because she wanted to be a good role model for her daughters:

“I must try to practice all the virtues I would have my little girls possess, for I was their example. It was easier to try for your sakes than for my own … The love, respect, and confidence of my children was the sweetest reward for my efforts to be the woman I would have them copy.”

Think carefully about why you want to change a bad habit, and remind yourself of your reasons whenever the going gets tough. This will strengthen you in your resolve—and if you need a little more motivation, you can always read Little Women, which has many more well-told stories of people fighting to conquer their bad habits, inspiring a new generation of readers to live with virtue and gratitude.

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