The Decameron by Boccaccio (trans. G. H. McWilliam)

Boccaccio’s The Decameron is a late medieval prose work in which a group of seven women and three men desert Florentine society for an idyllic estate. The cause of their retreat from society is a terrible plague that is ravaging the city leading to the breakdown of the traditional rules of society.

“In the face of so much affliction and misery, all respect for the laws of God and man had virtually broken down and been extinguished in our city (7).”

After their escape to the countryside, the party decides over the course of ten days to each tell a story as a way of keeping themselves entertained. On most days, the stories have a general theme or topic for the frame-characters.

  • Day 1 has no theme
  • Day 2 are stories about misfortunes with happy endings
  • Day 3 are stories about people who gain or lose an object they desire
  • Day 4 are stories about love that ends unhappily
  • Day 5 are stories about love that ends happily
  • Day 6 are stories that involves clever retorts
  • Day 7 are stories about tricks women play on their husbands
  • Day 8 are stories about people who trick each other
  • Day 9 has no theme.
  • Day 10 are stories about munificent deeds.

As my translator and editor, G. H. McWilliam suggests the characters in the frame-story are symbolic, the seven women representing Prudence, Justice, Temperance, Fortitude, Faith, Hope, and Love, while the three men represent Reason, Anger, and Lust. Likewise, the paradisiacal setting where the group of ten tell their tales symbolizes Eden. In this way, the work has allegorical qualities that fit well with other medieval literature. However, there are stark differences that hint at important social changes. Although the nobility are often the main characters of the stories, middle class merchants also make appearances frequently and play important roles that stand in stark contrast to earlier medieval literature, representing the changing society in which the middle class is becoming more prominent. There is an irreverence towards church figures in the tales, especially friars, while maintaining belief in God and respecting genuine Christian belief in general.

Human pleasure, however, is given primacy over religious devotion. In many of the tales, wives choose to cheat on husbands because their husband’s strict religious commitment prevents them from sleeping with them wives and providing them with pleasure. The characters often justify cheating on their overly religious spouses with the idea that life is too short and it’s better to enjoy it while you’re young and you can. Human ingenuity is also celebrated as many of the characters in these stories spend time tricking each other, usually for the purpose of sleeping with someone’s wife or husband. Indeed, there is an entire day dedicated to tales about clever retorts. Adultery is frequent in these stories and can be found on almost every day no matter what the main theme of the stories. All of this is reflective of the backdrop of the plague, which historically not only led to changes in social values, but led to the rise of the Middle Class.


Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

During the 1970s most social scientists followed in the path of Ancient Greek Philosophers in their belief that man is a rational being who occasionally slips from time to time due to emotions. Noble prize-winning psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, challenged this view by documenting mistakes in people’s thinking that arose from everyday mental processes rather than emotional factors. In their famous article, “Judgement Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases” that originally appeared in Science, they describe three mental shortcuts our brains naturally take that lead to poor assessment of probabilities.

1) Representative is when a person judges that some connection is more likely due to some imagined essential characteristic or categorical association in their minds. For example, if Steve is described as shy and people are asked to rank the probability that he is a certain profession from a list, studies show most people will rank librarian as the highest likely occupation for Steve even if farmers are more frequent in the overall population. People will ignore the frequency or probability that suggests Steve, a random person selected from a population, is more likely to be a farmer. Instead they will use the irrelevant personal characteristic and draw on the stereotype that librarians are shy to come to their conclusions.

2) Availability bias leads us to judge an event as more or less likely due to how easily we remember or can recall an example. If my uncle won the lottery, I am more likely to overestimate my chances of winning the lottery. If none of the female members of my family have had breast cancer I’m likely to underestimate the prevalence of an average person getting breast cancer. If I see a house burn down with my own eyes down the block I am more likely to believe there is a greater chance my house will burn down than if I read about it in the newspaper.

3) Anchoring and Adjustment Bias involves the way our starting estimate or value “anchors” us when we are given a chance to adjust our estimates. In experiments, people given low starting values for an estimate and another group given a much higher starting value and then asked to adjust to what they think is the correct value will remain closer to the initial value given. The group with the higher value will remain much higher in their estimates when they complete their adjustments and the group given the lower starting value will remain much lower in their estimates, suggesting the initial value given at random affected how far their adjustments went. Their first value “anchors” their adjustments. Basically, we rely too much on the first piece of information we receive.

Other researchers, such as Schwartz, also explored the availability bias. In his experiment, people ranked how assertive they thought they were after they listed either six or twelve particular instances when they were assertive. Paradoxically those who only listed six ranked themselves as more assertive. When you have to list a larger number of instances it becomes less easy to retrieve from memory so it feels like you’re less assertive, despite technically producing more instances and thus more evidence of your assertiveness.
Another example of the availability bias in action can be witnessed in a survey that Slovic and Lichtenstein gave in which participants had to compare two potential causes of death and judge which was more likely. Their results found people misjudged the probability of dying by one cause compared to another. For example, people ranked dying by an accident as more likely than dying by a stroke. In reality, you’re twice as likely to die from a stroke as by an accident. The culprit seems to be media coverage, which leads to an availability bias. By covering automobile accidents more frequently than people dying from strokes it gives the false impression that they occur more often.

In Thinking Fast Thinking Slow, Kahneman expands on this earlier research in order to explain what causes us to make all these mental errors. According to the dual-processing theory expounded in the book, we have two ways of mentally processing the world which he calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is associated with intuition. It is fast and at times unconscious. It deals with thoughts, impressions, and judgements that occur automatically. It is responsible for noticing simple relations such as a person being taller than another, recognizing that 17 X 24 is a multiplication problem, or navigating from your upstairs bathroom down to your kitchen. The key characteristic is that you don’t need to deliberately think about any of these things. If I see a green shirt or the symbol 4 my brain will register the concept green and four whether I want it to or not. Meanwhile, System 2 is deliberate and slow. It is often associated with rationality, self-control, attention, careful decision-making, and effortful mental activities. It is capable of following rules (such as learning the rules of a new board game you haven’t played before), able to compare advanced characteristics between objects (such as making a list of the pros and cons of a new political policy in comparison to an old one), and allows us to make deliberate choices (such as choosing to eat a healthy salad instead of a donut).

This might sound like the two mental systems are opposed, but in reality they work together. System 1 monitors your daily situation and can solve most of your everyday problems relatively efficiently; it only calls on System 2 when greater mental effort is needed. Likewise, System 2 can reject impressions and judgements formed quickly by System 1. However, in most cases it endorses those initial impressions and this is how we form beliefs. If you ever met someone whose ideas seemed out there and obviously incorrect to you, but when asked to justify those beliefs they were still able to offer long-winded and complicated rationalizations you’ve witnessed an example of System 2 endorsing impressions from System 1. However, before you criticize such a person don’t forget they’re probably thinking the same thing about you and your crazy ideas! You’re just as prone to these same biases.

The problem with System 1 is that it is prone to biases and mistakes. When a situation doesn’t have enough information, System 1 will jump to conclusions and attempt to construct a coherent narrative when none exists. Indeed, instead of judging by the quality and quantity of evidence, System 1 places more weight on how coherent a narrative can be formed. If we fail to find the answer to a harder question, we will substitute an easier question that is similar and answer that. Kahneman coins a term that he repeats often in the book as a defining feature of System 1: WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is). System 1 is terrible at considering ideas, interpretations, or perspective outside of its limited consideration. To demonstrate this, Kahneman recalls a study done by his friend and collaborator, Amos Tvserky. In the study, the participants each were given a background scenario about an arrest that occurred in a store after a confrontation between a union organizer and the store manager. In addition to the background material that all participants received, which contained only the facts of the events, one group was given a presentation by only the union’s lawyer, one group was given a presentation by only the store’s lawyer, and another group was given both. The lawyer for the union depicted the arrest as an intimidation tactic against the union, while the lawyer for the store argued the talk was disruptive and the manager was in his rights to have the organizer arrested. Despite knowing they only heard one side of the story, the participants trusted their judgements about the situation more than those who got to hear both sides of the story. By only hearing one side and not the other with a conflicting interpretation of the same events, the information is more coherent and is more easily accepted by System 1. System 1 doesn’t like ambiguity because it interferes with coherence and even though the participants knew there was another side and could’ve easily imagined the other side’s arguments for its actions, the data suggests that is not what we naturally do. Our minds want to take the easy way out.

Our natural mental state is one of cognitive ease; we want to use the least amount of energy and effort to solve the problem. This is why we tend to adopt what’s familiar; it’s easier. Research by Larry Jacoby and others have shown that you can induce people with mental illusions and false ideas (like fake celebrity names that they believe are real) by giving the impression of familiarity. Repetition, even of false ideas, creates a sense of familiarity that System 1 tends to believe uncritically. If something feels familiar, we tend to believe it’s true. Robert Zanjonc, who studied this mere exposure effect by placing random Turkish words in a student newspaper and then sending out questionnaires to students who read the paper found that words that appeared more frequently had higher positive connotations for those students, despite not knowing their meaning and not speaking Turkish. Just being exposed to random words more frequently increased their positive feelings towards those words. Mere exposure increases familiarity, which then increases how positively we feel about them.

Experiments by Roy Baumeister suggest that we have a limited pool of willpower. If we use System 2 to exert good self-control at one moment, we are less likely to control ourselves during the next temptation. Although some new research calls this idea of ego depletion into question (see this: youtube video). Likewise, cognitive overload can also interfere with System 2. Cognitive overload occurs when we try to do too many complex tasks at the same time (like solving a tricky math problem, while switching lanes in heavy traffic). You simply can’t give the necessary mental attention to all these tasks simultaneously.

Collected Poems by Philip Larkin

Although his style is not overly difficult compared to some poets, Philip Larkin is a difficult poet to read. His vision of life is dark, depressing, and unremittingly cynical, although he does employ a comical tone at times to tackle what he sees as the absurdity of life. His poetry presents ordinary experiences drained of their traditional meanings. The speakers of his poems often look back at the past and see only unfulfilled lives, while they wait for death.

In the poem “Church Going” we have a speaker who travels daily to a church that is slowly losing all its religious meaning in modernity as more and more people turn away from religion, yet there is an irony in the poem that he keeps returning to this now meaningless place in search of something that he can’t quite articulate. In the last stanza the poem tells us that he keeps returning to this “serious house on a serious earth” in order to fill “a hunger in himself to be more serious.” Although the church and its theology that it represents no longer has deeper meaning for this speaker, it stands in as a symbol for all that’s missing in his life. In other words, he doesn’t want religion and can’t believe in it anymore, yet he can’t stop searching for a deeper meaning to give his life some purpose. It stands as a symbol of his search for meaning, even as it is slowly losing its meaning. The church “was proper to grow wise in,/If only that so many dead lie round.” This final line of the poem is a major theme that appears throughout Larkin’s other poems. The only real truth, the only destiny we have as human beings, is that we will die in the end. The cynical tone implies that the true wisdom offered in church isn’t religion itself, but the recognition of our fate. Many of Larkin’s other poems explore death and imply that it is the very fact that we will die that makes all experiences meaningless.

If the future frightens him because of impending death, the past doesn’t fill him with nostalgia either, only regrets for an unlived and wasted life. From “I Remember, I Remember”:

“ ’Was that,’ my friend smiled, ‘where you “have your roots”?’
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort.”

Whereas many writers would look back at their childhood with nostalgia for some lost golden years, Larkin often speaks of his childhood in his poetry as wasted time and makes it sound unhappy.

Indeed in one of his most famous poems, “This Be The Verse” he even questions the role parents play, not raising us to be virtuous or making us happy well-adjusted individuals, but corrupting us with their faults:

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.”

The vision of the poem extends further, suggesting one generation gives only misery to the next generation in an endless cycle, which leaves the speaker to conclude that a person shouldn’t have kids.

A strong sense of regret pervades these poems. Consider for example these lines from the poem, “Toads”:

“Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on.”

Larkin writes poems about speakers with unfulfilled dreams. They sometimes imagine a different kind of life, but they cannot give up the comfy boring middle-class lifestyle in the end. Larkin, however, in his poem “Toads Revisited” also isn’t afraid to show the imaginary life longed for in the original poem also has its faults.

Utopia by Thomas More (trans. Paul Turner)

In this slim book, Thomas More wrote a work that lent its name to an entire sub-genre of fiction. This is not to say More created the first piece of literature that could be called utopian. Many ancient works, such as the Garden of Eden from the Bible to pick one example, have dreamt of a perfect society where worry is nonexistent and all our needs are met. In the work, More writes himself as a character recalling a diplomatic mission where he met a sailor named Raphael. During this time More, along with some lawyers, and Cardinals begin a discussion about the societal ills plaguing England. As a world traveler, Raphael has seen many different societies and cultures with unique ways of life and offers his views on how to fix the endemic problem of thieves. He goes so far as to criticize the entire economic system of capitalism. Later, Raphael tells More about Utopia, a land that organizes it society along communist lines.

As my introduction discusses the satires of Lucian were a major influence on the text. However, Raphael’s description of the lives and society found in Utopia are reminiscent of Plato’s discussions in The Republic when he outlines his ideal society run by philosopher-kings. Yet for all the ways the text looks back at the past for influence, it is amazing how modern its ideas feel. During the discussion about how to deal with the growing problem of thieves, Raphael condemns the death penalty for such a minor offense. Raphael suggests that people who become thieves are just desperate and have no other means of securing their needs. The rich, in this case nobles, have created a situation where they cannot attain jobs. One of the English lawyers disagrees with him.

“There’s adequate provision for that already . . . There are plenty of trades open to them. There’s always work on the land. They could easily earn an honest living if they wanted to, but they deliberately choose to be criminals (22).”

The lawyers reply could be a stereotypical conservative’s response to a discussion about welfare or criminals today. The lawyer presents the idea that all those commoners turned thieves could find a job if they wanted, but choose not to. However, Raphael points out that it is the rich nobility’s greedy policies, such as converting arable land to pasture for their sheep, which creates job loss in the first place. Raphael advocates slavery for thievery instead of a death sentence. It is an uncomfortable defense of slavery and a difficult proposition for a modern reader.  Basically criminals would be slaves and work on projects for the public good. Although he does state some will be given freedom for good behavior.

While this might all sound like deep philosophical pondering, the work is often funny and satirical. During the early discussions about England’s social ills, the reader gets to see that the people in court around the Cardinal are all sycophants. They constantly reject Raphael’s strange ideas as being ridiculous, until the Cardinal agrees with them.

“This, from the Cardinal, was enough to make everyone wildly in favour of an idea which nobody had taken seriously when I produced it. They were particularly keen on the bit about vagrants, since that was his own contribution (32).”

The next part involves the character Thomas More trying to convince Raphael to join a court and provide his sound advice to a ruler. Raphael explains to Thomas More the character why he won’t.

“There’s no room at Court for philosophy (41).”


Most kings would rather fight wars, fleece money from their population, and subvert justice in their own favor than listen to good advice and govern their subjects well. In other words, most kings are corrupt. So good advice would be a waste of time.

The central problem of society is the inequality of wealth.

“I don’t see how you can ever get any real justice or prosperity, so long as there’s private property, and everything’s judged in terms of money . . . I’m quite convinced that you’ll never get a fair distribution of goods, or a satisfactory organization of human life, until you abolish private property (44-45).”


How seriously should we take this work? I don’t think More is asking us to adopt Utopian society wholesale or even Communism. Instead by creating an imaginary society based on these principles called Utopia, More envisions a better world than the Europe of  his day. He is not necessarily saying his current society needs to become Utopia, but rather he wants the reader too contrast his social institutions of his or her own society against this imaginary “perfect” one. It is a reminder that the societies we are born into are not perfect. The work forces the reader to consider the faults in his or her own society by comparing it to an imaginary one and consider ways of improving it without necessarily demanding we follow any particular prescription.

The Essays by Michel de Montaigne (Trans. M. A. Screech)

“I take the first subject Fortune offers: all are equally good for me. I never plan to expound them in full for I do not see the whole of anything: neither do those who promise to help us to do so! Everything has a hundred parts and a hundred faces: I take one of them and sometimes just touch it with the tip of my tongue or with my fingertips, and sometimes I pinch it to the bone. I jab into it, not as wide but as deep as I can; and I often prefer to catch it from some unusual angle.” – On Democritus and Heraclitus


In the spirit of the Renaissance, Montaigne borrows the ideas of ancient writers as a guide for his own original and sometimes very modern thoughts. Despite extensively quoting writers from the past, he gives a prominent place to his own thoughts rather than the authority and opinions of others. As the essays declare numerous times his main subject is himself: his thoughts on various matters, his habits, his abilities and weaknesses, which he employs as a way of exploring the human experience more generally. He never leaves the impression he is trying to persuade you that his own views represent the ultimate truth on matters, but rather his style comes across as a man sharing his private thoughts and opinions in a conversation with an intimate friend, while acknowledging those friends might feel differently and come to different conclusions. The essays cover a wide variety of subjects related to philosophy, society, politics, education, exploration, and the self. The one constant for Montaigne is a world dominated by human variability. Montaigne grew up in an age where civil wars over religion were occurring in his country and Europe was exploring the Americas. These historical events serve as a backdrop and sometimes even the main topic of some of his essays.


An important topic for Montaigne is education. Montaigne questions the value of rote learning of facts and suggests the true purpose of education should be to develop our virtue and judgement. One might view him as an early proponent of critical thinking.


“A good education changes a boy’s judgement and morals.” – On Presumption.


Montaigne suggests that philosophy, since its primary concern is how to live, is the most important subject a child can study. Learning should not be just memorizing dates and being able to recite every last rule of grammar, but rather it should be connected to how we ought to live our lives. In the essay “On books” he elaborates on this point by saying he prefers cultivating knowledge of himself rather than spending his time acquiring factual knowledge. However, he is not suggesting we should merely navel gaze and ignore books altogether. In that same essay, he discusses the books of poetry, philosophy, and history that he found most profitable to exploring his own ideas, feelings, and nature. Books that fit into areas that we would typically call the Humanities assist us in exploring ourselves, our own values, experiences, and ideas. The Great Books can teach us to value ourselves properly by seeing our strengths and shortcomings.

“If anyone looks down on others and is drunk on self-knowledge let him turn his gaze upwards to ages past: he will pull his horns in then, discovering many thousands of minds which will trample him underfoot. If he embarks upon some flattering presumption of his own valour let him recall the lives of the two Scipios and all those armies and peoples who leave him so far behind. No one individual quality will make any man swell with pride who will, at the same time, take account of all those other weak and imperfect qualities which are in him and, finally, of the nullity of the human condition.” – On Practice.

Montaigne offers a justification for reading the Great Books and the study of history by suggesting that they help us understand ourselves and provide an honest assessment about our own character. They help us see our own place in the world and make us realize the world does not revolve around us. They help us measure our own ideas and experiences to those of the past.

He also has thoughts about pedagogy. A student should not passively read a philosophical dialogue, but share their own views on the arguments and ideas presented, much like what he is doing in the essays. In his attack on rhetoric and grammar as the foundations of education, he also defends the virtues of straightforward speech, while not quite dismissing rhetoric all together. He accepts that there is some value in possessing a great ability with words. The problem is that too often writers hide behind pretty rhetoric and flourishes, while lacking any real substance and content, and uncritical people are easily fooled into accepting bad ideas being masked behind the pretty language.

All of this leads to one of Montaigne’s other big concerns: the importance of virtue. One of the main methods of making ourselves virtuous is cultivating knowledge of ourselves. We have to be careful of caring too much about what other people think of us. Our happiness should not depend on things outside ourselves and thus outside of our control such as property, our relationships, and even good health. We should judge men by their inner qualities, not their rank or wealth or fine clothing. Those things are matters of fortune and superficial outer appearance; just as you would judge a horse by how fast it can run, not how luxurious its saddle might be. Solitude and tranquility are not found by fleeing society and the company of other people, but through the careful cultivation of reason and wisdom. We need to use reason and wisdom to control the vices and fears of our own mind; only then can we achieve tranquility.

“It is not enough to withdraw from the mob, not enough to go to another place: we have to withdraw from such attributes of the mob as are within us. It is our own self we have to isolate and take back into possession” – On Solitude.

We also need to keep in mind that even good forces that are generally helpful such as philosophy, matrimony, virtue, wisdom, etc. can be harmful if taken to excess. In Montaigne’s view traditionally positive practices are only beneficial if they are tempered by moderation. He also suggests that goodness and virtue are related but not the same. Virtue requires difficulty and opposition to one’s own inclinations, while goodness can arise from one’s natural temperament. Reading about virtue and understanding it are not enough. Without practice, reason and education cannot establish habits of mind and behavior. It is important to continually practice what we preach in order to make our ideas and ideals a part of our everyday thoughts and behaviors. There is so many more topics and ideas to be found in Montaigne, but all this variety makes it difficult to cover everything. While not always as entertaining as reading a novel, the essays are definitely thought-provoking.

The Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus

The Praise of a Folly is a quintessential Renaissance work. In the work, Folly gives an oration about her own importance, claiming that her followers are everywhere in the world, and goes on to document the man ways that folly and hypocrisy features in everyday experience and in various human institutions such as: philosophy, education, politics, poetry, and religion. At the beginning of the work she describes her mythical origins in the vein of Hesiod, claiming to be to child of Plutus (Greed), which suggests allegorically human folly often stems from greed. The Roman satires of Juvenal and Lucan are a strong influence on the work as well as  The Consolation of Philosophy, which features the allegorical figure of Philosophy herself discussing the nature of the world, along with the medieval allegorical traditions, which features allegorical figures that give long orations (i. e. The Romance of the Rose).

While many parts of the work are amusing in its playful and satirical critique of society, there are elements that might irritate a reader.  The work is a bit repetitive. It is difficult to tell if this is a flaw in the writing or Erasmus was attempting to match style to content. Folly rambles and repeats herself, in which the style can be seen as a type of folly itself, the sort of person who rambles without being concise and to the point, as well as the type of person who endlessly repeats their story without realizing they’re repeating themselves.

One critique that is repeated a lot is that against philosophers. In a world built on human folly and the pleasure it brings, who wants to listen to a bunch of pedantic philosophers telling us to ignore human pleasures! The true knowledge of philosophy only brings trouble, annoys other people, and brings no pleasure to the individual. Indeed, so much stoic philosophy is built on putting aside and ignoring human pleasures. Unfortunately, this critique is repeated over and over again.

Folly also critiques princes who believe it is their duty to focus on their own pleasure rather than the good of people.

“They believe they have discharged all the duty of a prince if they hunt every day, keep a stable of fine horses, sell dignities and commanderies, and invent new ways of draining the citizens’ purses and bringing it into their own exchequer; but under such dainty new-found names that though the thing be most unjust in itself, it carries yet some face of equity; adding to this some little sweet’nings that whatever happens, they may be secure of the common people.”

His strongest critiques, however, are reserved for religious institutions of his day. The work with its irreverent tone and critique of medieval theology is cited as a major inspiration for the Reformation. For example, the work tackles the institutions of monks and their variety of orders.

“these are Benedictines, those Bernardines; these Carmelites, those Augustines; these Williamites, and those Jacobines; as if it were not worth the while to be called Christians. And of  these, a great part build so much on their ceremonies and petty traditions of men that they think one heaven is too poor a reward for so great merit, little dreaming that the time will come when Christ, not regarding any of these trifles, will call them to account for His precept of charity.”

Folly suggests that all these monks would rather be called other names associated with their various order than simply Christians, delude themselves that their petty rules and ceremonies associated with each order will somehow merit them a higher place in heaven, and that they are in fact performing many practices and buying into many assumptions that are not in line with Christ’s teachings.

He also tackles theologians, those professional scholars of religion who “are so taken up with these pleasant trifles that they have not so much leisure as to cast the least eye on the Gospel or St. Paul’s epistles.” By Erasmus’ time, theology spent an exorbitant amount of time arguing about minor details that had little relationship to the message of the Gospels. Despite dealing with trifling matters about the secret meaning of Christ’s name or some other esoteric subject, these theologians puffed up their own importance “requir[ing] that their own conclusions, subscribed by two or three Schoolmen, be accounted greater than Solon’s laws and preferred before the papal decretals.” Anything they dislike is dismissed as irreverent or heresy.

In this sense, the work is very modern in its willingness to critique the institutions of its time. It has a critical voice that is different from earlier medieval works. Like Juvenal, Erasmus is willing to question and critique all that is wrong, or at the very least, absurd and ridiculous about society and human affairs

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women is a female bildungsroman about the moral growth of the four March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Jo is wild, boyish, unladylike, and has dreams of being a famous literary writer. Meg is the oldest, pretty and sweet, but covetous of nice things and jealous of her wealthy friends. Beth is the quiet reserved one who never complains, does her duty, and is the comfort of her family. Amy is the spoiled youngest child and constantly complaining about her snub-nose. She dreams of becoming a famous artist and hopes to marry into high society. The novel, especially the first half, is very episodic, with each chapter feeling like an episode of a television show with smaller problems that have some sort of life lesson for the girls to learn rather than a part of a larger unified plot.  During the first half of the story, the girls must work outside their home due to the family falling on hard times, growing up under the care of their mother, while their father is participating in the Civil War. The second half of the book is about the girls grown up into women, each finding love, and coming to terms with the changes that happen to their dreams and expectations that they had as children. Jo is initially successful as a writer, but ends up selling popular thriller stories to make fast money, failing to achieve her true literary aspirations. Despite claiming she will never marry, she ends up married in the end and running a young boy’s school. Meg falls in love with a poor teacher and marries him, which helps her see that she has more happiness in her poor home than her rich friend has with all her many possessions.

Early in the book, Mrs. March gives each of the sisters a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress to help serve as a moral guide for their lives. This Christian allegory helps each sister deal with the burdens they carry much like Christian in Bunyan’s allegory carries his worldly burdens. Even many of the chapters are named after allegorical figures from Bunyan’s work. The idea is that each girl has their burdens and vices they must overcome. Each has their “castle in the air” (their individual dreams) that they must sacrifice to find their true happiness. Each of them must grow. What we dream will make us happy isn’t always what will actually make us happy.  The story suggests that virtue and self-improvement is better than riches and success.

Domesticity is another major theme of the book. Despite their lack of riches, their early home life is depicted as a warm and happy place, especially as the violent Civil War is happening in the backdrop. In a good home, there is a happiness and contentment to be found with family and loved ones, no matter what awful events are occurring in the world. This theme relates directly back to the growth of their virtue: they grow as individuals in contrast to growing more worldly (wealthier, successful, etc.), while there is joy to be found at home rather than in the world.