Little Women

Little Women was the July selection for the Year of Feminist Classics reading project, so this post less review-y and more of a response to a larger online conversation going on at the YoFC blog — beware of spoilers!

Book cover: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (Penguin Threads edition)

Up until a couple of weeks ago, I’m pretty sure I was one of the few people on earth who had never read Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women. A lot of people read it as children — or at least as teenagers — and it’s assigned reading in many classrooms. But me? Nope. I managed to make it through my first three decades of life without ever having touched the book, with only vague memories of the Winona Ryder film adaptation as my cultural reference.

Little Women is the the coming of age story of the four young March sisters; Mr. March is a chaplain who is off somewhere serving in the Civil War, so it’s up to his wife to run the household and raise their four daughters to become upstanding young women. As the Year of Feminist Classics book introductory post points out, the book can be looked at from a couple of angles: is it a feminist-minded book about female independence, or does its message instead advocate conformity to traditional gender roles? I think the case can be made for both angles and I think Little Women is a combination of both, though I’m also leaning more towards the conformity message.

The biggest thing the book has going for it in terms of female independence is the headstrong Jo March, the sister who hates everything having to do with learning to be a proper woman. She never wants to get married and would much prefer to create her own financial independence by being a writer. She’s already gotten the ball rolling by selling some of her writing, and this early success in her young life will undoubtedly giver her more confidence to become a successful writer in the future. Being independent, unafraid to speak your mind, and going for what makes you happy in life: those are feminist-minded messages if I ever saw them.

So why do I lean more towards the book being about social conformity? (Stop here if you haven’t read the book and don’t want any spoilers.) Well, I don’t want to say Jo gets broken by the things that happen at the end of the book, but I do think her carefree independence gets reined in quite a bit. Upon her father’s return at the end of the book, he says:

I see a young lady who pins her collar straight, laces her boots neatly, and neither whistles, talks slang, nor lies on the rug as she used to do. Her face is rather thin and pale just now, with watching and anxiety; but I like to look at it, for it has grown gentler, and her voice is lower; she doesn’t bounce, but moves quietly, and takes care of a certain little person in a motherly way which delights me. I rather miss my wild girl; but if I get a strong, helpful, tender-hearted woman in her place, I shall feel quite satisfied.

Granted, a lot of the changes in Jo are probably unavoidable — if both of my parents were gone and my sister was on the verge of death, I (the eldest) would probably be pale and quiet and anxious and motherly, too! The March sisters faced several hardships that forced them to mature, and Jo is still pretty young, so she has to go through a couple of stages of maturity anyway.

But I also have to consider the era in which the book was written (way before “feminism” was coined), and the audience that Alcott was going for. While I can absolutely believe that she wanted to feature strong young women, the didactic, moralistic tone of the book also makes me lean toward the overall message of social conformity and propriety. Jo aside, Marmee and Jo’s sisters didn’t particularly strike me as proto-feminists, either. Had Jo not been in the book, I think the book would have drown in its ideas of “proper” gender roles.

I don’t know…am I in the minority here?

Little Women was originally published in 1868; the cover shown above is the 2012 Penguin Threads deluxe edition from Penguin Classics. I listened to the Sound Library audiobook edition.

Project Gutenberg (free ebook) | Amazon (Penguin Threads edition)
I read it as a(n): Audiobook
Narrator: Lorelei King
Source: Library download
Length: 8 hours, 7 minutes

5 thoughts on “Little Women

  1. Your comments are very fair. In her personal life, Louisa May Alcott was more of a feminist than in most of her books. She was a strong advocate for giving women the vote and she herself voted in a school election in Concord, the first in which women could participate. Alcott — like Jo March — was a professional writer who had to keep the money coming is, so she was always aware of the desires of her readers.

  2. You’re not in the minority at all! I think so too—Jo gets her wings clipped during the length of the novel, and it can be hard to watch someone so free and so thoroughly herself change for the worse (not to mention the fact that Jo’s boyishness can be read as a kind of queerness that’s removed from her through the course of the novel).

    I’ve also been Team Laurie since I first read the novel as a wee lass, which is a bit of a conflict—on the one hand, I respect Jo’s choices, on the other hand, you two are perfect for each other please he doesn’t want to change you.

  3. I totally agree that conventionality wins, especially in Alcott’s follow-up volumes. I see Jo’s ambitions, and the way she puts them down, as widespread in 19th century America in ways that led some women into the first women’s rights movement. But I don’t see any feminism, like that described by belle hooks as concern for all women regardless on race or class.

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