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Child Development

Re-reading 'Little Women'

Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel is more complicated than I remembered.

Little Women was one of my favorite childhood novels. The 1868, semi-autobiographical tale by Louisa May Alcott of four lively sisters growing up in Massachusetts in the 1860s was the perfect book to disappear into on long summer afternoons or chilly winter nights.

Houghton Library, Harvard University, and Wikimedia Commons. In the public domain via Houghton Library and Wikimedia Commons.
“Jo in a Vortex,” Little Women vol. ii illustration by May Alcott, 1869.
Source: Houghton Library, Harvard University. In the public domain via Houghton Library and Wikimedia Commons.

Like so many young readers, I was enthralled by the character of Jo March, the second-eldest daughter—especially by her love of books, her desire to be a writer, and her insistence on living life on her own terms as much as possible for a girl in the 1860s.

I, too, was a bookworm, and I, too, wanted to be a writer. Jo helped inspire me to major in English in college and eventually become a journalist.

The release of the latest Little Women movie made me want to re-read the novel, which I hadn’t picked up since childhood.

Improbably, I found a copy at my local drugstore, and I plunged into reading it almost as soon as I got home.

I was struck by the vivid, cinematic quality of the writing, and by Alcott’s ability to conjure a detailed, fully realized world for readers to enter—down to the worn furniture in the March family home and the number of buttons on the gloves the sisters wore.

It’s easy to understand why so many directors have wanted to film the story, from the 1917 silent version to the latest offering by director Greta Gerwig (which I confess I have not yet seen).

I could also clearly understand why I was so drawn to Jo as a child.

She chafes against the rigid rules of behavior for girls of her era, and she rebels by whistling, using slang, walking with her hands behind her back, and in numerous other ways crossing gender boundaries while still wearing long skirts and petticoats.

In the book's first chapter, she says, "It's bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boy's games and work and manners! I can't get over my disappointment in not being a boy."

I never questioned my gender identity as a child, but I also never had the faintest interest in following the traditional female path of getting married and having children. And as I navigated the work world, I learned to envy the advantages my male colleagues sometimes seemed to have, simply by virtue of their gender.

My sense of Jo’s character was that she might have felt similarly: She felt confined by society’s expectations for girls, and she wanted the same advantages that boys had.

Thus, as I came to the book’s last chapter in my re-reading, I couldn’t help but feel betrayed. I didn’t mind that Jo decided to marry the much-older Professor Bhaer—a plot point that apparently caused howls of distress from 19th-century readers when Volume II of the book was released. Readers of Volume I had wanted Jo to marry Laurie, the handsome boy next door.

But I was floored when Jo announced she and the professor would use the estate her great-aunt left her to start a school for boys. I had not remembered this development from my childhood acquaintance with the book.

Describing how she would focus on “poor, forlorn little lads who hadn’t any mothers,” Jo tells her family, “I see so many going to ruin for want of help at the right minute, I love so to do anything for them...”

Poor, forlorn little girls apparently did not touch Jo’s heart the same way, which profoundly disappointed me. Shouldn’t Jo, of all people, have seen that girls need help, too?

The more I pondered Little Women, the more I noticed other contradictions.

The March girls adore their father, but we learn early in the book that he lacks sound financial judgment. He lost the family money and plunged them into a continuing state of near-poverty “in trying to help an unfortunate friend.”

Meg, the oldest sister, marries Laurie’s tutor, Mr. Brooke, and begins a seemingly idyllic life as a young bride. But readers discover two chapters later that Mr. Brooke has a volcanic temper, and the advice Mrs. March gives Meg is chilling:

“John is a good man, but he has his faults, and you must learn to see and bear with them, remembering your own . . . He has . . . the white, still anger that is seldom stirred, but once kindled is hard to quench. Be careful, be very careful, not to wake his anger against yourself, for peace and happiness depend on keeping his respect.”

Even Amy, the youngest sister, an artist who is ladylike and often mortified by Jo’s tomboy ways, is not precisely what she seems. Amy has a wild side; she loves to ride horses, and at top speed, as Jo tells a group of acquaintances, to Amy’s embarrassment:

“Now she rides anything, for she doesn’t know what fear is, and the stableman lets her have horses cheap because she trains them to carry ladies so well. She has such a passion for it, I often tell her if everything else fails, she can be a horsebreaker, and get her living so.”

To help me better understand Little Women, I found online an excellent film about Alcott, written by Harriet Reisen and directed by Nancy Porter. It is available through PBS’s American Masters series.

After watching Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, I concluded that, in Alcott’s extraordinarily unconventional life, things were rarely what they seemed on the surface.

In an era when men were considered the chief family providers, Louisa’s father had no knack for his breadwinner role. The Alcotts endured 10 years of dismal poverty, even though Mrs. Alcott came from a wealthy family, and New England luminaries Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were Alcott family friends.

At a time when women had few options to earn their living, Louisa eventually became the family’s economic salvation by writing—and she succeeded spectacularly. But for years before her novels’ success, she published lurid, potboiler stories under pseudonyms, so her respectable family would not discover how she was keeping them in groceries.

She never married, but she was never without dependents, either: By the end of her life, Louisa was supporting and caring for her father, her widowed sister Anna and Anna’s two sons, and the daughter of her sister May, who had died shortly after childbirth.

The film makes clear that Louisa May Alcott was much, much more than a kindly children’s book author—the description she has been saddled with for more than 150 years.

Knowing all this, I am no longer surprised by the complexities of Little Women. In fact, I now hope to read and learn more about this courageous, enigmatic 19th-century woman—who lived life on her own terms at a time when women had few chances to do so and who still inspires me today.

Copyright © 2020 by Susan Hooper

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