By Anne Boyd Rioux
W.W. Norton, 2018This month is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women. Over the years, Jo, the fictional March family’s second, rebellious daughter, has been seen by adventurous girls as a role model. Apparently Jo was based on Alcott herself, and the other three March sisters in the book mirror Alcott’s own three siblings.
When it first appeared, Alcott’s book was ground-breaking because it was written in a realist style. While Marmee’s admonitions to her girls are sometimes preachy, the book lacks the deadly sermon-like style of most Victorian- era children’s books.
Still, Alcott’s book sends a mixed message. Alcott, who famously said, “I’d rather paddle my own canoe,” than be dependent on a man for financial support, never married. And in her book Meg marries a man who is poor, Beth dies, Amy is regarded as frivolous because she aspires to wealth and beauty, and Jo, after an early start as a writer, ends up marrying a man old enough to be her father, and running a school.
To my childish understanding, this sent the same message that I saw at my all-girls’ school, where all the teachers were what used to be called spinsters: that being a writer – or a teacher – means giving up the idea of a joyful, companionate marriage of equals. For boring Professor Bhaer, whom Jo chooses as her husband is anything but sexy, and he talks down to her. So for reasons described further in my article, How Childhood Reading Shapes Identity, which appeared this week in the online magazine Women Writers, Women’s Books, I identified with both Jo and her older sister Meg, my namesake. I wanted it all.
As time went on, generation after generation of girls identified with the March sisters, and more intellectual girls identified with Jo. As Anne Boyd Rioux points out in her new book, in the middle of the twentieth century feminist scholars began to dissect Little Women with new intensity. They brought to light Alcott’s darker theme. Jo, who fought against conventional behavior for women, is eventually controlled by her older husband, and Beth, the perfect, submissive adolescent, dies. Rioux suggests that Beth died of anorexia, a symptom of girls who resist the physical and mental changes puberty brings.
Rioux is concerned that Alcott is no longer taught in American schools. Apparently teachers feel boys won’t read books about girls, while girls are expected to devour classics about boys. Huck Finn is in, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are out.
In a telling paragraph, Rioux notes: “The main obstacle to Little Women’s continued popularity, though, is that young readers are interested in a fundamentally different kind of literature. Girls want adventure, not domestic drama, and they are much more interested in fantasy than realism.”
To my mind, this demonstrates that not much has changed. If girls like heroines who are “witches, warrior princesses or hunters”, then the idea that a girl on the cusp of puberty can truly aspire to the same life choices that are held out to boys, is still far from being the norm.
Read my article in Women Writers, Women’s Books here: