Why Little Women Endures: How A Woman Who Hated Sex Keeps Us Reading
The new movie, Little Women, is on my to-see list. It reminded me of an article I wrote in 2018 about how that book influenced me to become a writer. Here it is: How Childhood Reading Shapes Identity. That article has been retweeted continuously since publication – a testament to Alcott’s evocation of family life and the psychological complexities of the thinking of girls on the cusp of womanhood.
I am not alone in wondering if Alcott’s enduring hold on the imagination of girls and women is her very complicated, not to say confusing, attitude to sex. Jo, the future writer, rejects the handsome boy next door, Laurie, because she wants to be an author. We understand from the subtext that she thinks she can only write without being a wife and mother. Then Alcott has her marry a much older man. At first, Jo thinks Professor Bhaer is an intellectual companion, but then he belittles her literary aspirations, and they go on to run a school together, a school for boys. Jo’s writerly aspirations are set aside.
Historians say that Alcott’s publisher pushed her into making Jo marry. Alcott seems to be putting up a little rebellion by creating a character in Bhaer that is quite unattractive. This conflict is at the heart of the story.
Alcott’s own childhood of genteel poverty led her to a dim view of a man’s ability to support his family. Her own father was an idealist who could not, and the household was held together by her mother, and later, Louisa herself. She seemed unable to imagine a true partnership of a man and a woman where respect and passion comingle. That aspiration, so dearly held by girls today as a real possibility, drives the book’s popularity. It is an aspiration still very far from reality for many women.
I read Little Women first at the age of eleven. That is a magic age for girls, or was for me. It is a time when I felt I could do anything, aspire to anything. That was before puberty, when girls feel the pressure to attract the opposite sex. When advertising suggests that they are not worthy unless they spend time, energy and money on their appearance. Alcott seems to be saying that that a career should trump those concerns. But sacrificing one for the other is not what girls want, in my experience. The psychological battle continues for woman’s lifetime. That’s why Little Women has us flocking to the movie theatres.