Little Women as feminist canon

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In the increasingly diverse and progressive literary landscape that surrounds us today, the modern novel undoubtably plays a role in the Feminist Movement- giving a voice to new and radical discourse. Whether it is through depictions of female independence and success, or the unbreakable bonds of sisterhood, the genre has long acted as a source of empowerment. However, whilst celebrating the plethora of full-bodied and interesting female characters that are being created today, it is also important to remember that this rides on the back of a long and arduous fight for a stronger representation of women in literature and the female writers that took on this battle.  

One such founding text that many may remember fondly from childhood is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a tale of four sisters’ hardships and successes as they grow up in 19th Century Massachusetts. Although in many ways far removed from the lives we live today, the novel has repeatedly defied expectations, remaining a beloved read for women over many generations. But what is it about this seemingly gentle tale that paved the way for feminist literary progression and continues to resonate with and inspire girls from every path of life? 

First published in 1868, Little Women is firmly situated within its time – dealing with issues of marriage, friendship, and womanhood. However, this in itself was a radical act, as the literary canon of the era primarily gave space to tales centred around male characters. Despite working under the constraints of misogynistic publishers, Alcott created a quietly subversive tale that gave young women the role models they had been so desperately looking for. In the story of Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth, ideas of morality, sisterhood and individuality are explored; the characters speaking out to readers on real subjects relevant to their own lives. And yet these issues transcend centuries and remain relevant in today’s society. This is not to say no progress has been made during this time, but instead that Alcott wrowith such universality that readers have been able to find meaning and relatability within the core values that the novel promotes. 

“Alcott wrote with such universality that readers have been able to find meaning and relatability within the core values that the novel promotes”

Louisa May Alcott herself was a revolutionary figure in many ways. Coming from a family of free-thinkers and Suffragists, from a young age she supported her family through selling her writing. She championed women’s rights and, was the first woman to register to vote in her hometown of Concord, Massachusetts. Unlike her character of Jo (who has long been seen as an autobiographical figure of Alcott), she never married and remained fiercely independent until her death. It is clear when reading Little Women that Alcott aimed to instil the same independently feminist spirit that she herself embodied in the nation’s young girls, providing them with relatable role models and more rounded images of girlhood. Despite the strong sense of Christian morality that lies behind the writing, it is wrong to presume that Alcott takes a traditional stance on the ideas of housewifery and marriage. Instead, she wants young women to understand that every girl has the right to choose her own destiny, and that it is admirable for everyone to have unique ambitions.

 For a modern audience, it is important to appreciate that it is not just Jo’s story that is radical in its message – rather Alcott stresses that there is no set way of pushing back against societal constraints and that there are many sacrifices that women face to survive and flourish in a patriarchal world. In Meg’s story we are shown the validity of wanting to pursue family and married life over a career; in Amy we see the courage of choosing to marry rich in order to gain financial stability; and in Jo we experience the sacrifice of conventionality and family life in order to pursue artistic dreams. As young women today we should appreciate the progress that has been made towards breaking free from these historic societal constraints and live our lives fiercely independently, embodying the kind of unfettered futures that Alcott wished to grant to each woman in her tale. 

With over 12 adaptations in American television alone and never leaving print, Little Women has had undeniable success and influence on generations of women. Despite its feminist intentions, early televised versions marketed it as a love story, focusing on the relationship between Laurie and Jo. It was not until the 1990s that productions let the sisters’ kinship be depicted as a radical message in its own right. 

With her 2019 adaption, Greta Gerwig brought the story of Meg and her sisters into the 21st century, creating a more progressive retelling, and arguably finally properly encapsulating the feminist messages that Alcott weaves into her novel. Gerwig successfully gives voice to each sister, asserting their individuality, whilst also reminding the audience of the importance of challenging the commonly pushed narrative of competition between women. Perhaps the most important change that Gerwig makes in her film is the direct acknowledgement of the challenges that Alcott faced with the reception of her progressive ideas. Gerwig’s depiction of Jo being forced by publishers to change her novel to create a happy, traditional ending for her female characters intentionally draws direct parallels to the pressures Alcott herself faced from publishing houses, and her own fans to give Jo a traditional family life. Whilst Alcott in spite gave her protagonist a suitably unconventional and radical marriage, it is encouraging to know that today women have the ability to live out the liberated life that Alcott envisioned for Jo and women of that century. 

“Gerwig’s depiction of Jo being forced by publishers to change her novel to create a happy, traditional ending for her female characters intentionally draws direct parallels to the pressures Alcott herself faced from publishing houses, and her own fans to give Jo a traditional family life”

As we usher in the fourth wave of feminism, Little Women takes on a new resonance within the feminist canon. As discourse surrounding what it means to be a woman continues to diversify, the novel can be seen as a paradigm for the individuality of women and the strength of girlhood. We are now living in an age where women have more control over their futures than ever before, and it is essential that, like the March sisters, we come to accept and celebrate the unique ambitions of every woman, whether their goals are similar, or not, to our own. 

Image credit: Jessie Willcox Smith via Wikimedia commons

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