Barbara Sicherman offers some interesting thoughts about Little Women on the occasion of Louisa May Alcott’s 180th birthday (yesterday) and its influence on generations of women around the world (h/t to reader LKK for this.) She says that the book’s durability is due to its surprisingly modern sensibilities, perhaps most memorably in the person of Jo March, Alcott’s alter-ego:
Perhaps the most important reason for the novel’s survival is a heroine with unusual appeal. Some readers have identified with the other March sisters, but it is Jo March, the rambunctious tomboy and bookworm who is unladylike and careless of her appearance, who carries the story. The vast majority of readers, past and present, have identified with her. Jo’s presumed flaws are precisely the characteristics that speak to preadolescent and adolescent readers, themselves struggling with issues of growing up.
Alcott, who modeled Jo in her own image, created a character that continues to appeal. As J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books and herself a “Jo,” observed: “It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a bad temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.”
For readers on the threshold of adulthood, the book’s embrace of female ambition has been a significant counterweight to more habitual gender prescriptions. For years there were few alternative models, although in my generation, the Nancy Drew books helped. Even today, some girls still respond to the portrait of Jo, the enthralled and enthralling writer.
It’s a good time of the year to consider Little Women, as the novel opens with Marmee and the March girls cooking Christmas breakfast. I think I read LW when I was eleven, in the sixth grade. I remember being so moved by the idea of Jo reading a pile of books while eating “russetts” in her “garrett” as to climb a tree with an apple in my teeth and the novel under my arm in order to re-enact Jo’s escape as best I could. I lasted maybe 15 minutes, perched awkwardly on a single branch!
So identified with Jo, but (true confession here) I also identified strongly with Amy, the youngest sister, who was pretty and creative but also vain and willful (and usually the sister who was most in need of learning a lesson.) I always thought Meg was a prig and a bore, and Beth was clearly a doomed, drippy invalid. But I’ve always thought that Amy gets unfairly overlooked–she’s not as generous or as good as the other sisters, but that’s what makes her interestingly human. (Those March girls were mostly a bunch of goody-two-shoes, weren’t they? And I wonder: why can’t the pretty girl also be the brainy, bookish, ambitious girl? The notion that beauty is stupid is an unfortunate stereotype that I’m afraid persists.) Clearly, because Laurie is positioned between Jo and Amy as a suitor to both, Alcott saw these two sisters as the most interesting. (And we can’t think that anyone who first wanted to marry Jo has anything but discerning judgment, can we?)
Alcott’s powerful idea of the ensemble of four (or sometimes three) young (or youngish) women characters has become a trope in popular literature: Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace Ingalls. Nancy Drew, George, and Bess. Savannah, Bernadine, Robin, and Gloria. Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte. (I’m sure you readers can think of others.)
Here’s a question for the historians: has any mother besides Mrs. March in the history of the world been called Marmee? Ugh. Honestly, I found that name strange in 1979, even stranger than Amy’s pickled limes, and I wonder if it doesn’t alienate other readers.
What are your thoughts about Little Women, and Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy? (Does anyone but girls or maybe scholars of the New England Renaissance read this book?)