This is a classic that has received equal parts praise and criticism. It has been lauded as a feminist novel and then also condemned for not being a feminist novel. In this discussion post, I’ll explain why I believe this is a feminist story and try to highlight all the subtleties that are rarely talked about whenever this novel is discussed.
Note: This is not exactly a review of Little Women, it’s simply a book discussion post about both Little Women and its sequel Good Wives. The two books are often published together as Volume I and Volume II, which is the reason why I will discuss both books as one. This post may contain mild spoilers, so it is recommended you read the books first. Consider reading this wonderful review of Little Women by Ali from Heaven Ali.
Growing up, I used to read tons of fairy tales, and tons of classics (the kiddie versions of course). It was my mother’s idea that books were the best way to make me understand what kind of person I should be, and each of the stories she handpicked for me shaped me into the woman I am today.
Of all these stories, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott had the most impact on my life.
Little Women follows the story of the March sisters–Meg (16-years-old), Joe (15-years-old), Beth (13-years-old) and Amy (10-years-old) as they move through adolescence to womanhood. At it’s core, the book is a charming, sweet story about what it means to grow up in a world where women have few choices.
Below are some important, modern ideas that I believe you can find if you examine the book more closely. These ideas are what makes Little Women a feminist novel.
Marriage Is Only A Chapter In A Woman’s Life
Little Women was first published at a time when society had very low expectations for women, and an even lower desire to see them enjoy the freedom that men never had to fight for. And yet, Louisa M. Alcott expresses rather modern ideas about what she believes what it means to be a woman. This is portrayed through multiple characters, but mainly through Mr. and Mrs. March parenting.
The first example that comes to mind is when in chapter 9, Mrs. March explains to her daughters that although she wished to see them happily married, marriage should not necessarily be the end goal for any woman, and that should her daughters never marry it still would not diminish their worth. This is a radical way of thinking especially for a woman of that time, because spinsters back then were seen as failures in life.
Here’s the quote from the book (no spoiler):
“Poor girls don’t stand any chance, Belle says, unless they put themselves forward,” sighed Meg.
“Then we’ll be old maids,” said Jo stoutly.
“Right, Jo. Better be happy old maids than unhappy wives, or unmaidenly girls, running about to find husbands,” said Mrs. March decidedly. “Don’t be troubled, Meg, poverty seldom daunts a sincere lover. Some of the best and most honored women I know were poor girls, but so love–worthy that they were not allowed to be old maids. Leave these things to time. Make this home happy, so that you may be fit for homes of your own, if they are offered you, and contented here if they are not. One thing remember, my girls. Mother is always ready to be your confidant, Father to be your friend, and both of us hope and trust that our daughters, whether married or single, will be the pride and comfort of our lives.”
Now there is no denying that despite this truly radical speech from Mrs. March, Alcott herself puts a lot of emphasis on marriage in Good Wives. At times it felt very contradictory, but after a little research I found out something that was just as relieving as it was upsetting: Alcott did not want the story’s central theme to be about marriage. To quote her own words from her journal:
“Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life,” she complained in her journal. “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please any one.”
Knowing how hard it was for women back then to survive in the publishing industry (or any industry for that matter) I do not resent Alcott for giving in to the readers’ whims in order to establish her name as an author.
What I did enjoy however, is how Alcott cleverly inserts her own ideas and views on marriage while catering to her readers’ demands. Though she often calls marriage and motherhood “the sweetest chapter of a woman’s life”, she also shows the March sisters being more than homemakers–they are artists and authors, they work for a living to help support their families, but above all: they make choices of their own free will and decide what kind of lives they want to live.
Emphasis On Women’s Right To Consent To Marriage
Another instance where both Mr. and Mrs. March express very modern ideas is when 17-year-old Meg decides she wants to marry Mr. Brooke. Instead of planning a wedding immediately as others would have, Mr. and Mrs. March forbid their daughter from making a final decision until she turned 20, essentially allowing their daughter to “date” and see if the man she loved was truly right for her or not. Again, this is highly unusual for parents during a time where it was the norm for girls as young as 16 to get married, and consent was rarely even considered or given by the bride to be.
Choosing To Marry Does Not Mean You’ve Given Up Your Dreams Or Your Identity
So many thousands of readers have complained about Joe ending up married, simply because growing up Joe had sworn over and over that she never wanted to marry.
I personally found no fault with Joe changing her mind as she grew older. While I would love to see the more single-and-proud women dominating the pages of literature, Joe choosing to settle down felt natural to me because as we grow older, our priorities, needs and dreams change.
And although Alcott was forced to bring this change in Joe by her readers and her publishers, in my opinion she did it in the best possible way. Joe is the last sister to get married because she does not rush into any decision, despite being the most impulsive of the sisters. She takes her time and when she finally finds love, it is a meeting of the minds rather than a meeting of the hearts.
Neither does she give up her dreams of writing after marriage–if anything, she ends up choosing a partner who not only appreciates her dreams but is also responsible enough to take on duties so she can devote her time to writing stories. Her identity isn’t that she is someone’s wife, her identity is Joe March–dreamer and writer.
Amy too shows this with the life choices she makes. Even after her marriage, she continues to be an artist. And although she’d always viewed marriage as a means of being financially secure, she chooses a partner who would respect her freedom over a partner who could have given her a grander life.
There’s No One-Size-Fits-All-Way To Be A Woman
One of the reasons why I loved this book as a child is because of how different each of the sisters are. Revisiting this story as an adult helped me see that Alcott was trying to tell her readers that there is no wrong way to be a woman–that the only one who can define who you are is yourself.
Meg, the eldest sister, who longs for a fairy tale romance and a happily ever after, may not seem any more special than her 19th century peers. She wants a lovely home, a handsome husband and lovely children. And while that may not seem like an extraordinary dream, it is still her dream and that is why it matters. In her own way she is a feminist because she consciously chooses her own happily ever after, without any external forces interfering and influencing her choices.
Joe, a potent model for gender fluidity with her loathing for femininity and intense desire to be a man, deliberately breaks all stereotypes. Till the very last page of the story she continues to be her own true self, always refusing to confirm to society’s expectations.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum from both Joe and Meg is Beth, who in spite of her musical talents and care-giving nature, is neither interested in becoming a successful pianist nor in romance or marriage. Her world revolves only around her parents and her siblings, and she shows us that it’s alright to be satisfied with the simple things in life.
Amy March is probably the most well-balanced and well-rounded of the sisters. Like Joe, she is ambitious, but like Meg. she is also a proper lady and yearns for the finer things in life. She is a reminder that women can be (in her own words) “an ornament to society” and still establish their own identity and pursue their own dreams.
In summary, Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott is a timeless, wholesome story about growing up and finding the path that suits you best–a freedom that is still denied to women in many parts of the world today.
Recommended reading: If you liked this blog post, consider checking out this post by Trix Wilkins from Much Ado About Little Women. It’s an extremely well-written post, and I absolutely love the fact that she has created a blog entirely dedicated to this book. If you are a fan of this novel, I recommend following her blog–it’s an absolute gem and has many interesting content about this beloved classic.
Note: This book was read as part of my goal to read 50 books in 5 years with The Classics Club