While growing up, “Little Women” (1868) was — coincidentally, given its intense religiosity — a kind of Bible for me. It provided assurance and stability that I found almost nowhere else. Its characters were constantly in the pursuit of improvement and personal success that even at the age of 11, I could not help but admire them. Not only did I want to emulate them, I wanted to be them.
It was this constant push towards progress that made the March girls the ideal role models. They became pillars of courage and kindness that I strived to mimic with a comical, childish omnipotence. With much effort, I attempted to adopt Jo’s defiance, Beth’s kindness, and Meg’s responsibility. I’m sorry to say that I never truly liked Amy and never will, so I never strived to adopt any of her qualities other than her artistry. It was my hope that armed with these traits, I too could join the perfect March family.
While Louisa May Alcott’s book still remains a childhood classic and a favorite, it is not difficult to return to it with a much more critical eye. This bildungsroman follows the four March sisters, who grow up in Concord, Mass., during the 1860s. Over the course of the work, the sisters work hard, fall in love, experience heartbreak, and eventually leave home. Though the story abounds in familial love and romance, the dark shadow of tragedy is never too far behind. While it is often sold as a heartwarming tale of sisterhood and virtue, a careful rereading reveals an almost overzealous religiosity, a sobering account of illness and early death as well as a dangerous argument in favor of acquiescence.
The sisters’ childhoods are steeped in reading religious texts like John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” which is a bit startling considering their young age and the challenging nature of these works. In many respects, their spirituality is a positive influence on their lives, guiding them through deeply emotional times of war and various family members’ illnesses. This text is also where the family draws most of its values, particularly piety and familial duty. Having said this, it is a bit dismal to find that, with all their good qualities, the women of the novel are relegated to the task of gatekeeping morality.
For all of its progressive beliefs, “Little Women” can often be backwards, particularly in its depiction of women’s roles. The most demure of the characters, Beth, is particularly emblematic of the link between pristine virtue and femininity and the home. The problem with this is that Alcott doesn’t provide any counterexamples to show the different opportunities that women could be afforded. Even writer and rebel Jo, who isn’t supposed to succumb to the pressures of societal expectations, gives up her work in favor of marriage and children. Though Louisa May Alcott was herself a famous “spinster”— an older, unmarried woman — and based Jo largely on herself, she does not allow her own lifestyle any voice.
It has become increasingly well documented that Alcott, who published the work in two parts and based it on her own childhood with her sisters in Massachusetts, thought her own novel to be “moral pap.” Her previous writing was worlds away from pickled limes and “The Pilgrim’s Progress” — it features lurid tales of sexual encounters, vicious murders, and drug use. Yet “Little Women” was so successful that it rendered Alcott financially independent, capable of living life the way she had always wanted. The poverty and struggle the March family experience is a romanticized version of the starvation and cold that Alcott herself faced and resented. “I’ll be rich and famous and happy before I die, see if I won’t,” she once said. It is hard to imagine even spirited protagonist Jo saying these words.
Criticism aside, “Little Women” should not be admonished for long. Though it is vital to delve into its darker themes and complex, sometimes contradictory messages, the book has many forward thinking instances. It has always promoted a strong bond between women that almost serves as a kind of proto-feminism. Jo’s flagrant disdain for social convention in choice of career, and even to a certain extent of her husband, is representative of this too. Her spirit has always struck a particular chord with female readers, making her a strong favorite. Though its other characters are just as loveable, it is almost a blatant mistake to read the book for anyone but Jo.
The March sisters also have combined desire for knowledge and travel of the world that is infectious, inspiring the same spirit in countless readers beside myself. Their empathy and care for one another are still admired and will continue to be. Alcott’s hilarious and detailed accounts of mishaps like the burning of Meg’s hair before the ball, Beth’s and Jo’s trip to the coast, and the Amy’s pickled lime incident will never cease to delight even upon multiple re-readings.
As mentioned before, “Little Women” has borne the brunt of increasing criticism for some of its outdated thinking. Important though as it is to acknowledge its faults, it is equally as important to celebrate its triumphs. 150 years after it was written by Alcott in her home Orchard House, “Little Women” remains a source of inspiration providing girls with role models and charmingly encapsulating the anguish and joy of growing up.
—Staff writer Aline G. Damas can be reached at email@example.com.