LITTLE WOMEN: BOOK REVIEW
Now is a strange time to read Little Women. Louisa May Alcott’s story of four young women growing up in 1860s Concord, Massachusetts feels trivial in a time of pandemic, racial violence, and global unrest. It feels comforting, too. Alcott presents a world of unfaltering sisterhood, ice skating on frozen ponds, traipsing around in costumes, and creating imaginary worlds within the sweetness of the real one. A world in which every day may be an adventure and all of life’s woes may be healed by unfaltering sisterly love and domestic bliss. To read Little Women is to sit around a fireplace with the March sisters and Marmee, listening to stories and knowing that no pain is experienced in solitude.
In many ways, Little Women enforces the ideals of 1860s feminine domesticity. The March sisters flourish within the confines of their home, they talk of courtship and marriage, they cook, they clean, and they try their best to be very good. In many ways, Little Women rebels against these ideals.
Generations of women and girls have identified Little Women as a story of liberation, namely through the character of Jo March. Simone de Beauvoir claimed to have “caught a glimpse” of her “future self” through Jo. Of all the March women, Jo is the boldest; she writes and uses slang; she splays her body in topsy turvy ways, and talks of all the things she would do if she were a boy. Jo has an outward freedom that none of the other women in the family hold. Little Women, though, is a story of rebellion beyond Jo.
Marmee famously tells Jo “I am angry nearly every day of my life” in a pivotal moment of the story, and yet, she bears this anger silently. Marmee’s confession to Jo reveals a dark reality within the charmed world of Little Women. The March women exist in a difficult world. It is difficult to be a woman, it is difficult to be poor, it is even difficult to be a sister and to love someone other than yourself. The March women cope in this world by learning self-sufficiency and self-reliance. Marmee is not always there to guide them, and so, for the March sisters, domesticity is not something they perform out of complacency, but instead is done out of necessity and survival. To handle grief and uncertainty, the women turn to one another and to their own self-sufficiency. Their small world, far from perfect, is marked with death, poverty, illness, and loss. Each sister carries anger within herself and rebels against the unjustness of life she encounters in her own way.
Even when the sisters marry, an ending modern readers associate with complacency and conformity to feminine norms, their marriages maintain forms of rebellion. Meg, the eldest, rejects the idle life of marrying rich expected of her, in preference for Brooke, the poor tutor. Aunt March informs Meg that she is shirking her “duty” and that “not one penny of my money ever goes to you.” Meg’s marriage is her great rebellion; she turns away from the societal expectations laid out for her and “she felt so brave and independent” in doing so.
Amy’s marriage, too, is one informed by the self-awareness and self-sufficiency the women were taught at a young age. Amy understands the expectations of marriage for women of her time, and so, her marriage to Laurie is a self-aware one of autonomy and utility. Readers are often most disappointed by Jo’s marriage as it feels like a taming of her wildness and freedom as well as a prophecy of what the future holds for independent young women. So instilled in Jo, though, are Marmee’s teachings of the importance of independence and self-sufficiency in order to survive the world as a woman, they cannot be undone by a man. Marriage did not heal nor erase Marmee’s anger, and it does not heal or erase the anger of Jo or her sisters'.
Little Women serves as a sweet form of escapism into a world of love and joy and sisterhood. Little Women also reminds us of the hardness of the world, always, and that is why it remains relevant today. Many of us feel angry every day of our lives, and we deal with this anger in different ways. Little Women offers a narrative in which the March women bear their anger and quietly rebel against the norms pushed against them. Little Women reminds us that not all rebellions are loud and that not all rebellions need to be loud to be heard.