Becky Allen Books

YA fantasy writer. Not a morning person.

Little Women, Female Ambition, and Castles in the Air


Little Women: YA Classics Catch Up Blogathon
Little Women: YA Classics Catch Up Blogathon

Hey everyone, have you read your Pilgrim’s Progress lately? Because it’s time to talk about what I got out of reading Little Women, in this first real installment of the YA Classics Catch Up.

But first, one housekeeping note — as I experimented with formats, I found I had a pretty fun time capturing some of my thoughts on Instagram as I read. So if you’re an Instagrammy person, feel free to follow along that way!

Okay. So. Little Women is a novel by Louisa May Alcott, originally published in two volumes, the first in 1868 and the second in 1869. Highly inspired by Alcott’s real life, it’s about the four March sisters through their teens and early 20s, as they bridge the gap between adolescence and adulthood. The sisters are:

  • Meg, the boring — I mean romantic — one;
  • Jo, the tomboy writer with big dreams;
  • Beth, the sweet one with severe social anxiety;
  • Amy, the pretty and spoiled one;
  • BONUS: the wealthy boy next door, Laurie.

I knew almost nothing about the book going in, except for what was spoiled on the back cover, thanks so much, Penguin Classics. I read the Great Illustrated Classics version when I was a kid, but literally all I remembered was that someone wanted to be a writer but someone else burned her book? And no, I didn’t remember who, or why, or literally anything else. I’ve also never seen any of the adaptations.

Writers Who Write About Writing

I have to say, I actually enjoyed the book more than I expected to, but to be fair, my expectations were pretty low. Not because I thought it would be bad, but because, as I noted in the intro post, I am mostly a genre reader, and that’s in large part because of the pacing and stakes that go along with saving the world. And, well, that’s not the structure of a lot of classic literature, and so I’ve always found classics kind of… boring.

To my great relief, no, Little Women is not boring. But its story and structure are not what I, as a modern reader, am particularly used to, either. Especially in the first volume, it’s more episodic than a single story with rising stakes or tension until near the end (when Mrs. Marsh has to leave to care for her husband, and Beth gets scarlet fever and almost dies). The second volume is a bit more of a straightforward story with Jo as a primary protagonist as she experiments with various kinds of writing, spends time away from home for the first time, rejects a suitor, etc. But there are still plenty of episodic bits about the other sisters intertwined — Meg’s marriage, Amy’s time in Europe, and Beth’s tragic death from nothing in particular.

Um, nice spoiler on the back cover, Penguin Classics...
Um, nice spoiler on the back cover, Penguin Classics…

What struck me about all of this was how, especially in the first half, the episodes are largely moral lessons. The girls have to learn about the joys of giving to charity, about finding satisfaction in hard work instead of goofing off, and of course how to appreciate what they have instead of wishing they had more.1 That in particular comes up when Meg spends a week with girls who are better off, only to be publicly embarrassed and realize that their gossip and money have led them down a bad road and so she needs to care more about her family than wealth, and marry someone poor but good.2 It’s certainly a good lesson for her to learn, if only because she does, in fact, marry a poor man and continue to struggle with it into the second volume, but the constant moralizing is also really tedious.

But what I found genuinely fascinating about it is the meta-narrative. Little Women draws heavily from Alcott’s real life — she was a writer who was the second of four sisters, one of her sisters died young, etc. Tracing the evolution of Jo’s writing shows where all the moralizing comes in. In the first volume, Jo writes silly romances and is proud of them; in the second volume she writes a full novel but chops it to pieces to try to meet publisher expectations, feels mixed ways about it, and eventually wishes she had left it as she wanted to instead. And then she starts publishing racy stories just for the money but is shamed for it until she quits, because stories that have no morals are deeply harmful, apparently. Given that Alcott herself wrote racy stories under a penname for a time, and that she apparently had conflicted feelings about writing Little Women in the first place, all of this seems pretty directly drawn from her own feelings. So am I interested in the moralizing? No. But do I empathize with Alcott having a complicated relationship to her writing? Heck yes.

I actually ended up feeling much more fond of the book when I started looking up more information about Alcott herself and discovered that the book was not particularly a passion project for her. She was broke and supporting her parents, and when she was offered the chance to write a book for girls she took it, even though she apparently considered the book “moral pap.” Alcott wrote in the sermons she was expected to so she could make money, and rolled her eyes all the way to the bank.

Which brings me to…

Feminism, Subversiveness, and Ambition in Little Women

It’s basically impossible to look at a work of art and declare “that’s feminist” or “that’s not feminist,” because it’s not like those two stances are a perfect binary or can even be defined objectively. Alcott herself was a feminist who supported women’s suffrage (and took part in the Seneca Falls convention), as well as an abolitionist. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from reading the book, given its focus on moral messaging for girls. But at the same time, it a) recognizes the challenges and complications of domestic life and centers entirely around it and around women; and b) it does, on occasion, manage to slip a little subversiveness into its many moral messages.

I call out point A because, even today, women’s writing about women’s experiences tends to be diminished. Female authors are reviewed less often than male authors, and are reviewed differently. Though the phrase “chick lit” has died off, women’s fiction is often packaged as frivolous. Romance, despite being one of the highest-selling segments of publishing, gets sneered at. And of course, YA, a category that’s dominated by female writers telling stories about girls, is dismissed and derided. So I think it is worth calling out that Little Women, a book entirely about women, with “Women” in the title, written by a woman, attained the status of a classic. It’s about the relationship between sisters, and with the exception of Laurie, none of the male characters get much in the way of development or page time.3 Of course the Bechdel-Wallace test is not the be-all, end-all of evaluating feminism, but it’s worth noting that Little Women blows it out of the water.

Why can't you just Have It All, Meg?
Why can’t you just Have It All, Meg?

As for subverting the separated spheres of domestic and public life, one example comes in Meg’s marriage. Near the end of the second volume, after she and John have twins, their marriage hits a snag. Meg is described as being far too devoted to the babies, and forgetting she also has a duty to her husband. Which, sigh. I could live without the sermonizing about how a woman must perfectly be all things to all people, all the time. But I do think it’s interesting that harmony isn’t restored until they find themselves taking part in one another’s spheres. John has to become actively involved in putting the babies to bed and teaching the kids to respect Meg’s authority. Meg, in turn, asks John to teach her about politics, even though she’s never been particularly interested in them before. While that can certainly be read as Meg having to take an interest in John’s interests just to make him happy, the fact that their mutual happiness depends on her embracing something outside of her traditional sphere is subversive, if only in a small way.

But of course, the biggest subversion in the book is Jo’s romance. Or specifically, the romance that doesn’t happen.

Jo befriends Laurie early in the first volume, and he is clearly instantly besotted with her. She thinks of him like a brother; he follows her around with puppy-dog eyes. They’re still young when the first volume ends, and the second book explores their relationship in a lot more detail. Jo has been saying from the get-go in volume one that she has no interest in getting married. She’d rather be an independent spinster earning her own money from writing than get married and lose herself to the role of wife and mother. (The fact that her mother supports this is another one of those tiny subversions.) When it comes to Laurie, she is very specifically not interested. Like so many millions of women since, she knows what’s coming and she cringes, dreading having to find a way to politely turn him down. She even flees to take a position as a tutor, out on her own for the first time, to avoid him and hope he’ll get over her.

But of course it doesn’t work, and Laurie finally proposes. She says no. He basically throws a temper tantrum, claiming that she’s been flirting with him, and they’re such good friends, and women always say no when they mean yes, and doesn’t she see how much he’s done for her, and why doesn’t he love her back, and waaaaah waaaaaah waaaaaah, shut up, Laurie. Seriously. In a modern setting, he’d be wearing a trilby and complaining about the friend zone, and in that scene, I hated him more than I’ve ever hated a fictional character.

The kicker was, I’d actually enjoyed them up to that point! I didn’t ship it, exactly, because I wanted Jo to get the independence she desired, and I didn’t want her to settle for marrying a man she cared about, but not in that way. So would I have been happy if she’d changed her mind and swooned? Sure, I guess, kind of — after all, Laurie did love her for exactly who she was, temper and literary aspirations and all. That’s something. But that’s not what Jo wanted, and the more Laurie complained about his broken heart, the happier I was that she said no and stuck to it. #TEAMJO4

Laurie would have given Jo money and social standing, making her life a lot easier. Her decision to turn that down because her aspirations were more important than her social standing, and her happiness more important than wealth, was certainly subversive. Plus, it was not what Alcott’s readers expected or wanted from her — it was Alcott freeing her heroine of a specific, restrictive set of expectations.

And yet. AND YET. It doesn’t quite stick the landing. Not because of Laurie, thankfully, but because, in the end, all of Jo’s ambitions go out the window. And that is Beth’s fault.

…okay, so that’s probably not fair. Let me back up.

There’s a whole chapter, early in volume one, where the girls and Laurie all describe their “castles in the air” — their fondest daydreams. Laurie dreams of being a musician; Meg dreams of being a rich wife with a beautiful house; Amy dreams of going to Rome and becoming an artist. Jo, naturally, dreams of writing books that make her rich and famous and will have people remembering her after she’s gone. And Beth dreams of… nothing in particular, except staying at home.

Beth has always been a homebody and a caretaker. She adopts stray kittens and builds a hospital to nurse her dolls. She’s so shy she can’t even go to school — I genuinely think it’s severe social anxiety without the modern vocabulary — and basically, she is the kindest, most saintly character. Like the kids these days say, Beth is a cinnamon roll, too good for this world, too pure. Quite literally: in the second volume, she dies of, um… boredom? She survived a bout of scarlet fever in the first volume and never fully regained her health, but she isn’t particularly sick or anything when she dies. She just tells Jo that she’s just pretty sure her tide is going out, and everyone is sad but accepts that probably she’s right. No one, like, calls a doctor or anything.

She tells Jo two things: first, that part of why she’s at peace with dying is because she never had any ambitions anyway; second, that her death means it’s now up to Jo to take care of their parents forever. She says on her deathbed:

“You must take my place, Jo, and be everything to father and mother when I’m gone. They will turn to you–don’t fail them; and if it’s hard to work alone, remember that I don’t forget you, and that you’ll be happier in doing that, than writing splendid books, or seeing all the world; for love is the only thing that we can carry when we go, and it makes the end so easy.” (p 418)

In other words: “I’m dying, so you’d better give up all your stupid aspirations of writing books and doing exciting things and get used to being a caretaker.” And Jo… does. She resigns herself to caring for her parents instead of writing. And then she finds that she’s lonely and listless and wishes she could find a husband after all, and eventually does, marrying Professor Bhaer.

I wanted to throw the book across the room, tbqh.
I wanted to throw the book across the room, tbqh.

The kindest reading I can give to this is that what Jo actually wants changes — and yes, grief can change a person’s outlook. Bhaer is actually a subversive character himself and not a traditional male lead. Together they open a school, and Jo is excited and satisfied by that. So… fine. But my much more honest reading is that Beth shames and guilts Jo out of the things she wants, and Jo finds happiness with Bhaer in the end only by giving up all of her ambitions and settling into the socially acceptable role of wife and mother. SIGH.

Oh, and of course, the fact that Beth never had any aspirations and literally died of it means… what? That if you aspire too much you’ve got to be shamed into accepting your place, but if you don’t have the right aspirations, there’s no point in you being alive. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. What the helllll.

Basically, speaking as a single lady in my 30s who owns a cat, hates dating, and writes novels, I was pretty disturbed. So is Little Women feminist or not? Well, I don’t know. But I believe that Alcott — who, by the way, did not get married — did genuinely try her best to present what was, at the time, a pretty progressive view within a socially acceptable story.

Conceal, Don’t Feel, and Other Odds and Ends

Just some other random thoughts that don’t fit anywhere else.

•  Man, I really thought, going into this, that Amy burning Jo’s book was going to be a much bigger deal. Like, the climax. It was all I remembered from reading as a kid, and is referenced pretty frequently by other writers on the internet. But it happens very early on and everyone is over it pretty fast!

•  One of my ongoing frustrations with the book was this: especially in the first volume, one of the girls would do something “wrong” and feel weird ways about it. Obviously Jo with her temper is the main example, but Meg and Amy also both tend toward vanity. Those moments all felt particularly vivid and human — after all, the Marsh sisters are teenage girls, not perfect angels. Except that without fail, each and every one of those moments ended with the girl learning her lesson and vowing to stop being so selfish/vain/angry/etc. And while, sure, maturing and learning not to worry so much about fitting in with the wealthy crowd is a good thing, it pretty much worked out that any time any of the girls felt anything other than selfless innocence, the message was: stop feeling things!

•  Especially when it was Jo. But I do love the moment when her mother confesses that she, too, has a temper, and it takes her hard work to conquer it. On the one hand, I don’t think her basically telling Jo to repress all of her feelings was a good thing; on the other hand, it was something that did actually humanize their otherwise too-saintly-to-be-real mother.

•  Speaking of Jo, the other thing I knew going into the book was that she was everyone’s favorite character, so I decided arbitrarily she would not be mine. Which is, of course, the most Jo-like reaction possible. (Yes, she is my favorite.)

•  Also speaking of Jo… so what do you all think about her gender and sexuality? Ace? Lesbian? Trans? She does think of herself in masculine terms a lot — as the man of the house when her father is gone, as the family’s only son, as a brother to the other girls. She wishes she were a boy so she could go have adventure with Laurie. She has next to no romantic inclinations throughout. And she’s at least in part an authorial self-insert, and Louisa May Alcott once said of herself, “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body … because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.”

•  Okay, so for my money, the actual most disturbing thing in the book (and one reason I dislike Beth, even aside from that extremely long section above) is near the beginning when the girls are all on vacation and decide to not do any work or chores for the whole week. Their mother indulges this, knowing that they’ll get bored and cranky and be upset when no beds are made, etc, and learn a valuable lesson. Which, of course, they do. But one of Beth’s chores, which she neglects, is feeding her pet canary. And the canary dies. And they’re just like… shrug, whatever. But the fact that Mrs. March was willing to sacrifice a pet to this lesson, and that Beth — the caretaker! Who saves kittens and runs a doll hospital! — didn’t notice or care what happened to her canary was really upsetting to me. A pet relies on people to take care of it, and it was killed by neglect. WTF.

Okay, that’s everything I can think of for now! Did you read the book? What did you think? Let me know! And don’t forget to follow the #YAClassicsBlogathon tag on Twitter and Instagram to keep up as I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn over the next few weeks.

  1. The Marches are repeatedly referred to as poor, though it seems more accurate that they’re middle-class-ish. They were once better off but the family fell on hard times. Now, while they don’t have any extra money, they still employ a servant, and are able to find plenty of people poorer than they are to help.
  2. Amy will later be like, “Meh, fuck it, I’m gonna marry rich,” and everyone is like … yeah, sigh, fair enough, Amy.
  3. Professor Bhaer, for example, is basically a plot contrivance to give Jo a happy ending. While I have some strong feelings about that, the fact remains that it is not even a little bit his story, and their romance centers 100% around Jo.
  4. Also, the most I liked Amy was when she yelled at Laurie for his stupid angst. He spent months loafing around complaining about his tragic heartbreak that no one else could understand, until she basically told him to shut up and get over himself. I forgave him a tiiiiny bit when he realized that that made Amy awesome and that he was, in fact, being ridiculous. So yes, I am down with Amy/Laurie.

4 responses to “Little Women, Female Ambition, and Castles in the Air”

  1. Elucreh Avatar

    These are all some pretty excellent points! It may comfort you to know that in the sequels it is clear Jo is still writing; she never becomes rich and famous from it, but there is time built into her life for creating stories and they’re still publshed 😀 It never, frankly, made THAT much sense to me that Jo could manage being the primary caretaker of two young children and still being a prolific writer but couldn’t manage being the primary caretaker of two competent middle-aged adults and still write a little bit on the side. I mean, c’mon.

    1. allreb Avatar

      Yeah, it just gets to me that she’s specifically told to stop being AMBITIOUS about her writing. No more splendid stories! Care taking is better! I’m glad she keeps it as a hobby, since it’s something she loves, but it’s so frustrating that it’s framed as something she has to stop pursuing so she can fit into a more traditional role instead.

  2. Leah Avatar

    As someone who read and loved Little Women as a kid, I agree with pretty much everything you said.

    However: “Meg is described as being far too devoted to the babies, and forgetting she also has a duty to her husband. Which, sigh.” You know, I don’t like how she phrased it in terms of “duty,” but the problem she’s describing really does exist. There are people, men and women, out there who get so wrapped up in the baby/babies that they forget to maintain their relationship with their partner. And that doesn’t end well for anyone. So I have trouble judging Alcott for anything but her phrasing on that one.

    1. allreb Avatar

      I can see that, but the semantics fit pretty cleanly into the realm of expectations and gender roles so for me it really reinforces a lot of pieces that I (as a modern reader, and a product of a very different time) am not comfortable with.

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