I was recently presented with the opportunity to read Louisa May Alcott’s most famous novel Little Women recently. Don’t ask how that happened–it’s a long story. Anyway, I started this book with few expectations. I’ve read two other Alcott books: Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom, but that was back when I was a teenager. Not much of those storylines stuck with me over the years. All I remembered was idealism and a boring, plodding plot. Like I said, not much stuck with me.
As for Little Women, I’ve seen several film versions, but I’d never read the book before. They always present the four sisters in very sweet, pious, and loving terms…pretty much the epitome of all that is good with American women. Very “Little House on the Prairie.” It presents an image for women to aspire to, but they’re also lacking in any real substance or personality. Honestly, few women are like that, and those who are don’t have many friends. I like a little bitchiness in the women I hang out with.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I actually read the dang book. The first half involves the four sisters as they grow up with only their mother around: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Their father, who even lacks much depth when he’s there, is away fighting in the Civil War at this time. Other than establishing the girls’ differences, not much is accomplished during this part of the book. Meg is a bit more girly and has a crush her neighbor’s tutor, Jo is boyish and loves to write, Beth is giving to the detriment of her own health, and Amy’s a brat. So…yeah, there’s definitely some family dynamic there, but surprisingly little clashing. I’m sorry, but four daughters in the same house…there would be lots of fighting. There would barely be enough hours in the day for all the arguing that would be taking place. I say this as one of five sisters.
But I digress. After their childhood personalities have been established, Alcott moves the plot forward several years. Meg gets married, Jo tries to become a real writer, Beth grows into a true invalid, and Amy’s a brat. What I wasn’t expecting was the realistic portrayal of assumptions placed on American women. Throughout the entire novel, the girls’ mother reminds them of what is good and morally right, and even she admits that these aren’t fair rules. When Jo’s temper gets the best of her, her mom admits to having her own temper that proves a constant battle. However, she urges Jo to keep these emotions bottled up.
Meg eventually gets married to the tutor, and they live rather blissfully until she has twins. Then he grows upset when she spends all her time with their newborn children. That poor man. Rather than helping her, he resents her. Meg’s mom pulls her aside and says that she’s going to have to make time for him for their marriage to work. It’s a sickening conversation that reminds every reader that women aren’t allowed down time when they decide to have families. Seriously. Meg’s mom describes how her entire life has to be balanced between her husband and children, and I’m sorry, but the babies should take first place in her heart. That’s natural. The book even admits this, yet Meg’s under pressure to place more stock on her husband, even though he doesn’t have to help raise the kids or maintain the household. This is reminiscent of an earlier conversation when Meg argued with her husband. Her mom told her that she would have to be the first to apologize and admit wrong, even if she didn’t do any wrong. Such is how to maintain a healthy marriage.
By far the most interesting character, Jo goes off on her own to become a writer elsewhere. Despite her creative nature, she has a very obvious conversation with a Mr. Dashwood, describing “a friend” who wishes to publish her work. He finds the entire scenario hilarious, and I just wanted to bang my head on the desk. Mr. Dashwood obviously was fine with having a female author as long as she wasn’t too bright. It might have been too intimidating otherwise. Jo’s experiences as a writer followed this same theme. She writes mainstream fiction rather than more moral stories in order to make a living, and she still made less than her male counterparts. As a country bumpkin, people in the city treated her kindly with seeming kid gloves. She didn’t seem capable of entering into this profession without some sort of support network. It was quite disheartening. Everyone had to help her and advise her throughout. No thought she had seemed to originate in her own head. As for romance, she at least had the decency to reject the spoiled neighbor Laurie, but no one seemed to consider her to be a real adult until she married someone else. To keep her new husband close by, she starts a school for boys. Yeah. She’s obviously going to have tons of time to devote to her writing career now.
Beth really was giving to the point that her health was ruined. She contracted scarlet fever when helping out a neighbor’s family. While she recovered initially, her health suffered greatly. She practically has a stamp on her forehead saying “I will die tragically in order to create greater dramatic effect in this book.” And she didn’t disappoint in this respect. However, there was a moment that I found rather sad before she died. She claimed that, unlike her sisters, she never thought much of her future. She couldn’t see herself ever getting married or having children, so that meant it was her time to die. God dammit! As a childless spinster myself, I find it frustrating when a woman’s only worth seems to come directly from her value as a mother and wife. I’m an awesome aunt, an okay writer, and an excellent student. I have my moments, and none of these moments should be lessened in importance just because I haven’t procreated yet. Beth deserved a better ending.
And Amy was a brat.
For a book that has remained a symbol of the American woman throughout the years, Little Women was fucking bleak. In order to live completely as a woman, a woman must marry. In order to be a good wife, she must ignore her children more to focus on her lazy husband. If she screws any of that up, she will be judged. Hell, even if she conducts all of it perfectly, she will be judged. Such fair expectations, and Alcott (a childless spinster herself) portrays these expectations in all their grueling, unending glory.
For the record, though, it wasn’t just women who were treated unfairly. The men in this novel lacked personality, work ethic, or forgiveness, which is why so much pressure rested on the ladies’ shoulders. As the daughter of an incredibly kind, hard-working man, I found this an offensive generalization. Just because I’m a lesbian doesn’t mean I don’t recognize that there are an awful lot of good men out there. Apparently, Alcott didn’t meet any of them. That’s too bad, because this was a very unfair story all around.
Picture from feministclassics.