This is a guest post from Marina Jovanović. Thanks Marina!
I know I must have lived under a rock if I’m reading this classic tale for the first time at 23. On top of that, I proudly call myself a bookworm, a lover of period pieces, and am an actual English literature major. However, there is time for everything, and later is better than never, right? So now, thanks to my undying crush on Saoirse Ronan, I finally picked it up, as I abide by the “book before movie“ rule all my life. Luckily, I have never seen the 1994 version too so this reading was truly a new experience.
This article then is dedicated to all Little Women book lovers, in the hope that it might bring back the magic of your first reading it, or in turn, shed a new light on already existing impressions.
The Didactic Nature of the Novel
Going into the first two chapters it was very clear that this would be a highly didactic tale. True, the novel was written for young girls and the point was to teach them true values of life. Yet, I would have preferred a story where such virtuous are taught more through the experiences of characters rather than overtly by a parent or an author herself. This is not to say that I did not enjoy the novel, nor that the March sisters did not learn through experiences, but it was kind of a nag to read a book that is so openly trying to lead me towards the right path. One absurd example may be Meg’s alcohol-free wedding. Laurie, and myself honestly, are quite astonished that there is not a single bottle of wine to celebrate the start of a happy union.
Alas, the March family believes alcohol is only to be used medicinally. Then Meg makes Laurie promise he will quit a bottle altogether. Not that Laurie is a heavy drinker. Simply, a glass of alcohol every now and then for fun is a big no in this novel. So, I am to buy that whole thing when Meg has a bit of champagne at the party, suffers one hangover, and learns that alcohol is bad forever? Okay. This is not hate, and I do take into consideration the time and place in which the novel was created. It just may be that my hedonistic side felt a bit attacked.
Another shocker was obviously Jo and Laurie’s not so happily ever after. Maybe we have all just read too much Austen for our own good, but Jo marrying Laurie was the only possible ending. Or was it? Actually, when I got over the infamous “Heartache“ chapter, I came to the conclusion that I rather liked this original turn of events. Firstly, it showed that Jo was too much of an unconventional character to fall for the unattainable, devilishly handsome Byronic hero. Secondly, Alcott taught us that a female can truly love a male with no hidden romantic notions. We may applaud Alcott then for ditching that unrealistic and fairytale-like ending.
Death and its Symbolisms
One thing though that had me puzzled was the cause of poor Beth dying. Supposedly, she simply remained sickly and weak after suffering from scarlet fever. However, such a trope may more fit a gothic, romance literature of English writers than Alcott’s realistic American tale. Then I satisfied myself with finding the answer in symbolisms – as I always do with anything in my life, for better or worse. In the very beginning of the novel, it is stated that Amy is under Meg’s mentorship, and Beth under Jo’s. However, Beth is a little bit more to Jo than Amy is ever to Meg. She is a yin to Jo’s yang. She embodies all the characteristics Jo lacks.
Her willingness to die and acceptance of it is a bit too intentional to say that she passed away due to a mere physical ailment. In one of the most beautiful parts of the novel, when the two sisters go to the seaside, Jo is frightened by just how ghostly and immaterial Beth looks. It would not be wrong to take this as a metaphor of Jo finally finding that part of her which she missed in order to find the perfect balance within herself, and Beth giving it all away to her. In the scene where Jo lays her head on Beth’s bonnet, it is even suggested by the author herself that it was like the spirit of one sister entered the other.
Why it’s Still Feminist in Spite of Them All Getting Married in the End
Finally, no article on Little Women would be entirely complete without discussing its feminist nature, or the lack of it thereof, depending on which side of the argument you’re on. While it is somewhat unsatisfactory to have the March sisters be “good wives“ in the end, that does not mean that the novel is ultimately anti-feminist. For Amy, having a mere talent for art was never enough, and she decided she would paint only recreationally and not professionally when she discovered she was not a genius after all, and not because she married Laurie, himself a fan of the arts.
What is more, Jo never stops writing even though she becomes a “professorin“, a wife, and a mother. If anything, in her marriage to an old, and plain-looking Mr. Bhear, she is more of a rebel than ever. Just like her sisters, she shows us that looks and money are not an endgame. Bhear and she surprise each other, help each other grow, and have an undeniably fulfilling future together, with her as the main bread-winner.
Finally, in an anticipation of the new movie, we may provide an answer to the question of feminism simply by asking another question and that is, would this really be directed by none other than Greta Gerwig, and star Ronan and Watson, two staunch feminists, had this tale been a purpoter of patriarchy and nothing more?
First movie still is copyright of Columbia Pictures, Regency Enterprises, and Pascal Pictures. Second movie still is copyright of Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Releasing.
Marina Jovanović is a student of English language and literature at the University of Belgrade. She has a passion for writing and can drink up to four strong black coffees a day. Her major interest is classic literature and the freshness that hundreds years old texts still have today. She hopes to start her own blog soon where you can read all about it.