Title: Little Women
Author: Louisa May Alcott
Publication Date: 1868
Library of Congress Call Number: PS1017.L5
Little Women, like several other books I’ve written about here, is one that I’m revisiting after reading it as a child. Unlike those other books, however, I disliked it at the time, especially the second half. Reading it again, I can see why—the idea that love and marriage are totally central to a woman’s life, whatever else she might do, pervades the book, becoming stronger and stronger later in the text.
The introductory post for Little Women asks whether it leans more strongly toward supporting conformity or independence. I think it’s a little more complicated than that. It’s clear throughout the book that the March family adheres to a very specific set of Christian values, which may or may not mesh with what they see as the values of popular society. It’s hard to see this as conformity, exactly, because it might conflict with social pressure, but it’s also difficult to see it as independence, because it adheres to a code that they don’t make up themselves. The March girls may resist the admonitions of their friends but never the advice of their parents. There is another type of independence in the books, economic independence, which is treated separately and certainly seen as a virtue by at least Jo, but although related to the conformity/independence spectrum, I think this is a slightly different issue.
The most striking early example of both these tendencies is Meg’s visit to the Moffat’s. During this visit, she encounters several “worldly” social ideas which the reader is encouraged to want her to resist. These ideas are firmly situated in conventional femininity. First, she overhears some gossip insinuating that her mother wants her to marry Laurie because he is rich, and second, she allows her friends to dress her up and make her pretty for a party. Meg resists the insinuations about Laurie and succumbs to the temptations of making herself fancy for a party, but she soon feels guilty about the latter, believing that she has done something wrong by indulging her desire to be pretty and feel admired. She’s described by one onlooker as “a doll” and briefly adopts this nomenclature for herself. The implication is that there is something wrong or improper about adopting this style of dress, despite the social validation that it carries with it. Meg ultimately rejects both this and the gossip about Laurie. The book doesn’t get explicit about what is wrong with this. Partly, it’s because it’s vain and silly and a frivolous use of money. Meg’s own discomfort is part of what’s wrong here, and it’s useful and quite feminist of Alcott to acknowledge this. However, some concern is also expressed that this is a slippery slope to “unmaidenly” behavior, and it seems to be rooted in ideas about her life course and later marriage, and this concern is, ah, somewhat less feminist. In any case, the lesson here seems to be that Meg needs to struggle against both her own desires and the social pressures that surround her—so neither conformity nor independence is a very good way to describe it.
Meg’s experience here also provides the moment in which Marmee expresses her ideals of womanhood:
I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good. To be admired, loved, and respected. To have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to try them as God sees fit to send. To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman, and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience…I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world, marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting.…Better be happy old maids than unhappy wives, or unmaidenly girls, running about to find husbands. (Chapter 9)
This passage stood out to me because, although the book is heavily didactic throughout and constantly moralizing about whether particular actions are good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, this is the moment when we really get a good look at the goals behind it. Marmee, who appears in this case to speak for Alcott, emphasizes earning respect through a useful life and attaining happiness through a good marriage. I don’t have anything to say against being useful, or having a happy marriage, or any of this. However, the insistence on marriage as “the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman,” the apex of female existence and very nearly the point of this entire endeavor has always bothered me. I like marriage, but there is more to life. This seems especially problematic to me when addressed explicitly to girls, and it is; marriage does not seem to carry the same sort of significance for men, although of course all the men in the book do marry eventually. Later in the book, there is a strange and sudden digression calling for compassion for old maids:
Don’t laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God’s sight. Even the sad, sour sisters should be kindly dealt with, because they have missed the sweetest part of life, if for no other reason. …Gentlemen, which means boys, be courteous to the old maids, no matter how poor and plain and prim, for the only chivalry worth having is that which is the readiest to pay deference to the old, protect the feeble, and serve womankind, regardless of rank, age, or color. Just recollect the good aunts who have not only lectured and fussed, but nursed and petted, too often without thanks, the scrapes they have helped you out of, the tips they have given you from their small store, the stitches the patient old fingers have set for you, the steps the willing old feet have taken, and gratefully pay the dear old ladies the little attentions that women love to receive as long as they live. (Chapter 43)
While Alcott shows some respect for unmarried women here, there is an unmistakable note of pity in her tone. They have “missed the sweetest part of life”! They are faded, tragic, and underappreciated. There is no idea here that some women might intentionally choose to remain unmarried, or that they may be so engaged in other aspects of their lives that they are happy and content without marriage. This is curious given that Alcott herself never married; I’m not sure what to make of that. Instead, unmarried women seem to play a supporting role in other people’s marriages and focus upon their role as aunts, much as married women in this world (at least, the white, middle-class women who are the focus of this text) focus on their roles as wives and mothers. Even for unmarried women, it is all about marriage. Thus, despite Marmee’s insistence that her daughters should seek out happy marriages or none at all, marriage assumes an all-important role in the world of the book.
Even Jo’s resistance to marriage and her desire to support herself slowly break down over the course of the narrative. By the end of the book, she is the most domestic of all; she and her husband run a school in which she is painted as a mother figure to all the students, and this is the role which is shown to make her the happiest. There is a lot of really interesting material throughout the book concerning Jo’s work as an author. She has always been a writer; she actually publishes a novel at one point in the book and spends a lot of time writing stories for magazines and making money from them. However, because they are sensational, she is slightly embarrassed by them, and immediately gives them up after a single, indirect rebuke by the man who is later to be her husband. It is not until after the death of her sister that she begins writing again, at which point, the text leads us to believe, her writing has much more merit because it is now firmly based in her own emotional experience. That is, she has become a stronger writer through her devotion to her family. This does at least allow the possibility that other relationships in life are important—in this case, Jo’s devotion to Beth—but being independent and earning money by writing doesn’t even appear here to be the best way of being a writer. She can only do it when it isn’t the most important thing in her life, and that honor has to be given to her family.
Still, while Alcott appears to view marriage as an indispensable part of life, her views of marriage are more equitable than this might suggest. There was some discussion of this in the comments on the original post of Meg’s marriage—Marmee advises Meg to take interest in politics, John does his part to care for their children, and there is a strong sense that Meg is putting too much pressure on herself to be a perfect wife and that she should not do this because it is too stressful. We only get a few glimpses of the marriage between Marmee and Mr. March, but whenever we do, they seem to be discussing their opinions and trying to come to a consensus as to how their family should be run. Based on this, then, Alcott does at least seem to support a somewhat equitable vision of marriage. However, there are limits to this; she does not want Jo to marry Laurie because they “are too much alike and too fond of freedom, not to mention hot tempers and strong wills, to get on happily together, in a relation which needs infinite patience and forbearance, as well as love” (Chapter 32). Instead, she marries Professor Bhaer, who is older and certainly less fiery than Laurie, but who also has less in common with her and much more education. There is no question as to who runs the school they begin together; although the property is Jo’s, it is Bhaer who is in charge of all the educational aspects of the school, while Jo takes on the “caring” parts of it. Alcott seems to prefer this sort of relationship to a marriage between close friends, and she disposes of Laurie with Amy, who has never been as close to him as Jo is.
In any case, I think the emphasis on marriage was what turned me off of this as a child, and I still find it troublesome today, though I do appreciate Alcott’s efforts to show cordial and reasonably equitable marriages throughout the book.