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Why Little Women Endures

A new book reveals the powerful frustrations and sharp wit that shaped Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel.

Culture Club/Getty

When Louisa May Alcott was a child, her father Bronson asked her to define what a philosopher was. She replied, tongue in cheek: “a man up in a balloon with his family at the strings tugging to pull him down.” Later, as a grown woman, Alcott would write a short story loosely based on day-to-day life at Fruitlands, the short-lived utopian community her father founded in the 1840s. Titled “Transcendental Wild Oats,” the story satirized men like her father and his circle (Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and others), noting how “some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away” when it came time to harvest the crops. Throughout her life, Alcott knew how to puncture the buoyant intellectual men floating above the people stuck down in the muck of cooking and sweeping and dying in childbirth.

W. W. Norton & Company, 288 pp., $27.95

This sharp perspective is easy to miss in the work for which Alcott is best known, her beloved 1868 novel Little Women. The earliest reviewers described the story of the four March sisters and their mother Marmee as “fresh,” “healthy,” “natural,” and “sincere.” In the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway characterized Little Women as full of “sweetness and light.” Critics since then have largely followed suit, continuing to describe the novel as amiable and charming, though often disagreeing as to whether that was a good or bad thing. In the 1960s the British critic Brigid Brophy asserted that the novel’s sentimentality was a form of “technical skill” on Alcott’s part, whereas Mary Gaitskill, writing in 1995, criticized the story as treacly: an “impossibly sweet view of life.”

Yet Little Women is also an angry book (“I am angry every day of my life,” Marmee declares), and in a specifically feminist way. Alcott uses the structures that hem women in—marriage, home, religion—both to attract and repel her readers. The homes she depicts are both cozy and claustrophobic, the marriages companionate and perverse, and the March girls’ dreams both fulfilled and depressingly renounced. It’s certainly possible to read Little Women as an untroubled sentimental text about family bonds and individual development, but then, well, you’d miss out on the fun and insight of the novel’s deeply weird and frustrated relationship to femininity.

Writing Little Women, Anne Boyd Rioux proposes in Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, was a way for Alcott to explore these frustrations while also repurposing her own life story. Born in 1832, Louisa May Alcott was one of four sisters, raised in and around Boston and Concord, Massachusetts. Her education was valued and supported by her reformist and idealist parents, her writing encouraged—her father bringing her apples while she wrote up in the garret—during a time when women’s writing often was not. The Alcott family culture was whimsical and wholesome; the children spent time outdoors, full of mischief and fun. The idiosyncratic sisters had rich and contentious relationships. By early adulthood, Alcott (who never married) had achieved great professional success, earning enough money to support herself and her family through her writing. That’s the cozy story, and the one that the plot of Little Women mostly follows. In some ways, it’s true enough.

But Louisa May Alcott’s life was also full of darkness and anger. The family was itinerant, and nearly always in poverty. Bronson Alcott’s strict adherence to his “ideals”—vegetarianism, selflessness, and political commitments to use no cotton, wool, sugar, molasses, or rice—meant that his children were often improperly clothed and malnourished. He once left his wife Abigail alone with two small children so that he could focus on his studies for a year, during which Abigail weathered the first of many miscarriages on her own. Lizzie Alcott (the inspiration for the saintly Beth March) appears to have starved herself to death; her mother and sisters attended her during a protracted, painful, and utterly irredeemable death. Alcott was always keenly aware of how much she had to temper and redirect her own ambitions simply because she was a woman.

Alcott began writing the first part of the novel, which she initially titled “The Pathetic Family,” in response to a prompt from the publisher Thomas Niles. She was skeptical of the prompt—“never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters”—and enjoyed prodding readers’ expectations of “a girls’ story”—most famously and perversely declaring that “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.” Under pressure from her publisher, Alcott did ultimately marry everyone off (including her own avatar, Jo), but felt that such an ending was done “in a very stupid style.”

Despite Alcott’s own misgivings as to whether the book was good, bad, or stupid, readers and reviewers immediately responded to Little Women. The first part of the novel was published in 1868 and sold two thousand copies in just two weeks. Niles ordered a sequel, and Alcott obliged, churning out a chapter a day. Just two years after beginning to write the novel, Alcott had finished part two, and by spring 1869 tens of thousands of copies of Little Women were ordered and shipped across the country.

Little Women was immediately a critical and popular success. Nineteenth-century readers found it fresh and realistic, often focusing on the “naturalness” of the informal language the March girls use. The book’s fortunes shifted a bit in the early-twentieth century; with the rise of academic literary study, the canon was masculinized, and Alcott dropped from its legitimating view. Yet Little Women continued to exert a nearly immeasurable influence on those who read it. Rioux catalogs in almost overwhelming detail how nearly every major modern woman writer has some kind of relationship to the novel. Ursula K. Le Guin found in Jo March the original image of a woman writer; Erica Jong has said the book “told me women could be writers, intellects;” Elizabeth Alexander declares it “formative;” bell hooks found “remnants of myself in Jo.”

The centennial celebration of the novel in 1968 initiated the explicitly feminist conversation about Little Women that continues still today. Critics and feminists from Judith Fetterly to Gloria Steinem debated the gendered ideologies of the novel’s sweetness and do-gooder-ism, its emphasis on marriage, childbearing, and the home. By giving an overarching account of these conversations, Rioux’s book doesn’t so much as weigh in as it reveals how Little Women has served as a Rosetta stone for women to consult as they attempt to translate and understand their own confounding experiences of gender. The lingering feminist question for us all, it seems, is the one that Rioux poses in the introduction to her book: “What does it mean that this venerated story of girlhood centers on a girl who doesn’t want to be one at all?”

Rioux suggests that the novel’s appeal and influence over so many readers and writers has everything to do with this kind of unexpected complexity. Little Women is, in fact, propelled less by its sweetness and light than it is by its internal frisson: between Marmee’s placidity and her declaration of anger, between the family’s love of their father and his infuriating uselessness, between the novel’s embrace of the values of sentimental womanhood and their clear association with death and abjection. Rioux’s book is exceptionally good at establishing how these tensions drive not only the novel’s narrative interest but also millions of readers’ deep and lasting affection for the novel. The novel models what it means for women to have a creative relationship to the dull and limited facts of life under patriarchy, to take life’s disappointing material and make art out of it.

Rioux concludes that Little Women has endured because of the power of its “lessons” about balancing family and career, individualism and selflessness, and the value of (truly) companionate marriage. I’m not sure I share her faith in the usefulness of lessons drawn from fiction. I love, and have always loved, Little Women because of its perversity, because of the way its characters often work against their own best interests (Meg marries the worst man of all time basically to stick it to old Aunt March), and because of its anger and eroticism (consider the sausage pillow!). These aren’t lessons, but they are life.

Likewise, the affections Little Women inspires aren’t necessarily “good” lessons, even as they accurately reflect our culture’s distorted views of womanhood. “Am I a Jo or an Amy?” is as pleasurable a question to consider, as it is revealing of the tight strictures that govern our understanding of womanly selfhood. Some of the best television shows about women have been founded on Little Women’s presentation of women as types (Golden Girls, The Facts of Life, Sex and the City, Girls); so are many of our literary stories about womanly life (“Am I a Lila or a Lenu?”). Our most popular and lucrative stories about women are still based on this premise, which can begin to feel narrow and limiting: Am I the type of woman who marries or the type who writes? The type who’s a prude or the type who’s experienced? The heroine or the bitch?

Still, Little Women is, ultimately, a generous book. Alcott wrote it, first and foremost, to be generous to herself: It allowed her to rewrite and re-envision painful aspects of her life, both current and past, and to make bank while doing so. But it’s also generous to the reader. The first time I reread it after having children, I was gobsmacked to find a chapter on sleep-training a baby! Horrible handbooks that simplistically teach sleep-training abound, but a literary representation of this complicated, terrible aspect of new motherhood? I hadn’t even realized I’d been starving for it, and there was Alcott waiting for me at the table.

Readers’ relationships with Little Women, Rioux shows, are always also about rewriting ourselves, our histories, and our frustrations with the misogyny of our world. It’s easy enough to love heroines who don’t want to be girls, or to fantasize about floating off and away from patriarchy’s harrowing entanglements. But it’s less easy to know what to do with the fact that so many of us end up back down on the ground—married, dead, making jam. Little Women still matters because in it, Alcott insists that the ground is where the work, the harvest, and the nourishment is.