I picked up Little Women in an unabridged audio recording because I really wanted to read it again for the Women Unbound Challenge (the audio recording was pretty good, although I couldn’t decide if the narrator (Barbara Caruso) was going for a subdued English accent or subdued New England accent; her German accent for Professor Bhaer was pretty good). It’s a good place to start because everyone gets their knickers in a twist over Jo’s choice to give up writing and become a mommy with her Professor.
There are five major female characters in Mrs. March and her four daughters and each of them demonstrates some aspect of feminism, in a way (I’ve been reading Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers and American suffragism wasn’t quite in full swing when Alcott wrote her most-famous novel). Mrs. March always tries to be a good, upstanding citizen, helping with veteran’s organizations and providing food and clothing to those in far more dire straights than the Marches; she is never “idle” in the lazy sense. Meg realizes she doesn’t need a huge house and piles of money to have a happy home (compared to the rich and priviledged Sally Moffat/Gardiner whose house is not filled with the sounds of family or husband; Sally’s mercenary marriage did not bring her happiness or comfort); Meg is kind of devoid of personality and seems quite conventional as a character who is pretty much made to be wife and mother from the start with no other aspirations. Over the years, and many times I’ve read Little Women, Beth has come to symbolize the idea that dying with dignity and acceptance is important; I had to skip the two tracks where Beth dies – it always makes me sob, sentimental writing or not, and sobbing while driving isn’t the best idea. Amy has never been my favorite March sister, too prissy, too willing to play the society game, but she does come round in the end and marries for love (although I’ve always wondered if she would’ve married Laurie if he were less rich).
Which brings me to Jo. Jo is always my favorite March sister, impetuous, hot-tempered (totally guilty of the same on my part), passionate, and creative. Jo does change quite a bit over the course of the novel, learns to bite her tongue and mind her temper (she doesn’t morph into a compete doormat but at least learns to think before she speaks, which is a hard lesson for any of us), writes “rubbish” and then learns to write better things (which can be seen as having her creative juices squelched but since I like well-written stuff better than sensationalistic crap I tend to see that as a growth of the artist within Jo, rather than pumping out schlock for the money), and ends up with an appropriate companion in Professor Bhaer. I’m pretty partial to Professor Bhaer (must be those German genes that make up 80% of my DNA) and he is pretty progressive in that he does tutor women (Jo included) so he gets a plus in my book; I suppose Alcott could have had Jo running Plumfield school by herself, as a dignified spinster-writer-headmistress, but then there would be no Professorin (as someone who is on the verge of despairing of finding any sort of companionship I identify with Jo’s despair after losing Beth). I always read about how people complain that Jo quits writing but I think she actually does continue writing (after Aunt March leaves her Plumfield and Jo decides to turn it into a school there is mention that Jo keeps publishing; maybe – I don’t have a copy of the book at hand – plus she writes the lyrics for the song sung during the last chapter).
A favorite part of Little Women is the early section on “Playing Pilgrims” – using the sections of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to comment on the Marches’ burdens and solutions to their problems. The girls all have problems we can identify with – materialism, envy, idleness, conceit, short-tempers – and try to overcome those burdens using the allegory of Christian. It is overtly Christian in tone but there are good lessons to learn (Jo’s lesson of learning to think before she speaks comes at the cost of losing her opportunity to travel Europe) and most of the girls’ lessons are worth learning for both men and women. No one likes a gossip or flirt (even now, when “flirt” translates into “player”), saying hurtful things can come with a price, money and material possessions don’t buy happiness, and continual idleness leads to problems.
Little Women isn’t a corset-burning feminst tract (the most recent movie adaptation tried to dial up the feminism by adding scenes: Meg doesn’t wear a corset and Professor Bhaer takes Jo to a suffragist meeting) but Alcott doesn’t have a novel full of doormat female characters, either (Meg starts heading to doormat status but she doesn’t have that much personality to start). Home and family are the central aspects of the novel and Alcott does emphasize loving relationships, rather than mercenary ones, so that is a step in the right direction, even if her women aren’t of the career variety.