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The Science Survey

Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ and Its Relevance Today

The well-known novel and its various adaptations are, on the surface, a coming-of-age story of the four March sisters set in the 1860s. On a deeper level, however, ‘Little Women’ shows the different forms of feminism that the sisters take on as they strive to forge their own identity.
Here is the title page from the first American edition of Alcott’s ‘Little Women.’ (Photo Credit: AC85.Aℓ194L.1869, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Louisa Alcott’s Life

Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 1832 – March 6, 1888) was an American novelist, storyteller, and poet. She grew up in an idealistic, progressive household where emphasis was placed on the importance of education and the nourishment of one’s mind. 

Her father, a brilliant man, opened schools, challenged modern thinking, and was a strong advocate for women and African American rights. Alcott’s affinity for writing and learning can be partly attributed to her father, who encouraged perfection and mental stability. He was also acquainted with many influential men who would pass their teachings onto Alcott. However, he was often absent from his children’s lives in his fight for civil rights and unhesitatingly turned down jobs he thought were below his stature of intelligence. 

This inevitably left Alcott to grow up in insurmountable debt that left her mother struggling to keep the family afloat. To assist her mother, Alcott quickly started working at a young age, taking on jobs ranging from a governess to a seamstress. Writing was her escape. “I wish I was rich, I was good, and we were all a happy family this day” wrote Alcott in one of her many scripts. Her literary success grew when she began to write more often about injustice and mishaps in the hospitals and her experience as a nurse during the war. Writing was her way of expressing her feelings, bringing awareness to medical malpractice, and advocating for civil rights. She would eventually release more books until she received definite fame from her critically acclaimed novel, Little Women.

Little Women 2019 

The novel Little Women was only one of many of Alcott’s works, but it was one of the first to have achieved widespread fame. The novel has been a treasured book that has grown up with several generations of women since its publication in 1868. Its coming-of-age story of four sisters growing up in Massachusetts during the Civil War, and its feminist themes touched the hearts of many young women during the book’s initial circulation. The four sisters and their empowerment through journeys of self-discovery in a patriarchal, misogynist society were relatable for many women. Accompanied by a variety of dynamic characters like Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, a family friend and eventual love interest, and Aunt March, a wealthy but grumpy family member, the novel has made itself iconic in the world of literature.

The intricacies and circumstances of Alcott’s childhood are also projected in the novel; the March sisters depend heavily on their mother, Margaret “Marmee” March, and view her as a guiding force and a counselor that transcends the typical bonds between mother and daughter. On the other hand, their father is absent for a majority of the book, is said to have lost all his previous wealth in an ardent pursuit of human rights, and is described only when discussion of the war for civil rights is brought up. It is known that Jo March, in particular, was an exact projection of Alcott’s own life, as they both shared ideas of feminist independence and a powerful affinity for writing. They also shared strong ideas about love; both thought that love was a restriction and a barrier of freedom. 

Since its publishing in 1868, it has been adapted into several films and plays, the most well-known being the 1994 version and the most recent, the 2019 version. Directed and written by renowned director Greta Gerwig, Little Women (2019) is a film that tells the story of the four sisters as they grow into adulthood in a patriarchal, limited society. 

Margaret “Meg” March:

As the oldest of the March sisters, Meg is characterized as a proper, feminine, and tidy girl. Of all the sisters, Meg seems to reflect the 19th-century stereotypes of women the most: they are expected to be vain about their appearances, prioritize family over all else, and have a mastery of handcraft and house chores. 

Growing up, Meg struggles between her desire to live a luxurious, carefree life and her adamant pride as an older sister to set an example for her younger sisters. She battles with expressing pride for who she is now and what she has, versus dressing in fanciful dresses and attending grand parties. At one such grand party, Meg discards her identity temporarily and roleplays as Daisy, a rich, well-off girl who has the luxury of leisure. When Laurie calls her out for pretending to be someone she is not, Meg desperately tells him, “Let me have my fun tonight. I’ll be desperately good for the rest of my life.” Meg strongly desires to be among the richer girls, who do not have to worry about finances and unsavory living conditions. Her inability to appreciate what she has is a trait that inhabits her from genuine happiness and contentment. 

As promised, after the party, Meg returns to being a girl whose family depends on her. When she meets John, a friend of Laurie’s and a sensible, but impecunious man, she quickly falls in love with him. Meg eventually gives up her dreams of becoming an actress and having a grandiose, luxurious life in favor of marrying the man she loves despite his less-than-esteemed lifestyle. She learns how to love and appreciate John despite his shortcomings and learns to find absolute happiness with what she is offered.

However, Jo objects to Meg’s decision, thinking Meg is foolish for giving up her life-long dream and settling for a standardized role that fits into the premise of stereotypical women in the 19th century. When Jo pleads to Meg and beseeches her to live her life on a stage, Meg tells Jo, “Just because my dreams are different than yours [it] doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. I want a home, and a family. And I’m willing to work and struggle, but I want to do it with John.”

Meg’s decision to get married may initially seem like a hopeless acceptance of her role in society, but Meg argues that being a mother and a wife is an overlooked and undermined job. Her decision to settle down is not a sign of submission to the patriarchy or a sign of giving up, but a symbol of determination and desire to prove that women do not have to object outright to society’s expectations in order to prove their independence and capabilities. 

 The struggles of marriage are often overlooked and ignored; it was a common idea that married women were not capable of, or were restricted from, having any troubles or struggles. They were expected to be subservient and to never complain about their husbands. Meg’s continuous struggle to find satisfaction in her role and to work out any scuffles in her marriage with John contradicts the perfect-picture facade that is placed on marriage by society. She continues to fight for her self-expression in an otherwise restrictive marriage and makes the point that women can continue to exercise their freedom and enjoy their lives even after being bound to someone else.

Josephine “Jo” March:

Jo March, the second eldest and the tomboy of the sisters, constantly battles the stereotypes of women and what is expected of her from society. Growing up, she dresses shabbily rather than pristinely, adopts a crass attitude rather than a polite one, and rejects vanity in pursuit of knowledge. She makes a hobby of writing stories on any parchment she can gather, and relishes in writing plays for her and her sisters to act out. Jo expresses herself in her work and places her passion for writing above all else, convinced that her writing will give her a voice in society that is shut down otherwise.

Her adamant attitude towards misogyny and her will to become the exact opposite of what is expected of her becomes her key mindset. However, her desire to reject patriarchy and empower femininity eventually becomes more of an obsession than an ideal, causing her to project her beliefs on others and adopt an unhealthy determination to be independent. 

When Laurie, her long-time childhood friend, confesses his enduring love to her, she pleadingly tells him, “Listen, you’ll find some lovely, accomplished girl who will love you and adore you, and she’s gonna make a fine mistress for your fine house, but I wouldn’t. Look at me! I’m homely, and I’m awkward, and I’m odd… Teddy, I don’t think I will ever marry. I’m happy as I am, and I love my liberty too much to be in any hurry to give it up.” Jo views marriage on the premise that it is akin to imprisonment, and is convinced that love will chain her down instead of giving her the romanticized freedom that society claims it does. 

After the confession, Jo escapes to New York to find peace of mind and works as a tutor while continuing to write her stories. However, she comes to a standstill the first time she tries to publish her work, when she is told that her work is controversial, and when the publisher tells her, “If the main character’s a girl, make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead, either way.” These unexpected limits trouble Jo, who has always found freedom in writing and has never imagined that even fiction could not free women of the shackles placed on them by society. 

In the midst of processing this, Jo is beckoned home because of her sister Beth’s illness. When Beth dies because her scarlet fever is unsatisfactorily treated, Jo realizes that pure stubbornness and a desire to be different will not hold the world steady and give her what she wants. She begins to lose hope in ever writing again, beseeching that the measly profits from her writing didn’t save her sister. Simultaneously, Jo watches as her other sisters find their own paths in life, and she is gripped by an unshaken fear of loneliness as the world moves on and leaves her behind.

The feeling of watching her sisters embrace society and mold themselves into respectable women frightens Jo, who has long believed that she is unfit for such a life. In the middle of turmoil, she turns to her mother and says, “I just feel like women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it. But I’m so lonely.” Her iconic monologue about women and their unique aspects being neglected in favor of traditional misogynistic preachings about marriage and domesticity reflects the ideas that Jo has carried with her all her life. 

However, her admittance of loneliness sheds light on the overshadowed premise that a woman’s vulnerability is what allows her to truly demonstrate her bravery. Jo does not have to reject femininity just to prove that she is a feminist; her unrestrained creativity and desire for absolute freedom are all traits of a strong, free-willed woman. Even if she eventually is bound to marriage, she learns that she can continue to freely do what she wants without the worry that she will have to discard all that she is.

Elizabeth “Beth” March:

Beth March is the third sister and the pacifist amongst the sisters, who wishes for nothing more but happiness and perseverance for her family. Marked by a gentle shyness that is distinct from any of her other sisters, Beth is void of any material desire and represents the women in society who are content with what they have and do not wish for anything more. She prefers the comfort of her home over social gatherings, and she never puts herself in a situation that may bring either her or her sisters discomfort. 

She grows up with an appreciation for music, particularly from playing the piano, and is at her happiest when surrounded by the happiness of her loved ones. While this docile mindset seems weak, Beth’s contentment with her life reminds us to value all the small things, and to find satisfaction in everything that you have. Even when she falls ill to scarlet fever and has her freedom limited, Beth never stays idle and continues to display her quiet strength. She continues knitting scarves for little children who pass by the house, and she never complains about her weak body or busy sisters.

When Jo comes back from New York to accompany her through her sickness, the two sisters take a remarkable trip to the beach, where Jo reads Beth stories like she did when they were younger. 

When Jo tells Beth that she has stopped writing her stories, Beth adamantly tells her, “Write something for me. You’re a writer. Even before anyone knew or paid you. I’m very sick and you must do what I say. Do what Marmee taught us to do. Do it for someone else.” Beth takes everything that she is taught to heart, and no one believes in her sisters more than she does. Even though she does not share the same ambition or fuel as her sisters, she has absolute faith in them. She reminds Jo to stay true to herself, without any need for something greater. 

Her death represents the realization that life is meant to be lived with no regrets, with the knowledge that you could go out at any second and still be content. Her death affects Jo in particular, who is given the strength to continue writing even if it has not saved her sister or provided her anything of substantial value. She realizes that in her heart she has always been a writer, and that it is unlike her to succumb to the jeers and disapproval of others when her stories were always meant for her and her loved ones.

Amy March:

Amy March, the youngest sister, grows up conceited and spoiled. As she is often overlooked, she tries to fill shoes that are too big for her, creating a recurring spiff between her and Jo, who she has expressed to have been “second to” her entire life. She often uses large words or tries to appear more pristine than she actually is in order to appear more womanly or grown. She has big dreams growing up and adopts an affection for the arts, often found doodling and finding fascination in plays.

However, when Beth becomes sick and Meg begins preparations for marriage, Amy is told by her Aunt March that she must be the one to rescue her family from their restricted little life. Aunt March convinces Amy that, “No one makes their own way – not really – least of all a woman. You’ll need to marry well.” She has no regard for Amy’s talents and urges her to forget them in pursuit of marriage. To that end, Amy balls up her dreams and casts aside her passions in order to do what is right for her family, eventually setting her mind on marrying a rich man so that her family can live in ease even if it is not what she wants. 

In Europe, she tries to practice painting and art, a passion she has harbored since childhood, in an attempt to garner fame and produce new ways to support her family. When she is brought to the brink of frustration because of her lack of prodigious skill, she resigns to having to live the rest of her life as “an ornament to society,” declaring that she would either be “great or nothing.” Amy, upon realizing her lack of talent as compared to the renowned geniuses of history, surrenders to what she believes to be the only option women have left in society. Only immense talent can bring fame to a woman, and anything less is woefully unacknowledged.

In a following conversation with Laurie, she expresses her dwindled position in society and her lack of freedom, telling Laurie that she believes love is not spontaneous in nature, but voluntary. When he argues that the poets might disagree, she says, “Well, I’m not a poet. I’m just a woman. And as a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family. And if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. If we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property. So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.” 

Amy adopts the mindset that women do not fall in love by nature, but rather by their own will. This attitude is a reflection of women’s restrained roles in society and their eventual resignation to getting married in order to find what little respect and status they can, and not because of genuine love.

 In a society where working women are distrusted and undermined, Amy March, who has long believed she is too ordinary and unfit to garner herself any respect or nobility, feels trapped with no way out. She is pressured to marry and declares that her decision to get married to Fred Vaughn, an opulent nobleman, is not because she feels sincere affection for the man, but because his wealth and affluence will surely give her and her family leisure like never before. To her, marriage is a decision grounded by pecuniary resolve, and not by romantical preliminaries. 

Review and Comments

The four sisters in the novel Little Women each represent a different form of feminism; Meg’s resilience against typical feminine roles, Jo’s determination to tear apart the shackles placed on women, Beth’s reminder that life can still be enjoyed in a limiting society, and Amy’s passion for expressing her talents are all characteristics that women today may share. The coming-of-age story of the four sisters is relatable to many young girls that have experienced the ordinary pains of growing up, and both the novel and movie are spectacles that can be received by all generations. 

Director Greta Gerwig’s understanding of the American values and the feminine struggles to carve an identity in a marginalized society creates a balance between a sweet tale of sisterhood and the consistent anger that is prevalent throughout the movie. Her decision to shuffle the timeline in her novel and constantly switch between perspectives offers many cinematic parallels. Some of the most heartbreaking parallels exist in the transition from childhood bliss and innocence to adulthood pressure and hopelessness. The four sisters carry anger with them throughout their entire lives: anger directed at the limitations of society and the misfortunes they have had to endure. The representation of 19th century women and, more importantly, the relatability factor that can be found in all the characters, has allowed this novel to be a timeless tale to be passed down for generations.

To watch Greta Gerwig’s Little Women from 2019 (streaming fee required), click HERE.

The four sisters in the novel Little Women each represent a different form of feminism; Meg’s resilience against typical feminine roles, Jo’s determination to tear apart the shackles placed on women, Beth’s reminder that life can still be enjoyed in a limiting society, and Amy’s passion for expressing her talents are all characteristics that women today may share.

About the Contributor
Nicole J. Zhou, Staff Reporter
Nicole J. Zhou is an Editorial Editor for ‘The Science Survey.' She reads and edits articles written about several topics, ranging from politics and technology to nature and art. What Nicole finds most appealing about this job is the privilege of being able to witness the raw opinions and feelings somebody might have on a certain topic; she thinks that there is nothing more informative and insightful than reading a person’s thoughts. Alongside this passion are photographs that are able to tell a story transcending any language barrier or communication. Nicole likes seeing and taking pictures of things that are seemingly orthodox, like the eye-catching architecture of a particular building or the spectacular collisions of nature. The most exciting parts of this hobby are sharing the pictures with others and conveying their significance through writing. Regardless of what Nicole ends up doing in the future, she hopes that she can continue documenting her life and never stop sharing her writings or pictures with others.