I can’t remember how many times I’ve read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women; at least twice, maybe more; add to that at least one bad film adaptation (Winona Ryder and Gabriel Byrne, anyone?). When I picked it up this time, I already knew that Beth was going to die and Jo would turn Laurie down, and I assumed that I could read the book from the perspective of a detached observer, concerned primarily with its vaunted feminism, progressive politics, and practical philosophy. Yet page 390 found me sobbing silently (embarrassed, I didn’t want my husband or kids to ask why I was crying) over Beth’s passing, as did a handful of lesser tragedies; I often found myself comforted by Marmee’s wise words of advice to her girls and empathized deeply with the small indignities of the Marches’ genteel poverty. Plenty of moments in the book also made me cringe or scoff, but Little Women clearly retains tremendous emotional power, despite its flaws. I found myself wondering how this nearly 150-year-old book could feel so present and relevant in the age of antibiotics and divorce?
The answer, in more ways than one, is Jo. Although Little Women is ostensibly about the March family, and dwells in detail on the lives of all the four sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—Jo March is the true protagonist and heroine of the novel. And who doesn’t love Jo? She’s a free-spirited tomboy who cares little for social graces and mores, values her own independence above all else, and trusts her instincts, even when they run counter to expectation. She’s also a quick-tempered hothead, but even her supposed faults look like virtues to those of us who—even now—thrill to see a female character speak her mind.
Aside from being one of the most appealing female characters in the history of literature, Jo is also the center of the novel’s socially and morally progressive message. And it is a message: in a passage that is almost certainly ironic, the editor of a paper to which Jo is trying to sell her stories tells her, “People want to be amused, not preached at, you know. Morals don’t sell nowadays.” Little Women seems to consciously challenge this proscription by preaching and entertaining, and the degree to which it remains a beloved book is the measure of its success. Its moral, played out through the trajectory of Jo’s development, is as appealing now as in the Gilded Age: work confers dignity, poverty is not ignoble, being true to oneself is more important than money or prestige.
Sometimes the moral sincerity of Little Women is irritating, but more often I found myself seduced by it. Perhaps it’s just because I identified with the financial stresses on the March family, most of whom work at noble professions for little remuneration. Like them my husband and I also work hard at things we love that we feel confer value on society but often struggle to make ends meet and give our kids the comfortable life we hoped to. But who could fail to be both inspired and comforted by Marmee’s speech to the girls on love and money (and the dangers of their mutual imbrication): “My dear girls, 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. Money is a needful and precious thing – and when well used, a noble thing – but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.” I felt like Marmee was speaking directly to me. While it may be silly to take counsel and comfort from a novel, I always have, and reading this I realized that all the choices I’ve made in my life that I question every day were the right ones (for the record, the one choice I never question is my choice of husband, since that was so obviously a good decision – it’s the other ones I worry over). So thank you, Marmee and Louisa May, for that.
Again it is Jo who embodies this advice and its morality of choice when she confounds the traditional marriage plot by refusing to marry Laurie, the wealthy and handsome friend of her youth. She tells him, “I’m happy as I am, and love my liberty too well to be in any hurry to give it up for any mortal man.” As it turns out, Jo does eventually marry, accepting the proposal of the older, poor, German scholar Professor Bhaer. But while marriage to Laurie would have meant a life of leisure, in which the dictates of her high position would have circumscribed her choices tremendously, marriage to the poor Professor necessitates that Jo continue to earn, work, and contribute to both her marriage and her community on her own terms. In the end, with a bequest from her rich aunt, Jo devises fulfilling work for herself and her husband, setting up a school for disadvantaged boys. Is it a little disappointing that Jo gives up her literary career, or that she is more concerned with rescuing boys than girls? Of course. But does Jo still offer one of the most expansive, rich, and sympathetic characterizations of a woman in all of American literature? Yes, and for this we can forgive her her faults, and continue to love Little Women.