by REBECCA, September 30, 2013
On this day in 1868 Louisa May Alcott published the first volume of Little Women! Now, Little Women certainly can be a frustrating read nearly 150 years after its publication, in terms of the limits to women’s freedom and opportunities. Still, whether your Little Women of choice is the book or one of the many film adaptations, there are some legitimately kickass things about it.
1. Jo March! The Jo I picture is Katharine Hepburn from the 1933 movie version, because it was the first one I ever saw. Jo is a badass independent woman. She works to help support her family, she reads voraciously, she stands up to people who try and tell her or her sisters that they can’t do things because they’re women. She writes stories and plays for her sisters to read and act out. She befriends (rescues) poor Laurie from next door and makes him part of the family. She sells her hair so she can buy Marmee a train ticket to go visit their father when he’s been wounded. She moves to New York by herself and starts publishing her stories in the newspaper, then she writes Little Women, one of the most famous YA novels of all time!
2. Marmee! Marmee models feminism inflected with a strong message of charity. She teaches her daughters about generosity—to each other as well as to those less fortunate than themselves—and how they are strong and must, therefore, always help those who are weaker. In real life, of course, the character of Marmee is modeled on Louisa May Alcott’s own mother, Abigail May. May and her husband, Amos Branson Alcott, were well known transcendentalists. Transcendentalism (perhaps most often associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson) is the philosophy that the individual must be self-reliant, looking to herself for what is right and what is wrong, and that institutions (organized religion, institutions of higher learning) merely got in the way of finding that truth inside herself. It’s no wonder, then, that Marmee teaches Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy to think for themselves.
Sidebar: I saw Mark Adamo’s 1998 opera version of Little Women performed a few years ago. I didn’t like it, ultimately, but it was really interesting to see the philosophical underpinnings of the book translated into an operatic interpretation. It is a modernist opera, mostly tonal, so the music has the very spare, clean feeling that I imagine transcendentalists like Marmee would approve of. There is nothing extravagant or decorative, so the sisters’ lives seem stripped down to a pretty (to me) depressing baseline of boredom and charity, which was further emphasized by the costumes—plain dresses with smocks. I found the whole thing quite unpleasant, with none of the warmth of the book or the complexity of coming of age. Still, it’s not often one gets to see a YA novel become an opera, so that was kind of cool.
3. Sisters! There really is no better sister book than Little Women (well, except Practical Magic, which I gush about HERE!). Sure, there are moments when these sisters want to kill each other—I mean, if my sister had burned the only manuscript of my novel in the fire I sure as hell would let the sun go down on my goddamned anger, just like Jo does. But, then, if she fell through the ice while skating after me, I’d totally save her and forgive her. Even though Little Women does a lot of moralizing, it also does a great job of portraying the ups and downs of sisterhood! Indeed, I think most of us who have sisters have played the game where we decide which March sister we are and which ours sisters are, amiright?
4. Winter Wonderland! I know it’s not winter during the whole book, but Little Women always feels very Christmas-y to me. There’s the great stuff in the beginning about buying Christmas presents, and I love how Laurie’s grandfather gives Beth his piano and they sing Christmas carols around it, and how they take their food over to the Hummels’ house (though I guess that’s a big check in the no-good-deed-goes-unpunished column for poor Beth). All the scenes in the movies of the sisters ice skating and sledding in the New England snow . . . I just love it.
5. The Power of Imagination! Jo’s writing is the most talked about act of imagination in the book. But there are other imaginative inspirations in Little Women, too. Amy pursues her passion for art all the way to Paris and Beth loves music, even if it’s just her family as the audience. All the sisters act out the plays that Jo writes, repurposing things around the house for their sets and costumes. And my favorite is Jo’s decision to turn Aunt March’s mansion into a school that will allow any child to get an education. Jo turns a traditional act of private inheritance into a radical act of public service. You go, Jo!
Do you have a favorite version of Little Women? A favorite little woman? Tell me in the comments!