Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women, a popular and influential nineteenth-century American novel about the coming of age of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, is familiar, charming, and—for those with a compatible upbringing—only a little bit too didactic.

It’s easy to admire Jo, the fiercely independent heroine of Little Women, a tomboy who cuts all her hair off, looks forward to spinsterhood, and aims to support herself by writing. I wonder if she’s a Mary Sue; others (doubtless more fruitfully) debate whether or not the book is feminist.

Is Jo a Mary Sue?

What’s a Mary Sue? Definitions vary, but it struck me that Jo might be one because she is obviously an idealized version of the author. TV Tropes, with the huge caveat that the term is extremely slippery, notes that:

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing.

Okay. How does Jo stack up against this (partial, controversial) list of characteristics?

female character
in a fanfic
obviously an idealized version of the author
mainly serves the purpose of wish fulfillment*
beautiful, having an unusual hair or eye color **
cool and exotic name
exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas
possesses rare skills
lacks realistic/relevant flaws or has only endearing ones***

*Jo does partly serve the purpose of wish fulfillment; when Alcott created the character, she wasn’t as famous as she was after the book became a success. In the novel, Jo says:

I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, something heroic or wonderful that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous, that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream.

That sounds like the author speaking about her own ambitions, don’t you think? On the other hand, some of Jo’s later life decisions are more traditional than Alcott’s own; Alcott clipped her character’s wings in the second half of the book.

**Jo is not a beauty, but she winds up with an unusual hairstyle.

***Arguably Jo does have flaws (including, for example, her short temper). However, the optimistic theme of the book is constant self-improvement. None of the characters’ flaws are as gritty, real, or persistent as the flaws of characters in modern novels.

By today’s standards, the book is certainly (and unsurprisingly) old-fashioned. It’s episodic, moralizing, and religious in a strangely vague way. However, people who like Little Women find Jo relatable rather than annoying, which to me means she’s not a Mary Sue.

The character people complain about in Little Women is Beth. She’s unrealistically sweet throughout. That doesn’t make her a Mary Sue, though; it makes her a flat character. I think she serves as a kind of foil or is perhaps just a plot device.

Is Little Women feminist?

Alcott herself advocated for women’s rights, and at least some of Jo’s behavior is not as traditional as that of her sisters or her real-world contemporaries.

However, Alcott moderated her message in the novel for the sake of mass appeal. Thus, some believe the book is feminist, if only mildly or not to the extent it could have been, and some say it falls short of the mark.

When I was in high school, I wrote a research paper arguing that Alcott’s later works (Rose in Bloom and Jo’s Boys in particular) were more feminist than her earlier works (Little Women in particular). I managed to dig up the file, so if you like you can read my paper “Increasing Feminism in the Works of Louisa May Alcott”.

Further Reading about Little Women

When and why I read Little Women

Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club chose this book for May 2019.

Genre: fiction (classic American children’s literature)
Date started / date finished:  28-Apr-19 to 03-May-19
Length: 465
ISBN: Project Gutenberg 514
Originally published in: 1868
Gutenberg link: Little Women