Loved by mothers and daughters for more than a century, Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women attained a higher level of popularity than any of her other books. Even though the book was clearly directed toward a female audience, it has been said of Little Women than even from a male point of view the book and its sequels are very good (Chesterton). Though Little Women is known mostly for its characters and amusing stories (Gale), it becomes clear to a careful reader that Alcott weaves into her stories her opinions on certain issues. Her reform-minded father and her mother both encouraged her to live independently and stand up for her opinions (Gale “Overview”; Magill, “Little Women” 1264). The issues Alcott supported included coeducation and abolition, but causes Alcott especially supported were women’s rights and women’s suffrage (Gale; Gale “Overview”). In fact, after she had become famous, the novelist used her popularity to aid her causes and became the first woman in Concord to register to vote (Magill, “Louisa May Alcott” 7). It should not be surprising, then, that it is Alcott’s feminism which most influences Little Women and which dominates her later works in particular. Sometimes Alcott speaks out quite strongly through her characters, but other times she must make sacrifices, toning down the opinions in order to insure that her books succeed. In her earlier works, such as Little Women, Alcott is most restrained, but in her novel Rose in Bloom, she is less so, and in Jo’s Boys, she hardly restrains her opinions at all.
Feminism in Little Women
The feminist ideas Alcott expresses through speech and action in Little Women are fairly moderate compared to many of her later works. The novel expresses much of the frustration Alcott felt on account of the non-existence of employment opportunities for women in mid-nineteenth century America. The character Jo, modeled after Alcott herself, experiences first-hand many of the same trials and frustrations Alcott encountered while trying to embark on a career as a writer (Magill, “Louisa May Alcott” 7). Like Alcott, Jo writes sensational stories, anonymously or under a pseudonym, to please the newspapers in order to make money (Magill, “Louisa May Alcott” 6). When Jo goes to the editor’s office to try to sell her stories, she is embarrassed because she is not respected by the men who run the paper (Alcott 378). Alcott clearly advocates that women try to earn money themselves, especially in a family struggling with finances like the March family, but she discovers that society stand firmly planted in the way (Gale “Overview”). Critic G. K. Chesterton notes that “Little Women was written by a woman for women . . . . For women are the only realists; their whole object in life is to pit their realism against the extravagant, excessive, and occasionally drunken idealism of men.” Alcott herself was very much a part of this struggle and used her novels as weapons in that struggle.
Jo and Jo’s struggles with society are central to the novel. Jo is the heroine of Little Women, the character whose story provides the interest in the novel (Janeway). She is a temperamental but enthusiastic tomboy who enjoys fresh air, exercise, writing, and acting. She views typical female dress and manners as stereotypical and displeasing, for they represent the idea that women are merely social ornaments (Elbert). Jo, however, is exempt from most of the female expectations for a time, for she is granted her freedom by both Alcott, her creator, and Mrs. March, her mother.
Jo is a unique creation: the one young woman in nineteenth century fiction who maintains her individual independence, who gives up no part of her autonomy as payment for being born a woman–and who gets away with it. (Janeway)
Jo, as a female and a freedom-loving individual, exactly represents Alcott’s own desires and survives as a lively figure of inspiration to Little Women‘s readers.
Even though Alcott rails against the conventions of the day, defying some of them through Jo, she does choose to abide by some of the more deeply ingrained expectations of her literary contemporaries. Little Women, after all, was written to please readers and to sell, not to revolutionize society (Magill, “Louisa May Alcott” ). An example of the sacrifices Alcott made is that rebellious Jo, who had vowed not to marry, who was modeled after Alcott, who never married, settles down and marries anyhow. She marries a German professor named Mr. Bhaer, who has all the feminist qualities Alcott wished men had; he is warm, affectionate, and good with children (Elbert). He discourages Jo from writing sensational stories because he thinks they are trash and knows that Jo herself is ashamed of what she writes (Alcott 387). He supports and encourages her otherwise, in her writing, reading, and learning German, and Jo loves him for it. It has been argued, despite all Mr. Bhaer’s positive effects on Jo, that, in their marriage, many of “the traits that made Jo so endearing and interesting are sacrificed. Because Alcott herself never married and evidenced feminist concerns all her life, the outcome she devises for Jo seems a sell-out that is unworthy of her” (Magill, “Louisa May Alcott” 9). However, it should not be forgotten that the entire second half of Little Women, in which Jo falls in love with Professor Bhaer, was written explicitly because Alcott’s readers wanted to see the March girls married off. Perhaps, though, the sacrifice was not so great, for Alcott makes Jo not a submissive wife to an older man, but a capable mistress of the professor’s school full of children and an able mother of two healthy sons of her own as well (Janeway).
Feminism in Rose in Bloom
If Alcott took a few liberties with Jo in Little Women, she took a good many more with Rose in her novel Rose in Bloom. Some critics have even remarked that the feminist content of the book overshadows both its plot and characterization (MacDonald, “Louisa May Alcott” 31). Such a statement has only a little truth in it, however, for Alcott still retains some balance between the traditional and the extreme. One traditional view, according to literary critic Ruth K. MacDonald, is that all women should master the housewifely skills of cooking, cleaning, and sewing. Alcott believes these skills necessary even for women who are wealthy, or, like Alcott’s character Rose, will be one day, who have servants to do such work. The reason Alcott supports such an unfeminist-sounding idea is that she hopes no woman, however wealthy, would lead an idle or wasted life, or that in time of need would fail to be able to perform such useful tasks as needed (“Louisa May Alcott” 29). Therefore, Rose, the young heiress, must comply with Alcott’s requirements and take up housework as instructed by her aunts.
Rose’s Uncle Alec agrees with many of Rose’s feminist ideas, but like his novelist creator, he takes a moderate stand on the issue of Rose’s upbringing. On the one hand, notes critic MacDonald in her book Louisa May Alcott, Uncle Alec encourages his niece to get lots of fresh air and exercise with her seven boy cousins rather than stay pent up in the house doing girls’ work. He teaches her how to milk a cow, how to garden, how to sail, and lets her run wild with her cousins. But in addition to this type of learning, he requires her to take up the trade of housekeeping. He considers her education incomplete “until she can produce for him a loaf of brown bread and a shirt with neat buttonholes, those two accomplishments being emblematic of mastery over a number of lesser domestic accomplishments” (53). Practical Uncle Alec also discourages Rose from wearing a fashionable walking suit which she admires, but finds uncomfortable, on account of the uncomfortable corset. He comments that “‘Nature knows how to mould a woman better than any corset-maker’ and threatens to burn the ‘instrument of torture,'” except that it would smell awful (qtd. in MacDonald, Louisa May Alcott 52). So Rose consents to wear the different sort of suit which her uncle makes up for her to wear, and although it is far more traditional, both Alcott and Rose seem to prefer it (MacDonald, Louisa May Alcott 53). Through this glimpse of the uncle, Alcott’s own opinions on female education and dress reform become blatantly apparent as she uses her characters as mouthpieces and puppets.
Indeed it is in Rose in Bloom that Alcott ascends her soapbox while Rose, merely a girl, acts as her puppet. The character of Rose is in reality too young to be as bitter as she comes across, and it is Alcott’s bitterness which is heard, and not Rose’s (MacDonald, “Louisa May Alcott” 31). In an angry and rather unrealistically long speech, Rose responds to being told that she will grow up, be happily married off, and remain an accessory to some man’s home.
‘We’ve got minds and souls as well as hearts; ambition and talents as well as beauty and accomplishments; and we want to live and learn as well as love and be loved. I’m sick of being told that is all a woman is fit for! I won’t have anything to do with love until I prove that I am something besides a housekeeper and a baby-tender!’ (qtd. in Showalter)
In the same breath, Rose voices Alcott’s idea that women should have a career, should be able to prove themselves just the same as any man should (MacDonald, “Louisa May Alcott” 30). Of the startled boy who told her she would simply be happily married off the same as all women are, she viciously demands whether he would be as happy if her were ordered to marry and die having accomplished nothing whatsoever with his life (MacDonald, Louisa May Alcott 57). If the poor boy was thinking that Rose had gotten a little carried away, a reader may likewise wonder the same of Alcott herself.
Feminism in Jo’s Boys
Jo’s Boys carries the themes of women’s rights and feminism further than Alcott had ever ventured before. The novel describes the lives of the boys and girls who come to the school run by the now grown and married Jo March Bhaer. Though other major themes in the novel are the coeducation and educational reform at “Mrs. Jo’s school,” the prevailingly blatant emphasis still lies with feminism (MacDonald, “Louisa May Alcott” 35). Perhaps Alcott felt that because both her fame and the popularity of the March family stories assured the success of her writings, she would no longer need to worry about writing only what her readers wanted to hear (MacDonald, Louisa May Alcott 42). Thus, in Jo’s Boys, Alcott preaches the feminist gospel louder than ever, through the dialog of the characters and the events of the story (MacDonald, Louisa May Alcott 41). Mrs. Jo scolds the male students for looking down on their female classmates, killing two birds with one stone by advocating both coeducation and respect for females at the same time (MacDonald, “Louisa May Alcott” 35). One student, Josie, mirrors the vivacity and outspoken feminism exhibited by both Jo and her creator during their respective childhoods when she questions Grandfather March as to whether women must always obey men, simply for their greater strength (MacDonald, Louisa May Alcott 39). Another student, named Nan Harding, is a rowdy tomboy, modeled again after Alcott and Jo, who shows the boys that in both athletics and academics they would have to work hard to keep up (MacDonald, Louisa May Alcott 33). Presumably on account of all the feminist characters and attitudes found in Jo’s Boys, Alcott makes a last half-hearted concession to readers who tire of independent females by including at least one girl who becomes a satisfied little housewife (MacDonald, “Louisa May Alcott” 35). Daisy, the daughter of Jo’s older sister Meg, marries and remains as content as her mother, who did the same a generation before (MacDonald, Louisa May Alcott 42-3). Despite this glaring exception, Alcott manages to keep the spotlight on the characters who do retain their freedom, who become successful as none of Alcott’s previous characters were allowed to be.
A major point in the novel Jo’s Boys, as a matter of fact, is that all women need not necessarily marry at all. Even earlier on, when writing Little Women, Alcott professed such a belief. She changed the title of the second half of Little Women from “Wedding Marches” simply because she felt it might imply that marriage is the central event in any girl’s life (Elbert). However, despite the change in title, all the characters in Little Women are dutifully married off eventually, while in Jo’s Boys Alcott allows almost all her female characters to pursue careers rather than husbands. Mrs. Jo makes clear her opinion to her students, lecturing to them about their future. She notes that “being married is not the only end of life that they may look forward to, and that being a spinster is not the curse it used to be,” reminding them also that “‘old maids aren’t sneered at half as much as they used to be, since some of them have grown famous and proved that woman isn’t a half but a whole being, and can stand alone'” (qtd. in MacDonald, Louisa May Alcott 42). One of the famous and successful spinsters Mrs. Jo refers to here may even be Alcott herself, who felt she had proved that women need not marry (MacDonald, Louisa May Alcott 42). Alcott knew and tries to convey that there are possibilities for women if they are motivated enough to seek them out (MacDonald, “Louisa May Alcott” 24). Interestingly, this opinion seems to be in direct conflict with Alcott’s earlier opinion that society did not offer enough opportunities for women in careers. Maybe, having tasted the success of Little Women and its sequels, the novelist reversed her opinions on the subject altogether.
Alcott especially emphasizes the fate of Nan Harding, the tomboy who becomes a doctor. While both Jo and Nan had vowed never to be tied down, only Nan’s vow is kept (MacDonald, Louisa May Alcott 33). Jo, of course, has gone and married despite her statement in Little Women: “‘I don’t believe I shall ever marry. I’m happy as I am, and love my liberty too well to be in a hurry to give it up for any mortal man'” (Alcott 398). Jo March Bhaer looks with envy upon her student Nan, who was allowed to fulfill her dreams through a successful career instead of marrying, and even goes so far as to wonder if she should not have married herself. In the end she decides that although she would have enjoyed a writing career and remaining single, she is content with her husband and her school (MacDonald, Louisa May Alcott 42). Perhaps Alcott, like Mrs. Jo, was reflecting on the past and regretted the compromise she made regarding Jo’s destiny. Regardless of previous writings, however, Jo’s Boys truly spoke Alcott’s opinions.
Louisa May Alcott certainly progressed as a writer. She began as a rebellious young woman trying to sell her sensational stories to reluctant male editors in order to support her financially struggling family. She is now a legend in American literature, one who crossed new thresholds in realistic, enjoyable family novels such as the classic Little Women. Let not the world overlook, however, the ideological contributions in its effort to appreciate her technical achievement. Her ideas may not have been new ones, but the manner in and the degree to which she found the courage to express them is significant enough to immortalize her writings.
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Boston: Little, n.d.
Chesterton, G. K. “Louisa Alcott.” A Handful of Authors: Essays on Books and Writers. Ed. Dorothy Collins. N.p.: Sheed, 1953. 163-67. DISCovering Authors, 1993.
Elbert, Sarah. A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and “Little Women”. N.p.: Temple UP, 1984. N. pag. DISCovering Authors, 1993.
Gale Research. “Overview of Author’s Works and Career.” DISCovering Authors, 1993.
—. “Alcott, Louisa May: 1832–1888; American.” DISCovering Authors, 1993.
Janeway, Elizabeth. “Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and Louisa.” New York Times Book Review. 29 Sept. 1968: 42, 44, 46. DISCovering Authors, 1993.
MacDonald, Ruth K. “Louisa May Alcott.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 42. Ed. Glenn E. Estes. Detroit: Gale, 1985. 18-36. 42 vols.
—. Louisa May Alcott. Boston: Twayne, 1983.
Magill, Frank N., ed. “Little Women.” 1,300 Critical Evaluations of Selected Novels and Plays. Vol. 2. Englewood Cliffs: Salem, 1978. 1264-5. 4 vols.
—, ed. “Louisa May Alcott.” Great Women Writers. New York: Holt, 1994. 6-10.
Showalter, Elaine. Alternative Alcott. By Louisa May Alcott. N.p.: Rutgers UP, 1988. ix-xliii. DISCovering Authors, 1993.
Works Also Consulted
Downs, Robert B. Books That Changed the World. Chicago: American Library, 1956.
Gerould, Katharine Fullerton. Modes and Morals. N.p.: Scribner’s, 1920. DISCovering Authors, 1993.
Smith, Herbert F. The Popular American Novel: 1865-1920. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Stern, Madeleine B. “Louisa M. Alcott: An Appraisal.” The New England Quarterly. 22.4 (1949): 475-98. DISCovering Authors. 1990.
Lucy Day Werts
English IIH-2nd per.
April 15, 1997
About the Essay
This ~2,500-word paper was written by my sixteen-year-old self, under the direction of Woodward Academy tenth-grade English teacher Mrs. McNash, undoubtedly with the assistance of my wonderful mother. I remember photocopying books at the library and pasting quotes on notecards.
I’m pretty sure one of my classmates typed the final version for me. There were computers at school, but I didn’t have one at home at the time, only an electronic typewriter. In those days I was used to writing everything out on paper in pencil, and typing was a laborious hunt-and-peck process… kind of like how I type on a smartphone now.
I don’t know what grade I got. I don’t have the printout handy, just the file, carefully copied over from the 3.5″ floppy disk it was originally saved on and converted to a contemporary file format. We used to have to name the files using eight characters or less, and each disk could only hold 1MB. Times have changed.
Read Alcott’s Works
I dug up this essay because I recently re-read Little Women with Singapore’s Hungry Hundred Book Club.
You can freely download many of Alcott’s works at Gutenberg.org.
Note that “Good Wives” is the title of the second half of Little Women and these days is not considered a separate novel.
- Little Women (150th anniversary edition)
- The Annotated Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and John Matteson
- Little Men (sequel to Little Women)
- Jo’s Boys (sequel to Little Men)
- Eight Cousins
- Rose in Bloom (sequel to Eight Cousins)
- The Inheritance (Alcott’s first novel, unpublished until 1997)
(There are others. See the Wikipedia article on Alcott or whatever for a more complete list.)