Thursday, September 22, 2005

Is Little Women a Feminist Novel?

Whether Alcott’s LW is a feminist novel depends on many things: namely, how one defines “feminist” and how one reads the book. I believe that LW is a feminist book, and I am defining feminist as a book that values the experiences of women and empowers women to see beyond socially prescribed gender roles and empowers them to be creative and take control of not only the text but also their lives.

Certainly one could do a reading of this book and see that it enforces separate spheres gender roles, that Jo may be a tomboy when she is younger but that she gradually grows into the “Mother Baher” role at the end, taming her wildness and her anger. Mr. March praises Meg for her “housewifely skills,” and Amy learns not to be selfish or vain. But Beth, who seems to embody the ideals of separate spheres, a true “angel in the house” who had no greater ambition than to stay at home and keep house, dies from what Barbara Sicherman calls a “failure of imagination.” The Castles in the Air chapter shows that the girls have creative dreams and ambitions, even though they don’t really achieve them in the end.

But the thing about the ending is that it’s so easy to ignore, and, indeed, that’s what many women have done. In the end, Jo gets married and gives up her writing (because Prof. Baher disapproves) to serve as a mother to not only her own children but to other peoples’ as well. Sicherman says that because the ending seems so forced and artificial that LW has become a “problem text” that women keep coming back to, and, in some cases, like Simone de Beauvoir, exercising their own creativity, letting our their inner Jo March, and rewriting the text. Though the ending conforms to social expectations for women at that time, we can see through the text the ways in which those expectations are resisted, especially by Jo, who not only wrote stories that she wanted to, but got paid for it! M. Carey Thomas, as well as de Beauvoir, imagined themselves in the role of Jo, they saw themselves and their ambitions to create and write in her and used Alcott’s text as an inspiration.

Another way in which LW can be considered a feminist novel is the way in which it values the experiences of women. At the time, under a doctrine of separate spheres, women were in the home, and the truly important stuff was what went on in the public world. Notably missing from the text of LW are references to the outside world. Events such as the Civil War are only relevant to the extent that they intrude upon the private world (i.e. Mr. March being away at war).

The experiences of the family and of private life are most important. Bonds between women are valued. Most of the men in these novels served a plot function rather than a character function. Mr. Brooke forces Meg to deal with her materialism, Mr. Laurence helps Beth to overcome her shyness; in short, the men are there to help the women on their quest for moral development. Laurie is the only truly developed male character, but that makes sense within this framework, because he’s essentially an honorary March girl. He even has a girl’s name. He participates in the Pickwick society and promises to play by the girls’ rules.

LW also shows that being a good woman isn’t all sitting around the house, being nice, and looking pretty. It takes work. She shows us Meg’s experiences making the jelly and struggling with balancing being a good mother as well as a good wife. Alcott also dispels the notion that women are somehow just naturally better than men, naturally more moral, sweeter, kinder, etc. She shows us that not only does Jo have to deal with her anger but Marmee, who has been set up almost as this paragon of virtue who is looked up to by all her girls, struggles with anger every day of her life.

In the end, when all the girls are married off and have families of their own (except Beth, being dead and all), they come back and Marmee reminds them that their bond, the mother daughter bond, the sisterly bond, was what’s most important in life. Important stuff may be going on in the outside world, but, ultimately, it’s the relationships that matter. So, it seems that Alcott does endorse the idea of separate spheres in LW, but somewhat radically suggests that the private sphere is more important than the public one.

So, in the end, while LW does have this overt endorsement of separate spheres ideology and can be read as a set of instructions on how to become a good woman, it can also be read as valuing women’s relationships and experiences in a way that they usually weren’t valued or appreciated. Though (and kind of because) it has a problematic ending, women have been able to disregard the fact that Jo eventually is tamed and see themselves in Jo, to be able to aspire to write, to achieve, to be successful. I do believe that LW is a feminist novel precisely because it allows the readers to interact with the text and empower themselves, as Thomas and De Beauvoir did.


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