Little Women’s latest adaptation to screen, by Greta Gerwig, was the last movie I’ve seen in the cinemas before the lockdown pushed the experience of going to the movies down in our pasts as a distant memory. As I am a fan of Gerwig’s work, I was anticipating the release of the movie months before it hit the screen. And when it was time, well, I was in love with it.
Yet Little Women was never a book I had any interest in reading, at any point of my childhood or young adulthood. I guess I was never too big on American Literature in the first place, anyway. So the first time I picked up the book was only a few days ago. And now I am… confused.
To me, it feels like this book was written by two very different people, or one very confused “feminist.” Because however I look at it, I just can’t really wrap my head around how a character like Jo could exist in this book, while her existence in the first place contradicts everything Alcott preaches in the story.
I love Jo. I think she is a very interesting character, especially within her historical context, and that there is a lot to unpack about her in terms of gender/queer theory. It’s not just that she is a female character with her own interests (like becoming an author) because she’s not the only March sister who has that qualification. It’s actually how she presents herself from the very first pages of the book, how she struggles to accept the label of gender plastered on her only on the basis of her biological sex. She insistently performs masculinity and declares herself a man, many times, throughout the novel.
But. This is a moral book. Even Alcott clearly hints to that at one point in the story, when the Professor shames Jo into give up writing sensational stories (yuck, by the way). In almost every chapter of the novel, especially through Meg, Alcott sets out to teach her (presumably) young readers how to be a proper woman. She writes about how to be a good wife and mother (Marmee, Meg), how to be a proper “lady” who knows how to secure a successful marriage (Amy), how to be a universally loved girl (Beth), and even, how to tame a shrew (Jo). The whole book is filled with messages about the importance of being docile, submissive, proper.
Even the ending of the book align with the lessons Alcott aimes to teach with this novel, since, it is Amy, who is proper and ladylike, and calls Lauire “my lord” (yuck), that gets to marry well and rise in her rank, not the “boyish” Jo. Although she also does get a marriage at the end, as everyone must. To be honest, this might be a little harsh, but it feels like the only reason Beth died is because Alcott couldn’t figure out someone for her to marry.
I don’t think I will ever forgive Alcott for the ending Jo got, and I don’t even mean her marriage. The fact that she had to give up her love for writing, just because a man who she only spent a couple months with didn’t approve of the sort of stories she wrote is simply frustrating. Although at the end of the novel Jo states that she still has hopes for getting a novel published one day, she nonetheless agrees that what she has with the Professor and the school is better than becoming a successful author. (Also, why couldn’t they just open a school for girls instead? And why does everyone except Amy have boy children? Like, what was the reason?)
I’m also quite disappointed about Amy. It is very obvious from the beginning of the novel that Jo and Amy are written as opposites to each other, but that’s not the reason I’m disappointed. I actually quite like Amy, even though she’d been horrible about the whole book-burning business. What bothers me is that Amy gives up her wish of becoming a celebrated artist because she goes to Rome and sees all the “genius” (don’t even let me start on that) artists there and realises that she can never be as good as them. When in reality, artists have travelled to Rome for centuries to study the works of the “genius masters” and saw that as an opportunity to better themselves. But no, Amy takes a look at Michaelangelo and goes “yeah no I’ll just become a wife and idk make a sculpture of my baby incase she dies.”
There are just many contradictory messages in the book. While Alcott clearly celebrates the importance of womanhood, she still sees it as a tool to "better" the men (like Jo and Amy do with Laurie). All the women give up their own wishes and dreams for the men they "love." Meg lets go of the silk dress so her husband can get a new coat, Jo stops writing sensational stories because Professor frowns upon them, and Amy gives up her wish to marry well for money as she initially planned because Laurie didn't approve of it, in the end. So Alcott's celebration of womanhood reads as incredibly tied to gender roles/dynamics, which, academically speaking, yuck.
Overall, I actually like the story. However, I really do prefer Gerwig’s adaptation of it, which is rare, since I am usually very loyal to the original texts in such things. But to be completely honest, at least Gerwig offers a fresh take on the story and pushes it to its full potential, whereas there is barely anything revolutionary about Alcott's original text.