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'Little Women' by Louisa May Alcott
“Angela, have you ever read ‘Little Women'? You remind me so much of Jo March!”
I cannot count the times I have heard a comment to this effect. While intended as praise (and for a long while proudly accepted as such) I now take it as a grave insult and smile charitably upon my misguided supporter.
Once a childhood favorite, I have come to detest this novel with the simmering brimstone hatred that I typically only reserve for carbon chemistry, refractory writing implements, and orthodontists.
While Little Women is admittedly useful for studies of Civil War culture, or for instilling Christian values in contradictory young wenches, I do not consider it an example of “great American literature” any more than I would “Godey's Lady's Book”. Unless of course, by “great American literature”, you mean showing how great American women in literature eventually realize that resistance is futile, and should happily conform for their own safety.
Little Women has long been praised for its diversity—indeed, it encompasses all four of the cardinal female personalities found in Victorian literature:
So many options!
You might be like Meg, a domestic baby-maker with occasional delusions of grandeur, ironically often described as the most mature and sensible of the sisters. Failing that, you could be like Beth, longing for nothing more than to care for sickly and ungrateful immigrant ragamuffins and neurotically maintain the ugly old dolls her sisters had the discernment to oust—until at last perishing of her own saccharine virtue. Or if you'd rather not waste away in chipper martyrdom, described in terms most normal people would attribute to a cocker spaniel, then perhaps you might be a chatty, self-satisfied little clothes-horse like Amy.
But for those rare specimens who dare to develop this strange concept of independent thought, you might turn out to be the wild hoyden sister like Jo, who later realizes the error of her ways just in time to readjust her thinking pattern and content herself with marrying a man old enough to be her father.
Thus the lovable March sisters are reduced to stereotypes of Victorian femininity, and even (curiously), at one point, avian counterparts, as when the ailing Beth compares her sisters to birds: Meg as a turtle-dove, herself as a sand-bird, Amy as a lark, and Jo as “a gull, strong and wild, fond of the storm and the wind, flying far out to sea, and happy all alone.”
Passages like this one seem to have deluded generations of strong-minded young women into idolizing Jo, the free[r]-thinking sister who gave herself a boy's nickname and (gasp) had a head full of ridiculous notions, such as generating her own income through writing (although in a paternal lecture, her future husband guilted her out of writing anything too “rebellious”—Jo quickly realized her error and went back to writing idealistic fairy tales with clear morals).
Later, in what seems to be another move towards independence, Jo turns down the nicest boy in town (leaving him victim to the matrimonial machinations of her frilly, French-spouting youngest sister) and continues going about her writing.
That is, until she suddenly decides she can't exist without the support of a man approaching the end of middle age, and promptly accepts his proposal. Shortly thereafter she moves into the house she conveniently inherited from her crotchety old aunt, and spends the rest of her life happily bearing sons, being chided for her spontaneity, and picking apples.
It seems even the strong and wild gulls must return eventually to the shore to feed on society's refuse like all the others.
I bet she even told her family to start calling her Josephine again.