Virtues of Little Women still relevant today
By Randi Tanglen, Ph.D.
Jan 2, 2020
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“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” laments Jo March in the opening words of Little Women, the beloved 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott. However, this Christmas Day movie-going audiences received a delightful gift with the opening of a new film adaptation of the novel directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan. Based on the genteel poverty of Alcott’s own family in Concord, Massachusetts, Little Women tells an American coming-of-age story by following the lives of the four March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. With the new film and a recent PBS Masterpiece series, Alcott’s novel remains enduringly and astoundingly relevant for modern-day audiences.

In today’s dysfunctional political climate, many young people want to make a difference through service and activism. Early in the novel, the March sisters model civic commitment and virtue when they give their Christmas breakfast to an impoverished immigrant family, the Hummels. The sisters “hope and keep busy” as their father serves in the Union Army, but in reality it was Alcott, not her father, who served her country as an Army nurse during the Civil War.

The novel does not overtly mention the divisive issue of American chattel slavery, but the Alcott family were strong abolitionists, participating in the civil disobedience of the Underground Railroad with other Concord residents such as Henry David Thoreau. Alcott herself advocated for women’s suffrage and was the first woman in her small town to register to vote in 1879.

Upon its initial publication, Little Women was immediately popular because it unapologetically valued and told women’s stories, an issue, sadly, still relevant in the era of #metoo. Little Women elaborates on the complexities and limitations of being a woman with aspirations in a male-dominated culture. As Jo says of her dreams, “I've got the key to my castle in the air, but whether I can unlock the door remains to be seen.” Jo must balance her writerly ambitions with her devotion to her home, parents, and sisters. Amy suffers the indignities of her family’s poverty in the face of a materialistic culture; the usually compliant Meg defies convention and boldly marries for love, not money. Even the reclusive Beth overcomes her severe social anxiety to accept the kindness of her neighbors. Beth, usually overlooked by readers, is perhaps the most resonant of the little women for present-day audiences, as young people today increasingly struggle with anxiety, depression, and mental health concerns.

Alcott scholar Anne Boyd Rioux reports that Little Women was not always regarded as a “girls” book and has had male fans as diverse as Teddy Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling, and George Orwell. Just as the March sisters’ neighbor Theodore Laurence is fascinated by the inner workings of a family of girls, male readers today gain insight into the multifaceted lives of girls and women when they pick up Alcott’s novel. Indeed, this nineteenth-century classic solidly passes the Bechdel test, a method for evaluating if a work of fiction relies on sexist or gender stereotyping. Yet all readers can identify with the novel’s portrayal of the conflict between personal goals and loyalty to family, finding and creating a life with purpose, and living social justice ideals counter to the cultural status quo. The ambitions, courage, and independence of the four March sisters speaks to audiences of all genders and all ages, in its own day and ours.

Make no mistake: Little Women is not a sappy, overwrought domestic romance or a tale of Victorian mores and expected female behavior. With its emphasis on civic duty, women’s lives and stories, and living a life based on the values of family and social equality, Little Women is a formidable classic that should be on your reading list this holiday season.

Dr. Randi Lynn Tanglen is associate professor of English, director of the Johnson Center for Faculty Development and Excellence and Teaching, and director of the Gender Studies program at Austin College in Sherman. She is also the treasurer of the Louisa May Alcott Society.