comparative lit

Girls and Little Women: How Hannah Horvath Is Like Jo March

Photo: HBO and Everett

If Jo March, the ambitious, writerly protagonist of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved Little Women were alive today, she would definitely have a blog. Stressed out Meg would have begun to grapple with the boredom of her long-term relationship to the incredibly decent, incredibly stable Mr. Brooke. Beth would be loaded up on beta-blockers to help with the anxieties of meeting people outside of her immediate family. And Amy — let’s call a spade a spade here — would have definitely dropped out of art school and entered rehab. At least once.

In other words, were the March sisters to trade hoopskirts for rompers, they would probably be able to pass for Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa, the four protagonists of the HBO comedy Girls.

Though Sex and the City is often cited as being the precedent for the show, Alcott’s wholesome 1868 novel is the O.G. when it comes to quartets of girls figuring it all out. Little Women and Girls share the same plot, give or take a sex scene or two; they both tell the story of four girls trying (to varying degrees of success) to grow up. The SATC protagonists are grown-ass women from the get-go, whereas the March sisters and Horvath & friends are still little women, on their way to adulthood, but not quite there yet.

But the similarities between Little Women and Girls goes beyond the basic premise: The characters of the show are analagous in a way that suggests these four girls — the writer, the responsible one, the sweet one, and the wild-child — are time-honored archetypes for American women, rather than products of their creator’s imagination. Or maybe American society and American girlhood just haven’t changed that much in the past 150 years.

Take Jo March and Hannah Horvath, the two protagonists. Both want to be writers. Both gamely try their best at conforming to the societal mores around them, while somewhat missing the mark. Both struggle with some of the simpler things in life — for example, how to dress themselves.

What are you wearing?” Marnie asks Hannah, horrified, after a coked-out dance scene in season two of Girls. “Oh, a shirt,” Hannah bites back.

“You must have gloves, or I won’t go!” Meg commands Jo, horrified, before Mrs. Gardiner’s ball in chapter three of Little Women. “Then I’ll go without. I don’t care what people say!” Jo retorts.

Hannah Hovarth, like Jo March before her, goes to New York to seek her fortune, to gain life experience, to get published. Both are met with failure at first. Both lament the fact that nothing exciting enough has happened in their own lives that’s worth writing about. And both, ultimately, find success by mining the universality of their own life experiences: Jo March, in writing about the domestic foibles and aspirations of her sisters in small town Massachusetts; and Hannah, in writing about “jerking a kidney stone out of some Puerto Rican Jew’s dick.” In times of duress, both Jo and Hannah go for a dramatic approach by chopping off all their hair. In both cases, it doesn’t look amazing. And in both cases, the characters bravely, defiantly, pretend not to care that much.

If fictional characters have past lives, then Meg March is certainly a worthy candidate for being the previous incarnation of Marnie Michaelson. They’re both type A, both responsible-minded, and both the ones most chagrined by yet seemingly jealous of the antics of the Hannah/Jos of their world. Megs and Marnies feel enormous pressure to dot their i’s and cross their t’s, to keep things together, to give the outside world the semblance of perfection. They crave the kind of easy rebellion that seems to come naturally to those around them.

“Sometimes being good all the time feels really bad!” Marnie bemoans in an episode near the end of Girls’s second season.

“I’m not Meg tonight, I’m ‘a doll’ who does all sorts of crazy things. Tomorrow I shall be desperately good again.” Meg tells Laurie when she lets loose (literally by wearing makeup) at Sally Moffat’s ball in Little Women.

And then there’s Amy March, the youngest, the wildest, the most selfish, the most sought after. Just like Amy, Jessa spends lots of time in Europe. Just like Jessa, Amy has shown an aptitude for little else but art. In both groups of characters, the Amy/Jessa is the least beholden to the others’ feelings, the most likely to blurt out awkward truths, the most likely to hook up with your childhood sweetheart and then bring him home for Christmas with absolutely no warning because, whatever, things got crazy in Mallorca and she actually doesn’t see why you’re making such a big deal about this. And both Amy and Jessa have a penchant for disappearing at times that are really inconvenient for the other characters who might need them. When Beth dies, Amy is MIA, cavorting through Europe with Aunt March leaving Jo alone at home to deal. And Jessa disappeared for months at the end of season two, conveniently skipping out Hannah’s mental breakdown only to pop up later in season three at rehab. (In Jessa’s defense: even she would never dream of throwing Hannah’s manuscript into the fire, or deleting it from Google Docs, or whatever the modern equivalent of that would be.)

Which leaves us with Beth. Poor Beth. Very nice, very sweet, maybe a little … simple? Not quite on the same playing field as the other three girls? And yet, constantly around (until she dies) and petted (until she dies) with not much expected of her because she’s just Beth. The same goes for Shoshanna. If she wasn’t Jessa’s cousin there would literally be no way that any of these characters would choose to spend an afternoon, or a dinner party, or a road trip with the show’s resident (Hudson) valley girl, and yet there she is, in every episode. And, in a sense, are Shoshanna’s myriad of social anxieties so very different from the crippling shyness Beth suffers from? Oh, Shosh. Don’t get scarlet fever. (Avian flu?)

While it’s glossed over by Alcott’s saccharine veneer, Little Women is, like Girls, about the rough transition into adulthood, which was a nightmare in the 19th century (poverty, etiquette, looming spinsterhood!) and is still sort of a nightmare now (student loans, internships, looming spinsterhood!). The Girls characters, by virtue of living in the contemporary world, get to spaz out every which way. The Little Women characters do so quietly, in the privacy of their bedrooms, under Marmie’s watchful eye. They are more measured, more controlled in their rebellion, shackled by both the cultural restrictions of the era, and the fact that Alcott, writing for a younger audience, was keenly aware of making examples of them. Dunham, writing for an audience of peers, is under no such obligation for her own characters.

The timeline is a bit different, sure. Jo starts the book at 15 and ends, fully emerges as a functioning adult. Hannah is still struggling at 25. But this can be chalked up to a sign of the times. No doubt living in (relative) abject poverty in Greenpoint is less harrowing than living in (real) abject poverty in post–Civil War Massachusetts. But even as the March sisters were dealing with illness, absent parents, impoverished neighbors, Amy finds the time to despair about her nose, Meg about her gloves, Beth about her social anxieties, and Jo about her burgeoning career. Had the Marches been lucky enough to live in a time where their basic survival was a bit more assured, you can bet they’d take their sweet time in completing their metamorphosis from girls to little women.

It probably would have been nice for Meg to have been able to date around a bit before settling down with literally the first guy she ever meets, for Amy to sneak some substances a little more illicit than limes, for Beth to get some penicillin. And Jo would have surely been able to achieve her lifelong dream of going to college. Of course, once published, there are other things she would have had to contend with as the voice of her generation. And she definitely would have tweeted about it.

Chiara Atik is a playwright in New York. Her play, WOMEN, spoofs Girls using the Louisa May Alcott’s beloved characters and is currently showing at Under St. Marks.

How Girls Is Like Little Women