We Regret to Inform You That Little Women Is Not a Feminist Novel

The 1933 film adaptation of Little Women. Photo: SNAP/REX/Shutterstock

On a research trip to Harvard several years ago, I insisted on tacking on a daylong detour to Concord, Massachusetts. I needed, at least once in my life, to dip my toes into Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House beckoned as well — the site of my imaginings of life as an Alcott sister, wrapped cozily in a hand-knit blanket, paging through dramatic tales, gazing out the window at swirling snow from the security of my happy home.

Like most historic residences, Orchard House was far closer to the road than I’d imagined, and the vegetation surrounding its deep-brown clapboard exterior more sparse. But the interior — room after room — exactly what I had pictured. It was, in a word, ideal, a three-dimensional rendering of my childhood fantasies.

I’d first read Little Women in middle school, around the same time as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and We Capture the Castle — stories of young women relying on hidden reserves of inner strength to become something more than wives. I returned to it after my trip to Concord, eager to slide back into the warmth of the text, to reconfirm Alcott’s genius as a foremother of the American female bildungsroman, and to bask in the prose of the woman who dared to cast a rebellious tomboy as her lead.

But what I found when I returned to Little Women was disappointment. The novel’s second half, wherein the little women are married off and set to work as wives, is even more dismal than I’d remembered. It is obsessed with wifely duty — deferential to patriarchy and dismissive of female ambition of any variety other than the maternal. Only Beth never even considers marriage, and she dies of an undisclosed lung condition (or maybe spinsterhood). It’s downright strange that intelligent women would call a book that disposes of its protagonists’ dreams in order to settle them into lives darning socks “required reading” for young girls today.

In advance of the 150th anniversary of Little Women’s publication this Sunday, celebrations of the novel’s allegedly transcendent elevation of young women have popped up in every conceivable literary outlet. There’s a new biography of the novel itself — Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters. Rioux argues that “Alcott’s classic pointed the way not only toward girls’ future selves but also toward the future relationships they could have with men and with each other. She imagined her characters moving into a mature womanhood that achieves self-fulfillment as well as shared joys and responsibilities, a storyline today’s little women desperately need.” There are outpourings of love for its “enduring appeal” and “tender domesticity” ranging from NPR to the American Prospect. Vanity Fair repeated the odd claim that Alcott is “the original feminist.” In the New York Times Francine Prose called it “helpful for every girl facing the challenges of growing up to be a woman.” And there’s the forthcoming 2019 film version, directed by Greta Gerwig and reportedly cast with Emma Watson as the imperious but kind Meg, Eliza Scanlen as gentle Beth, Florence Pugh as vain Amy, and Saoirse Ronan in the lead role as the brilliant, determined, writerly Jo — with whom every female writer senses a kinship.

Maybe it just feels better, in this climate of cultural emergency, to emphasize Alcott’s sense of subversive solidarity rather than the part where she sends her little women off to gender purgatory. Perhaps the first half’s devotion to the inner lives of girls, and poor girls at that, is so enduring that for many critics it neutralizes the second half’s blind obedience to patriarchy. Critics might also be making allowances for the mores of 1868 — though it’s worth noting that Alcott was close to the famous feminist Margaret Fuller as well as Elizabeth Peabody, the unmarried educator renowned for her groundbreaking work on child development. Friends of the family, they loomed large in her childhood, and the prospect of a life of the mind for women was hardly a far-fetched premise. Or perhaps readers aren’t remembering Little Women the book at all, but rather Little Women the feeling — the cozy domesticity of the movies, the costumes, the house and its knit blankets. In a moment when it feels more important than ever to honor their feminist heroes, they cling to that sense of safety and comfort they once found in a space dedicated to fierce young girls.

The case for Alcott’s anti-feminism isn’t new. Sarah Blackwood’s reflection in the New Republic notes that “the centennial celebration of the novel in 1968 initiated the explicitly feminist conversation about Little Women that continues still today. Critics and feminists from Judith Fetterley to Gloria Steinem debated the gendered ideologies of the novel’s sweetness and do-gooder-ism, its emphasis on marriage, childbearing, and the home.” Just last year, Samantha Ellis wrote in the Guardian about “the lively March sisters being tamed and subdued and ditching their dreams to achieve what Mary Gaitskill called ‘one-dimensional goodness.’” For decades, women have been pointing out the sharp U-turn of the novel. But on the eve of the sesquicentennial, critics have largely reverted to the ring of braided heads bent low around Orchard House’s fireplace.

The novel was initially written and sold in two parts (and still is in the U.K., where the second half is titled Good Wives). The first part ends with a marriage proposal — John Brooke’s to Meg, who accepts him despite his poverty (and perhaps to spite her uppity Aunt March). It’s a fitting conclusion to a narrative of girls on the brink of womanhood, one in which the Marches’ possibilities — Amy’s future as an artist and Jo’s as a writer, in particular — remain open, and the nuclear family unit commences its happy dissolution.

“Good Wives” is, for the most part, incredibly dull; most of it is left out of film interpretations. And yet it needs to be reckoned with if we’re going to assess what it means for young girls to read Little Women today. It begins three years after the end of the first part, with the hubbub around Meg’s wedding accounting for the first two chapters. Meg has spent the intervening years “growing … wise in housewifely arts,” and indeed the rest of her story concerns her homemaking skills — or lack thereof. “Like most other young matrons, Meg began her married life with the determination to be a model housekeeper. John should find home a paradise,” begins a chapter devoted to her attempting to make jelly and wrecking the house in the process.

After the two begin to argue over the state of the house, John yells, “Where’s the beef and vegetables I sent home, and the pudding you promised?” Alcott writes that “John was a mild man, but he was human,” explaining that a man can’t be expected to conduct himself properly when he’s hungry. Meg resolves the argument by remembering her mother’s warning that “peace and happiness depend on keeping his respect,” and drifting over to offer her penance to her husband, who takes her “on his knee” like a child.

That isn’t end of it for Meg. After she becomes “entirely absorbed” in the care of their infant twins, John is displeased. He “decidedly missed the wifely attentions he had been accustomed to receive,” and after six months of his wife diligently caring for their infant children, he’s had enough:

The poor man was very uncomfortable, for the children had bereft him of his wife; home was merely a nursery, and the perpetual “hushing” made him feel like a brutal intruder whenever he entered the secret precincts of Babydom.

Meg decides that his affections have ceased because she’s “getting old and ugly.” A few days after talking it over with her mother, “she orders a nice dinner, sets the parlor in order, dresses herself prettily, and puts the children to bed early.” The plan ends with her apologizing, “‘I’ve neglected you shamefully lately, and I’m going to make home what it used to be, if I can.’” Original feminist, not so much.

As for our supposedly feminist heroine, Jo, even Alcott devotees have long lamented the author’s decision to marry her off to the painfully serious Professor Baehr. After Alcott released the first half of Little Women, readers wrote to her begging that Jo marry her dashing next-door neighbor and best friend Laurie. Instead, Alcott has Jo slowly, torturously reject Laurie’s proposal before he can even offer it. It’s one of the best scenes in the novel: Despite the pressure on Jo to reform her “wild ways” by settling down into a good marriage with a rich young man, she holds true to her conviction that a wife must truly love her partner.

Jo does tend to her ambition, moving briefly to New York to work as a governess and draft “thrilling” tales of “banditti, counts, gypsies, nuns, and duchesses.” Then she meets Professor Baehr, who tells Jo that writing sensational novels isn’t an “honest” living. In the 1993 film, Jo is repulsed by his intrusion and flees New York without a good-bye; it’s a satisfying reaction to having her work denigrated by a man who has never written a word of fiction in his life. In the novel, she goes to her room, rereads her packet of stories, declares them “trash,” and then burns them to ash in the stove. When the professor shows up in Concord to declare his love, Alcott utterly abandons Jo’s passion for writing — the fire that propelled her — a bizarre choice for a woman whose own ambition had finally paid off with the publication of this very novel.

Just before the professor appears, as Jo lies on the sofa thinking herself an “old maid,” Alcott intervenes with a “homily” for her readers: “Don’t laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragical romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under sober gowns … they have missed the sweetest part of life.” It’s difficult not to read this as a cautionary plea from the single, 38-year-old author of limited means, and Jo’s marriage to Baehr as a rewriting of Alcott’s own biography. But what’s truly aggrieving is that Jo takes up her husband’s calling instead. Baehr has always loved teaching young boys, and so, having never mentioned it before, Jo fulfills a “long-cherished plan,” turning the mansion her aunt has left her into a school. The final twist of the knife: The school is only for boys. Alcott, the daughter of a teacher and at times one herself, has Jo pass on her bountiful learning only to little men.

Even pretty Amy, off in Europe on the trip of a lifetime to study painting under great masters, spends her time looking for a suitor and ends up married to Laurie (too good a character not to marry off to some March sister). She never becomes a professional artist.

It’s enough to make you wonder what motivated Alcott to write this in the first place. She was, after all, an avowed “spinster” (her word) when she wrote Little Women, supporting her family by producing “sensational” tales, just like Jo’s, under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard.

Well, for starters, Little Women wasn’t her brainchild. Alcott’s publisher requested a book for girls and she grudgingly obliged. “I plod away,” she wrote in her diary, “though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.” The New England Historical Society notes that later, after Little Women brought in more money than Alcott could have imagined, she added a line to the entry: “Good joke.”

Perhaps what made her do it was the money that flowed in after the first half of Little Women sold 2,000 copies in just weeks, along with the fan mail that clogged her mailbox. Readers wanted a “conventional” tale, and Alcott, growing rich and proud, saw that she could keep the dream of female independence alive in herself by sacrificing Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Maybe an admitted streak of “perversity” colored her decision to slide all of her women under the thumbs of men: Alcott’s own father Bronson, dunked his daughters in cold water in the depths of New England winter because he thought it was good for their constitutions. Regardless of why she did it, even Alcott knew the second half was a letdown, noting that it was written “in a very stupid style.”

At the risk of advocating the desecration of books, I’d encourage readers to rip out the last 300 pages of this otherwise beautiful and insightful novel. I’m still tender toward all of Little Women, or at least the idea of it — of its paradigm of female solidarity, Puritan hardiness in a harsh place, and cheerful contentment in the domestic sphere. It feels good to nestle deep in the bosom of the March sisters’ beloved Marmee, the most hardworking woman in literature. But is comfort what we need right now? Young girls drawn within the confines of the male-dominated hierarchy? I don’t know about you, but I need more fire than that. Here’s hoping Gerwig — who is reportedly focusing her film on the sisters’ adult lives — can set Alcott’s characters back on a stronger course, and restore some of that feminist spunk we’ve been projecting onto them all along.

We’re Sorry to Say That Little Women Is Not a Feminist Novel