Reading Women

Since the emergence of Feminist critical theory, no cultural text about women is read without raising the question of its feminism or lack thereof; and no “feminine” text has been as widely discussed regarding that question, as Little Women.
Louise May Alcott’s 1886 coming-of-age novel has been translated into over 50 languages, (with ten versions in Hebrew); adapted to countless stage and opera performances; multiple television series (including a Japanese manga take); and most famously, nearly ten films. Elisabeth Taylor played blonde, beautiful Amy in 1949; Winona Ryder embodied an intense Jo in 1994; most recently, Saoirse Ronan (as Jo), Emma Watson (as Meg) and Timothée Chalamet (as Laurie) star in the 2019 adaptation directed by the intriguing Greta Gerwig. But how are the Victorian ideals of womanhood conveyed in this Civil war era story, filled with eventually-dutiful ladies in gloves and silk stockings, relevant to our age of stronger-than-ever Feminism?    The answer isn’t quite so simple, with the book’s conflicting forces apparent as early as the title. On the one hand, the novel is for and about Women published in a decade when such a thing was quite rare. And not just women, young women, a population and audience no one was considering back then, let alone taking seriously. It’s also a book written by a woman, an intellectual who remained unmarried and provided for her entire family with the earnings from the novel’s success. These factors alone can explain the book’s Feminist aura, still enthralling readers today.

On the other hand, there’s also that discomforting qualifier: Little. Many critics have emphasized the novel’s smallness and sweetness, some to the extent of describing the plot as the story of four women “becoming-little”. During the course of their story, the March sisters dispose of their anger, their dissatisfaction and restlessness; they learn how to obliterate hopes of taking up more space, of living larger lives, of growing into the artists they once aspired to be. Jo marries the elder Professor Bhaer, not the young, passionate Laurie. With him she runs a school for boys instead of becoming a famous writer who uses “a magic inkstand” and lives in a castle “piled high with books”; Beth, the kind, fragile, pianist, dies at 18; Meg, the eldest, gives up on acting, and the materialistic Amy relinquishes her true love of painting. It is as if the girls learn to embrace, not protest, what it means to be women in Christian America, to “conquer themselves beautifully”, as their absent father Mr. March put it in his letter to them.

Yet neither of these perspectives encompass Little Women‘s internal tensions and complexities. According to literary scholar and feminist theorist, Dr. Orly Lubin, the novel’s opposing characteristics are exactly what create its ongoing allure, as they enable an option of “reading our way into” a very singular sort of feminism. A feminism far removed from the current Hollywood ideal emphasizing self-fulfillment and other overly-emphatic neoliberal themes for women. These, says Dr. Lubin, are about as realistic for most of us as the infamous happily- ever-after endings.  In a way, the book’s importance has more to do with us, its readers, making our own sense of the narrative’s conflicting notions, than about the characters’ choices either rebelling against patriarchal structures or succumbing to them. Perhaps, suggests Dr. Lubin, we may read Beth’s premature death as the demise of that suffocating Victorian symbol– the angelic selfless woman. Or Jo’s renunciation of literary fame and romantic love as a compromise between a liveable life and a sense of agency, achieved through the choice of career and community. Maybe Amy doesn’t leave art behind but re-invents it in a more representative form– through becoming her own work of beauty. And though Meg gives up acting to live a small, tough, family life, she also manages the nearly impossible balance between sexuality and motherhood.

What Dr. Lubin is suggesting isn’t simply a different answer to the question of Little Women’s Feminism, but a different question altogether. It isn’t so much about learning “how to be” through the possibilities granted to the characters in a specific cultural moment, but about learning “how to read”. It is through reading and re-reading that we are able to create “little” paths for ourselves, even in a narrative that doesn’t necessarily grant us a big space to inhabit. 

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