“What women are allowed into the club of geniuses anyway?”
As a child, and now as an adult, Little Women has been one of my favourite novels of all time. A novel with a woman’s name on the cover and strong female characters who had dynamic identities outside their romantic interests was and still remains to be very rare. It also explains why Louisa May Alcott’s classic continues to be relevant and made into numerous adaptations – the most recent one being Greta Gerwig’s movie by the same name.
As someone who grew up loving the book, I had my apprehensions about the movie being able to justify the book. But Greta Gerwig’s masterpiece is not only enough to satisfy the book’s faithful devotees but is inventive and fresh enough to stand on its own as an independent piece of popular culture. The movie, like the book, is about women from a woman’s perspective. It is one of those rare stories that talk about the trials and triumphs of women without trying to belittle or victimize them and gives them agency to share their thoughts and viewpoints in a man’s world.
The heroines of Little Women are the March sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Jo, the protagonist, is an aspiring writer who submits her stories anonymously for a minimum payment. She is a ‘tomboy’ who defies the gender roles expected of her. She often feels out of place as her aspirations don’t fit into the conventions of being a ‘good’ wife and mother.
In contrast, Meg dreams of having a home and a family and believes that marriage is bliss. Amy is an aspiring painter and a realist and Beth is the ‘perfect’ March sister who doesn’t have any ambitions or vanity unlike the rest of her sisters but dies an early death due to scarlet fever. Little Women is a story that revolves around themes concerning these women and many more women from that period. Set in a time when women didn’t have the right to property – the March sisters struggle with holding on to their ambitions and love. While Meg dreams of marrying a rich suitor, she falls in love with a poor teacher and has a hard time accepting the lifestyle.
Amy aspires to marry rich, for she realizes that she has no other way of earning money to support her family and so she doesn’t have the privilege of not treating marriage as an “economic proposition” like men do. Their Aunt March is presented as a rich woman who never marries in order to be able to “hold her wealth” and leaves her mansion to Jo, who marries the man she loves and is able to support him financially by opening a school in the mansion.
Louisa May Alcott also talks about the ambitions of women, showing that while the ambitions of these women may be different, they are only acceptable as long as they fit into the conventions of society. Jo is able to publish her novel after much struggles and compromises, but Amy has to give up her painting. Meg is able to fulfil her dream of having a family but at the expense of having to choose between love and a lavish lifestyle. In this way, even while dealing with the private lives of women, Alcott captures the socio-political conditions of women of that time.
In a world where men are the narrators and protagonists of their stories – women linger in the shadows, reduced to an object of desire, generosity and pity. Yet Alcott breaks away from this trend, by presenting Jo’s journey as a hero’s journey – one that is usually portrayed by men. She starts off as a woman trying to fit into the society governed by patriarchal rules and regulations, faces trials while pursuing her ambitions, makes tough calls in both her personal and professional life and is awarded success and love at the end.
Jo is a reflection of Alcott herself, her journey echoes that of Alcott’s and her thoughts voicing out the dilemmas faced by the author when she says, “Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for.”
But while Alcott had to compromise on the ending she wanted for Jo and completes it with her getting married to Friedrich Bhaer, the movie presents an alternate path for the heroine. In the movie, the scene where Jo professes her love cuts to her proposing this very ending to her publisher, who is apprehensive about the protagonist remaining unmarried, in exchange for a greater profit (“If I’m going to sell my heroine into marriage for money, I might as well get some of it”).
Thus Greta has it both ways: the movie shows Jo getting married to someone who respects and values her and her career, while parallelly accommodating the ending Alcott wanted all along where Jo publishes her book and remains a happy ‘spinster’. Meanwhile, in the movie as in the book, her love interests exist in relation to HER – as a part of her story in a case of role reversal.
When Jo tells her sisters she’s writing a story about their lives and it doesn’t have any real importance, Amy replies, “Maybe it doesn’t seem important because people don’t write about them”, and for me – this is the key takeaway from Little Women. While Jo wants a career as a writer, Meg’s idea of a happy life is marriage. Amy believes she’s a painter of middling talent and Beth’s is a sad story of early death, and their mother is shown as immersing herself in the service of the nation by helping people affected by the Civil War.
Irrespective of what their ambitions are, none of them can be deemed unimportant or inferior, or as Meg says – “Just because my dreams are different than yours, doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.” Writing and sharing stories of these women, exploring their lives, making them the hero of their journey – however ordinary it maybe – becomes a rebellion in itself and makes Little Women an important part of feminist history and the present.
Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: Empire