Alcott, Louisa May: Title Commentary

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Little Women

Little Women


SOURCE: May, Jill P. "Feminism and Children's Literature: Fitting Little Women into the American Literary Canon." CEA Critic 56, no. 3 (spring-summer 1994): 19-27.

In the following essay, May contends that Little Women has been neglected by critics because it has been seen as a work solely for women and children. May suggests that the dismissive response to Little Women fails to consider either Alcott's literary craftsmanship or the book's commentary on contemporary gender roles.

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is an American book that has been reviewed favorably by experts in children's literature throughout the twentieth century. In fact, Little Women has remained highly visible throughout American society: Textbooks written for undergraduate children's literature classes mention the book's continued popularity with children; new paperback editions are available in the bookstore chains; library lists of popular children's classics almost always include it as a recommended title; and television and theatre renditions are still being produced. Generally, educated people regard Little Women as a staple in American literature. And as a university professor who teaches children's literature, I, too, thought of Little Women as a widely read and popular book that has held its place in the American literary canon. However, recent experiences have changed my mind.

When I was asked to give a public library program about Alcott's Little Women, I decided I would briefly address the issue of readership with modern audiences. In previous years, I had used the book in my undergraduate children's literature classes, and many of the students had claimed to have read Little Women as children. I felt sure that the book was still being read, but I decided to do a reality check before I discussed the book. One day, I asked the twenty-five students attending my undergraduate children's literature class—composed of young people in their twenties—to finish one of the following statements: "I remember that when I read Little Women as a youngster …" or "I never read Little Women as a child, but from what I heard about the book.…"

As I collected their papers, I asked those who had read the book to raise their hands and saw three young women's hands shoot up. Once I started reading their writing, I realized that not all of these students were readers of the entire book, that some were "almost readers" of the book or else had seen a media version of the story. Only one student commented on finishing the book. The one young woman who had read the entire book wrote apologetically,

I read Little Women when I was a child, and I thought it was good at the time. You are probably asking us this question because it is a total sexist and stereotypical book about the woman's role in the home. I remember reading it and liking it. It was considered a "classic" when I read it.

Little Women has always been considered a book "for girls," so I was not surprised when the young man in my class commented:

I never read Little Women, and … I have never heard of it. I guess I never read it, in part, because I am a guy and no one told me about it. However, if someone had told me about it, I probably still would not have read it since it does not interest me too much as a guy.

However, I was offended that he felt a book about females need not be read by males. I wondered if all men looked at "women's lives" in the same way.

Since Little Women was written during the American Civil War, I asked my husband, Bob—a university professor—to poll the students in his Civil War and Reconstruction course. Most of Bob's students were men, and they were interested in the Civil War from a "male" perspective. Many were Civil War battle buffs. Four of the thirty students in his class claimed they had read the book. One was a male. Three of the four were top students in the class.

I finished off my "survey" in my graduate children's literature course. Eleven of the students were female, and one was male. Some were already teachers in the public schools; they had taken children's literature courses in the past. Of the twelve students, seven at first said they had read Little Women. However, when we began talking about the book, three of the students began to reflect and reconsider. One of them said, "I don't think I ever finished it." Another added, "I think I saw it as a film or something." And one other student confessed that she had read only the first half because her book ended there. "I think I always knew there was more, but I never looked for the rest." The one male simply looked bored after he admitted that he had not read the book.

Although the book is no longer a part of popular culture's repertoire, I believe that Little Women is a piece of women's history or, perhaps more important, a piece of women's autobiography that depicts female aspirations, family life, and women's career choices. Furthermore, Little Women has had an evolving effect upon the women who read and study it as a literary archetype of American female writing. I have read the book several times, seeing it differently each time. As a preteen, I considered Jo the most interesting character. As a college student, I found Jo's relationship with Professor Bhaer intriguing. By the time my article "Spirited Females of the Nineteenth Century: Liberated Moods in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women " was published, I viewed Amy as my favorite sister. For me, Little Women has taken on the mythic sense that Patricia Meyer Spacks is addressing when she says that adults reminisce about youthful adventures to rediscover "what we were, might have been, hoped to be" (3). Women's autobiographical fiction continues to work for each new generation when realistic characters solve their problems in ways the reader understands. This is probably what keeps Little Women alive for female critics. The book has remained true to women's lives, but its meaning has shifted through time. Twentieth-century views of Alcott's book often are very different from those of past generations.

Reading the criticism available on Little Women and the edited journals of Bronson Alcott and Louisa Alcott leaves little doubt that this was an autobiographical book for Alcott. Her father's school, her sisters and their play, and the family habit of journal writing all made their way into the story. Yet Little Women is more than simple autobiography. Each girl is part of a subplot that reveals a personal story. None of the stories is typical; these girls look beyond the values of their contemporary society. Perhaps one of the reasons the book has continued to be read by critics is that the story was also prophetic.

Sarah Elbert points out that Alcott's own reluctance to choose between the images of feminism and domestic life led to her development of complex female characters. Influenced by the political speeches she had heard and the contemporary books she had read, Alcott wanted her main characters to take stances within their families and to expand beyond the constraints of their familial home (144-50).

At the time of publication, the story did not reflect the average American family. Alcott's own life was far from typical, and she could not have written a "typical girls' story." Although contemporary book reviewers labeled the book appealing and realistic, it was not the depiction of a typical American family. The "little women" in Alcott's book choose their destinies. When they are young and first describe what they dream for themselves as adults, Meg chooses marriage and children; Beth describes a life at home with her parents; Amy chooses to be "the best artist in the whole world" (116); and Jo claims, "I'd have a stable full of Arabian steeds, rooms piled with books, and I'd write out of a magic inkstand, so that my works should be as famous as Laurie's music" (115).

Throughout this story, the "little women" remain true to themselves. For instance, Jo refuses to marry a man she likes as a friend. And once married, the two artistic sisters resolve to work beyond the four walls of their homes. Jo notes:

"I haven't given up the hope that I may write a book yet, but I can wait, and I'm sure it will be all the better for such experiences and illustrations as these;" and Jo pointed from the lively lads in the distance to her father, leaning on the professor's arm … and then to her mother, sitting enthroned among her daughters, with their children in her lap and at her feet.


Amy adds,

"My castle is very different from what I planned, but I would not alter it, though, like Jo, I don't relinquish all my artistic hopes, or confine myself to helping others fulfill their dreams of beauty. I've begun to model a figure of baby, and Laurie says it is the best thing I've ever done."


These women do not choose to forsake their artistic plans when they marry, but they alter their purposes and their "training" to fit within the family circle. In other words, Alcott's characters realign their place within society to their artistic endeavors. They replace their childhood goals with goals that fit into contemporary cultural interpretations of family obligations.

Alcott's story does extend beyond the then-traditional boundaries of romance novels about women who use feminine wiles to entrap men into marriage. She introduced her youthful audience to major social (and feminist) issues of the 1860s: Jo will not give up her boyish ways, even when her sisters try to "civilize her"; Jo continually competes with the men she meets; Jo and Amy travel away from home without their immediate families and learn to spend time on their own; Meg, Jo, and Amy learn that love is not simply a romantic flirtation that results in children and a perfect home. Furthermore, all of the sisters are true to themselves, and they set their sights on perfecting the talents that please them, whether or not these talents are valued by society. The sisters represent a dynamic world, one that continually changes for these sisters as they grow up, try their hands at artistic careers, and marry.

When discussing the autobiographies that were being written and published just after the American Civil War, Susanna Egan writes,

Again and again we find that the self is important essentially in the context of change … as an active intelligence through which current events are perceived and understood … [and this creates] history in the making, with the self, in varying degrees of objectivity, as participant.


Little Women shows women adjusting to changing times. It is important as children's literature and as women's history. As archetypal "autobiography" written for contemporary adolescent readers, Little Women fills a void in the American canon. It shows how nineteenth-century American females could evolve into writers, artists, critics of society, mothers, and teachers.

Anne Hollander has suggested that Amy shows the reader a picture of a woman's total growth from childhood to adulthood, and she argues that Amy is a more ideal model than Jo because she wants to be the best possible artist rather than the most famous artist. Thus, Hollander links feminine self-awareness with the arts:

Amy's creative talent can be seen as more authentic than Jo's, because Amy does recognize and accept and even enjoy her sexuality, which is the core of the creative self. Alcott demonstrates this through the mature Amy's straightforward, uncoy ease in attracting men and her effortless skill at self-presentation, which are emblems of her commitment to the combined truths of sex and art.


Still, Hollander's interpretation of Alcott's story is not definitive. The debate about the significance of Little Women continues to rage among the many female critics who have turned to Alcott's classic and "rewritten" the book to fit their life experiences. Often, the criticism fits a personal stance about women and history. In her essay on the book, Ruth K. MacDonald suggests that women keep the book alive because Alcott deals with the issues that still concern them:

how to combine marriage and career, how to be a professional in a world which may judge women's efforts to be inferior, how to assert one's principles and rights without so offending the powers that be that the granting of those rights is jeopardized.… [T]he tension that results from this struggle keeps academic readers interested, and they in turn help to keep Alcott's reputation alive.


This is what makes Alcott's view of female adolescence archetypal. The experiences of her characters place the realities of female existence in print for young women and affirm that women continually face a significant personal obligation to affirm their interests and plans while learning to exist within the confines of society. With the exception of Beth, Alcott's young females are active youngsters who determine what they want to be as adults and end up in positions that fit their dreams. Like many other females, they learn that American society has certain expectations for women—including looking good and pampering men—and they determine how to adjust to those expectations. Knowing what they do about their world, they are actively involved in determining their fates.

The pattern of autobiographical interpretation helps the book remain alive for female literary critics. Because it has interested so many scholars, it should be shared in contemporary literature classes. However, a glance at syllabi will show Alcott's absence. Indeed, neither the author nor the book has made any impact on the canon debate within the Modern Language Association. Elaine Showalter has suggested that Little Women is largely ignored in college American literature classes because men have never really read it, that as a work it has had "enormous … critical impact on half the reading population, and so minuscule a place in the libraries or criticism of the other" (42). As I looked back at what other scholars have written, I began to notice that Showalter was right. Lavinia Russ recalls meeting with Hemingway in Paris and hearing him say, "You're so full of sweetness and light you ought to be carrying Little Women. " His conversation with her led her to believe that Hemingway never read the book, and she writes, "If he had read Little Women, he would have realized that it is not 'sweetness and light'; it is stalwart proof of his definition of courage: grace under pressure" (pamphlet, unpaged).

In fact, there is often no assurance that the men writing about Alcott in the early twentieth century ever read Little Women. Seth Curtis Beach selected Alcott for his final biography in Daughters of the Puritans, but it is never clear whether he read Little Women and admired Alcott for writing "girls' stories." Throughout his piece, little is said about her children's books. Beach's discussion does reveal another problem for Alcott within academe: She chose to write for girls. Beach suggests that writing "children's books" is a lesser achievement than writing a few lines of adult poetry or working as a speaker addressing issues concerning the needs of others. He concludes, "If Miss Alcott, by pressure of circumstances, had not been a writer of children's books, she might have been a poet, and would, from choice, have been a philanthropist and reformer" (284-85).

It is intriguing that such males have looked at Alcott's life as significant "biography" to be explored and discussed and that they have attested to the book's autobiographical stance while they have dismissed the work as literature, declaring it simple, wholesome, and sweet entertainment for young girls. Rarely have they looked at the structure of Alcott's story or her implied social messages. Yet Alcott's Little Women contains characters and social situations that make it both children's literature and feminine history.

In his insightful discussion of feminist criticism and children's literature, Perry Nodelman suggests that feminist criticism has revealed a subversive subtext in American literary tradition. He argues that children's literature fits within this pattern—that while it produces a conventional story structure, it contains a response to society that conflicts with society's expectations. He concludes that if men dismiss feminist criticism and children's literature, they are refusing to acknowledge an important literariness and, therefore, cannot enter into the timely debate about "a literature whose specific sort of femininity depends upon the existence of a powerful and autocratic masculinist hegemony" (33).

The subtext about women's life after marriage, to which I alluded earlier, is what makes Little Women such an intriguing book for many women scholars. This subtext carries the bite of realism. In the end, the sisters are a reflection of Alcott's own society's constraints. Their artistic talents must fit within their married lives, and in order to be considered successful, they must have children of their own. Jo has always wished to become a writer, but when she leaves home, she works as a teacher, an acceptable occupation for unmarried young women at that time. In the end, she settles for life as a "school-mother." Her role at the famous Plumfield School is as mother. Alcott writes,

It was never a fashionable school, and the Professor did not lay up a fortune; but it was just what Jo intended it to be—"a happy, homelike place for boys, who needed care and kindness." … Yes; Jo was a very happy woman there, in spite of the hard work, much anxiety, and a perpetual racket. She enjoyed it heartily, and found the applause of her boys more satisfying than any praise of the world; for now she told no stories except to her flock of enthusiastic believers and admirers. As the years went on, two lads of her own came to increase her happiness.


Meg works as a governess prior to getting married. Unlike Jo, Meg never really enjoys teaching, but she turns to it as an acceptable position for an unmarried woman. When Meg discusses teaching with John Brooke, she says, "I don't like my work, but I get a great deal of satisfaction out of it after all, so I won't complain; I only wish I liked teaching as you do" (109). When Amy is young, she believes that she will die, and so she makes a will, leaving her art work to her father and Laurie. Once Amy is married, her own daughter is a sickly child, and she returns to art in order to make a marble likeness of her child "so that, whatever happens, I may at least keep the image of my little angel" (396). Amy's use and distribution of her art suggest that approval must come from males if she is to continue to have support for her endeavors. Furthermore, her art has been shaped to fit the ideals of the male patrons who provide the roof over her head. In the end, her artistic talent becomes a way of keeping her family together, even after death. While this seems romantic, it is also disquieting.

Running counter to the romantic story of girls growing up, finding husbands, and living happily-ever-after is the story of women's angst over adjusting their personal desires and lifestyles to society's expectations and demands. Beverly Lyon Clark calls this part of the story's structure double-edged and says that Jo's need to write both frees and conditions her. Jo's fiction, Clark argues, allows her to come to terms with domesticity. In the end, Jo gives up writing fiction. Clark concludes that, as a writer, "Alcott remains ambivalent—about writing, about self-expression and about gender roles" (87). Thus, the subtext contradicts the romantic story, and the book becomes a complex interpretation of women and American family values. According to Nodelman, this is what links feminist criticism to children's literature.

Nodelman argues that personal angst is a significant element in children's literature, whether written by men or by women, because children's literature focuses on how those at the bottom of a hierarchy learn to cope and succeed within the rules of the hierarchy. Pointing out that weak children usually encounter powerful antagonists, he says, "this implies that children's literature, like women's literature is merely a response to repression—a literature whose specific sort of femininity depends on … an alternative way of describing reality" (33). These stories contain sub-texts that contradict cultural ideals because they question the meanings of play and imagination.

Both children's literature and women's literature contain a literary structure at odds with the established American literary canon, and they reflect a cultural struggle for power. Yet because they are rarely discussed as literature in American education and are not considered for their sub-texts and implicit contradictions to traditional values, children's literature is usually taught only as texts that help youngsters fit within the traditional values of their everyday world.

Adults who do not possess the analytical skills derived from feminist theory use literature to show children how to read for instruction, and children learn to trust the simple morals pointed out by the adults who share their reading materials. Literature becomes a tool for talking about the past, and classics become "old-fashioned." Elementary school teachers prefer new titles that depict the past according to present-day historical standards, and classical stories in children's literature are left on the shelves in the children's library. In turn, college literature classes have ignored classical stories about adolescent girls, both in the context of children's literature and in the context of the American literary canon.

None of the students in my class had read Little Women in a class. Few of the young women in my class remembered sharing Little Women in a school setting. One of my students wrote that when it was described in the fifth grade, it sounded like "a typical story of women learning their roles." The students' reflections show me that books about women and children are not considered important literature.

A program of literary studies that includes children's and women's literature will create a better American literary canon. It will help all students understand that language not only reflects our world but also shapes our ideas about that world. It will demonstrate that all writers use language to instill attitudes and will encourage debate. And finally, it will encourage readers to think of women authors as writers who create images of their contemporary society that are opaque enough in design and style to encourage change while recording current societal attitudes.

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women, or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Boston: Little, 1968.

Beach, Seth Curtis. Daughters of the Puritans: A Group of Brief Biographies. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries, 1905.

Clark, Beverly Lyon. "A Portrait of the Artist as a Little Woman." Children's Literature 17 (1989): 81-97.

Egan, Susanna. "Self-Conscious History: American Autobiography after the Civil War." American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect. Ed. Paul John Eakin. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991.

Elbert, Sarah. A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1984.

Hollander, Anne. "Reflection on Little Women." Children's Literature 9 (1981): 28-39.

MacDonald, Ruth K. "Louisa May Alcott's Little Women: Who Is Still Reading Miss Alcott and Why." Touch-stones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Volume One. Ed. Perry Nodelman. West Lafayette, IN: ChLA, 1985. 13-20.

May, Jill P. "Spirited Females of the Nineteenth Century: Liberated Moods in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women." Children's Literature in Education 11 (1980): 10-20.

Nodelman, Perry. "Children's Literature as Women's Literature." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 13 (1988): 31-34.

Russ, Lavinia. Not to Be Read on Sunday!: Little Women 1868-1968. Boston: Little, 1968.

Showalter, Elaine. Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1991.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. The Adolescent Idea: Myths of Youth and the Adult Imagination. NY: Basic, 1981.

Stockton, Frank B. "Miss Alcott: The Friend of Little Women and Little Men." St. Nicholas Magazine Dec. 1877: 129-31.



I rejoice greatly therat, and hope that the first thing that you and Mrs. Sewall propose in your first meeting will be to reduce the salary of the head master of the High School, and increase the salary of the first woman assistant, whose work is quite as good as his, and even harder, to make the pay equal. I believe in the same pay for the same good work. Don't you? In future let woman do whatever she can do; let men place no more impediments in the way; above all things let's have fair play,—let simple justice be done, say I. Let us hear no more of "woman's sphere" either from our wise (?) legislators beneath the State House dome, or from our clergymen in their pulpits. I am tired, year after year, of hearing such twaddle about sturdy oaks and clinging vines and man's chivalric protection of woman. Let woman find her own limitations, and if, as is so confidently asserted, nature has defined her sphere, she will be guided accordingly, but in heaven's name give her a chance! Let the professions be open to her; let fifty years of college education be hers, and then we shall see what we shall see. Then, and not until then, shall we be able to say what woman can and what she cannot do, and coming generations will know and be able to define more clearly what is a "woman's sphere" than these benighted men who now try to do it.

Alcott, Louisa May. Letter to Maria S. Porter of 1874. In L. M. Alcott: Signature of Reform. Edited by Madeleine B. Stern, p. 152. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002.


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Alcott, Louisa May: Title Commentary

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