The first half of the new Masterpiece adaptation of Little Women premiered on Sunday, May 13, leading to a series of reviews that range from delighted to puzzled to disdainful. Two of the most negative reactions come from Melanie McFarland’s article “PBS’ ‘Little Women’ looks thoroughly unfashionable” and Sonia Saraiya’s “Review: PBS’s Little Women Is Thoroughly Un-Modern.” McFarland opines that the new adaptation needs something to happen and suggests that audiences raised on the drama of period pieces like Downton Abbey will be bored. Saraiya argues that the story itself is objectionable because the heroines are domesticated and–gasp–religious. Yet it seems strikingly obvious that Little Women has lasted through the centuries because audiences actually like something about the text. Indeed, I argue that the aspects McFarland and Saraiya object to most are the ones that continue to appeal so strongly to modern audiences.
A Coming-of-Age Story
McFarland’s comparison of Little Women to Downton Abbey suggests that she does not fully understand the nature of Louisa May Alcott’s work–and thus is ill-suited to comment on why audiences still connect with it. Although the titular “little women” do grow from children into adults who marry and have children of their own, the story is not meant to be a period drama like Downton Abbey, where the characters are of marriageable age from the start. Her examples of Downton Abbey-esque drama center on characters like the Turkish diplomant Mr. Pamuk, who dies in the unmarried Lady Mary’s bed. That is, the implied argument is that the real drama audiences want is sexual escapades–a strange argument for a story that begins with Meg, the eldest daughter, at the age of sixteen. Though audiences may cheer on her blossoming romance with Mr. Brooke, I hardly think showing her in bed would appeal to a modern-day audience–she’s still a child!
It is true that the second half of Little Women (first published as a separate volume called Good Wives) shows a married Meg as well as two more engagements. However, Little Women remains very much a coming-of-age story. The March sisters are shown transforming from children who must fight their besetting weaknesses into strong, virtuous women. Adding sexual drama is completely antithetical to this narrative both because sin is illustrated as something to be combated and not welcomed, and because sin is shown to be sin no matter how “small” or “boring” it may seem to viewers like McFarland. Jo’s temper, Meg’s vanity, and Amy’s desire to fit in no matter the cost all create very real drama because they all result in very real consequences for the characters.
Part of Little Women‘s enduring charm is its ability to remind readers just how significant everyday moments can feel, especially to the young. Amy’s chastisement at school after she is found with contraband pickled limes may seem silly to some adults–but not to those who remember how keenly the desire to be like the other girls can hurt. Likewise, a few girls complaining about Christmas without presents (and their father–away at war!) may seem self-centered and not worthy of any real empathy. However, who has not felt the difference in holidays where traditions are broken, relatives missing, or finances a little tighter? Real life is very dramatic to those living it. The relatability of these moments gives Little Women far more staying power than a narrative in which a forbidden sexual liaison leads to a soap-opera like death and cover-up.
The Drama of Everyday Moments
The very real stakes of these everyday moments is also precisely why Saraiya’s critique rings hollow. She condemns the story for being anti-progressive and blames it on the Christianity embedded within the text: ” Each spirited daughter is not just forced to reckon with the proscribed role of women in the world; they are also heartily encouraged to embrace their confinement, through their parents’ faith-based home-schooling.” There is a lot to unpack here, including the assumption that domesticated women or wives are not progressive, the ignoring of Alcott’s own (rather feminist) biography, and the implied censure of faith-based homeschooling families. However, to keep this post (relatively) short, we’ll focus on the argument that faith keeps the March sisters “confined.”
Little Women is an obviously moral book–one where the March sisters play Pilgrim’s Progress in order to fight temptation and become better people. And yet generations of readers have connected with it despite Saraiya’s censure. And I would argue that audiences connect with it precisely because it does offer the message that people should strive to be better–and that they can even succeed in doing so. In this respect, the faith of the sisters is actually very freeing because it empowers them to fight characteristics that were holding them back by making them unhappy and harming their relationships.
We can see this freedom occurring throughout the text. Meg’s rejection of the Moffat lifestyle is not a blanket condemnation of wealth or parties or fancy dresses, but of a household where money is used to paper over the reality that the family is not very close and deeply unhappy. Her ability to let go of her envy of material possessions frees her to have a satisfied marriage with a man she loves, even though he is poor. Likewise, Amy’s ability to recognize that she will never be a famous artist enables her to find happiness in roles that her talents make her more suited to. She also gains the ability to enjoy art for the sake of creating art, rather than for the pursuit of fame. Without her ability to humble herself, she would never have been happy because she would never have been famous.
Yes, all this sounds deeply moral and thus, I suppose, boring to McFarland and Saraiya. However, audience members are hardly starving for media that depicts more “modern” sensibilities. Little Women continues to appeal precisely because it is different. It offers a story where everyday moments and everyday battles are taken seriously. It says that ordinary people and their experiences matter. And it says that they can win their fights.