Is Little Women a “Lie”?

In her article “The Lie of Little Women in the September 2018 issue of The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert suggests that a knowledge of Louisa May Alcott’s biography is necessary to unlocking the truth behind the author’s most famous work.  Readings of Little Women in which the Marches are viewed as an ideal family conforming to certain standards of morality and certain social and gender conventions are simply false.  Probe a little deeper and you’ll uncover that Alcott’s family suffered because her father could not provide and that Alcott herself flouted gender roles by choosing to write rather than marry.  And, oh yeah, she really hated Little Women, which she called “moral pap for the young.”  From this we are to gather that Little Women does not portray an ideal family at all and that movie makers might be on the right track if they were to try to tell the story Alcott really wanted to tell.  For instance, what about a film that cuts Prof. Bhaer altogether, leaving Jo to blissful singlehood?

Gilbert’s stance is an intriguing once since I had thought Roland Barthes had effectively declared the death of the author in 1967.  In other words, literary criticism in the past decades has largely adhered to the idea that the biography of an author and authorial intention do not matter; the text speaks to readers by itself.  I mostly subscribe to this view myself and think that, even if Little Women is autobiographical in nature, we might run into trouble if we try to force too many parallels.  Is Mr. March a bad father simply because Alcott’s was?  Is the story less idyllic because we know that the Alcotts’ poverty was far worse than the Marches’?  If someone can point to the text to make an argument for these things, I may be swayed.  But I will only view Mr. March as a failure if the book itself–and not Bronson Alcott–suggests it.

Likewise, I view Louisa May Alcott’s hatred of Little Women as irrelevant.  She does need to like what she wrote for it to be a masterpiece.  Her characterization is phenomenal, lifting the story up from mere “moral pap” and making it seem real.  Her characters are not saints, but beautiful, flawed women struggling to do her best.  If wanting to do better and be a good person is moral pap, then bring it on.  But her story is never didactic and her characters (especially Jo) chafe against convention too much for it ever to seem like the author is forcing a lesson upon her readers; the lessons are simply part of life.

All that is to say that I believe that the text itself actually supports a certain subversive reading (something Gilbert also later mentions in her article).  We do not really need Alcott’s biography to “prove” that there is what we might now call a certain feminist undertone.  Mr. March is far less present in the story than Marmee, giving us a picture of a matriarchal household full of girls encouraged to pursue their passions, not just marry well and keep house.  They put on plays (Meg dreams of being an actress), write and publish their own newspaper, and all participate in Amy’s artistic endeavors.  They are interesting, intelligent girls with their own interiorities, not simply models upon which morals of proper submission are draped.

So is Little Women a lie?  Absolutely not.  As Gilbert admits herself, the text has always been more than what it may appear to be on the surface.  Alcott never leads her characters docilely into proper submissive roles; not one of them becomes a saintly model woman or wife.  Their frustrations, their anger, their deceptions, and their tears all leap off the page.  Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy want so much out of life.  And it’s not simply to be used as case examples for proper female behavior.

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15 thoughts on “Is Little Women a “Lie”?

  1. jenchaos76 says:

    That’s unfortunate that she had a resentment towards the book. This book teaches individuality, respect, passion for life. I thought it was a heavy text way back when reading it, but it did have an effect on me as a young girl. I loved Jo most of all for her rebellious nature and felt she was most like me. I seriously think this book deserves.more.credit

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    • Krysta says:

      I think the author was sort of trying to make the point that the book is actually rebellious if we look at Alcott’s own life? But it wasn’t quite clear as she both suggested the book is too idyllic and actually subversive.

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  2. jenchaos76 says:

    That’s unfortunate that she had a resentment towards the book. This book teaches individuality, respect, passion for life. I thought it was a heavy text way back when reading it, but it did have an effect on me as a young girl. I loved Jo most of all for her rebellious nature and felt she was most like me. I seriously think this book deserves.more.credit

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  3. Elspeth says:

    The truth is -and I hope this doesn’t come across as more controversial than I intend- is that no female protagonists are going to be feminist enough to satisfy a modern feminist.

    To expect women writers of a bygone era -who were clearly sympathetic to women’s individuality and dignity- to present their works in light of our postmodern sensibilities it to reveal a startling ignorance of literature and life itself, really.

    Little Women is a “lie” only to the extent that you believe that the privacy and propriety that characterized Alcott’s era was itself a lie. And it wasn’t. Would that we postmoderns offered as much respect to our own ancestors and their struggles.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think you’re right. Of course women from the 1800s aren’t going to satisfy modern sensibilities! Even a contemporary character often doesn’t because any sign of weakness or vulnerability can be determined to mean the character isn’t good enough, instead of showing that the character is simply human.

      I like that idea, too. Conforming to certain standards isn’t inherently wrong. Being kind and polite and making people feel comfortable isn’t wrong.

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  4. Jonathan Scott Griffin says:

    It’s interesting that Louisa May Alcott hated her novel. But then again, I am finding this seems to not be unusual for many authors. Arthur Conan Doyle hated Sherlock Holmes, even having tried to kill him off. Anthony Burgess, who was a literary genius who wrote books to fill the first two rows of a bookshelf, felt stuck with A Clockwork Orange.

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  5. Bridget says:

    This was really interesting! I haven’t read Little Women yet, but I do plan to at some point since it’s a classic. I never heard that the author herself hated her own book — that’s crazy! Like, why write it in the first place?

    I also love the point that someone else made — that this book will never represent feminist ideals today as ideals are ever-changing.

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  6. ofmariaantonia says:

    Is there absolute proof that LMA hated Little Women?

    I know that she was reluctant to write the book in the first place because she didn’t want to write some childish, moral pap. (And does the moral pap that she talks about refer to her own work, or to her competition?) And I also know she refused to marry Jo off to Laurie (and only created Prof B under pressure from her publisher).

    But does that make her hate the finished product? I’m curious as I’ve never heard this before.

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    • Krysta says:

      She did write in her diary that Little Women was “moral pap for the young” and I think it’s generally accepted she would have preferred to write thrillers, but the children’s books sold. I haven’t read her diaries, so I don’t know offhand what the entire context is. I personally think she may have been annoyed that her publishers wanted her to work in a genre she disliked, but she found ways to subvert it. Her characters make fun of stories where naughty children are eaten by bears. Her stories may be “wholesome,” but they’re not that didactic and that’s clearly on purpose. I suspect she worked within the genre just enough to make her work sell, but felt entirely free to do things like make Jo not marry Laurie–because she felt it violated the integrity of the story she wanted to tell. Even adding in Prof. Bhaer is subversive.. Jo marries a guy who’s what? 20 years older? Hardly what her publisher wanted, I assume!

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