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.