Feminist Criticism has metamorphosed over the years from revisiting works by male authors to overlooked works by female writers. Some feminist focused on language and the way meaning is produced, deciding that language was developed in the male realm. Because they deem language as privileging masculinity, they believe that women have to either speak out in male language to be heard or that women will not be heard at all. American Feminist analyzed literary texts rather than philosophizing about language, contemplating the portrayals of female characters in the male dominated literary history, and revealing the patriarchal ideology implicit in their works, while others examined the female literary tradition to discover how great women authors have understood themselves, felt, and visualized reality. Other feminist distinguished themselves by avoiding what they deemed to be an overemphasis on texts and an under emphasis on popular art and culture, regarding their criticisms as more political and historical in nature, emphasizing their preoccupation with promoting social change.
Today these approaches have synthesized, tending to characterize a work by whether the kind of woman is the focus or whether the sexual difference encompasses other differences in identity. They stress that all women are female, but their conflicts and goals distinguish them from others. In short, feminism encompasses both the woman’s view of a male author’s written and lifestyle attitude toward women and the woman’s world, and the woman’s perspective of a female author’s need to be heard, in the context of a previously male dominated world of female silence.
This essay describes the crises of womanhood in the context of Little Women, while confronting their seeming contradictions, and seeking to show that there does not always have to be an either/or solution. Some women were able to find a good balance between their own identity and family life; others found them incompatible. The later sought an escape route on the road to personal fulfillment, much like the character of Jo in Little Women; while the former found a merging of the two roads, like the personality of Marmee. Little Women helps us to see the patience and faithfulness of these women, but also shows us their steadfast determination when they feel they have something to say or contribute to their world.
Women like Louisa May Alcott and many others have sought to establish their own authoritative identities among the myriad of women, who through the centuries have struggled for their independence in a man’s world, having had to fight their way into publication and credence in the world of male authors. The voices of womankind have been crying out for the freedom of the written word in the quest for personal identity in a culture that expects women to suppress their own thoughts, feelings, and desires while submitting to male domination. In a recent movie version of Little Women this resonates in a scene where Jo tried to submit her stories to a publisher who told her his magazine didn’t publish fairy stories, but that she could go to one of the ladies magazine publishers. Much of women’s writings reflect this kind of rejection in their search for independent identities, along with their efforts to find a place in that culture for women who think for themselves, even when tied to the apron strings of marriage and motherhood.
The book, Little Women, chronicles the lives of the March Family; Father, Marmee, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and it details the struggles of the March women, especially Jo, to find sustenance for their family and identities of their own in the culture of a masculine society. When Mr. March lost his property in trying to help an unfortunate friend, the two oldest girls begged to be allowed to do something toward their own support. The March parents consented, “believing that they could not begin too early to cultivate energy, industry, and independence” in their girls(51). Meg, the oldest daughter, hired out as a governess, while Jo hired out to Aunt March as a companion. But Jo’s desire to be a successful writer and to support her family had long been cultivated in her strong and independent mind. Jo toiled at the confinement of being companion and then a governess, but her imagination could not be confined to the quarters of her mind. Write she must, and write she would, until she was good enough to earn her bread, as she tells us in one excerpt, “I’m so fond of writing, I should go spinning on forever if motives of economy didn’t stop me. . .”(441). Jo’s conviction that she should provide support for her family was bound up with her desire to become a fluent and financially independent writer. With her consolation for Meg’s discontentment, she comforts “Poor dear, just wait till I make my fortune, and you shall revel in carriages, and ice cream and high heel slippers and posies and red headed boys to dance with”(50). She was determined to give her sisters the little luxuries life had denied them for the most part.
Jo’s masculine independence resonates in many passages throughout the book, but especially in the scene where she comes home with Twenty-five Dollars, from running errands for Marmee’s trip to Washington to go to Mr. March who had gone off to war as a chaplain and contracted pneumonia. At her mother’s inquiry, she replied “’No, it’s mine honestly; I didn’t beg, borrow, or steal it. I earned it, and I don’t think you’ll blame me, for I only sold what was my own.’ As she spoke, “Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short””(210). Alcott’s own desire to be independent from male domination is identified with Jo’s desire to be masculine in this memorable scene, although in real life Alcott did not have her hair cut as her heroine did. The tears Jo shed over the incident later that night, reflects the heart-wrenching decisions that women must sometimes make, choosing between the world of independence associated with the masculine, and the reliance on feminine attributes that sometimes stifles that longed for independence.
Later in the book, where Laurie, Jo’s neighbor and suitor proposes to her, she clearly designates her motives with the answer she gives to her forlorn lover, “I don’t believe I shall ever marry. I’m happy as I am, and love my liberty too well to be in any hurry to give it up for any mortal man”(476). Though Meg, and Amy found their places in the stability of marriage, Jo struggled with this decision more than any of the sisters. Beth had made her peace with God in death, but while living, favored the quiet home life also. Marmee, seeing much of her own strong spirit in Jo, encouraged her daughter “to enjoy your liberty till you tire of it; for only then will you find there is something sweeter”(430). As Marmee supported Jo in her independence, she must have seen something of her own desire to be free, once upon a time. Jo and Marmee, two strong women, knew something of the independent spirit they shared and resigned themselves to the inevitable role it would play in both their lives.
Unlike Alcott, who never married, Jo eventually did marry Professor Bhaer, whom she met in New York while working as a governess for Mrs. Kirke, a friend of Marmee’s who ran a boarding house. Mr. Bhaer was a kind hearted German immigrant who had come to America with his nephews to give them an American education. Though he was twice Jo’s age, his knowledgeable guidance and education attracted Jo’s inquisitively free nature. But Alcott’s unwillingness to give her heroine total independence, I believe, mirrors the resistance she faced in her own life in her search for freedom and individuality. In her writing, she was not yet ready to resist societal restrictions freeing womanhood from its traditions.
Jo’s father represents the passive influence that Alcott’s own father had in her life. He was in effect an absentee father in most of the book, much like Bronson Alcott did not actively pursue provisions for his family, depending on others for their support. He was a loving father, but lacked the good sense to provide for their welfare. In Essays Before a Sanota, Charles Ives quotes, speaking of Bronson Alcott and his daughters, “ “Great Expecter”, say Thoreau; “great feller” says Sam Staples, “for talkin big. . . but his daughters is the gals though – always doin” something’” (45). Alcott was an independent woman, who always felt compelled by her father’s deficiencies, to provide for herself and her family. She was “always doin’ something” and tried many employments, but her heart was in her writing, knowing that someday she would be self-supporting in it. Ives observes in his essay that, “The daughter does not accept the father as a prototype-she seems to have but few of her father’s qualities “in female””(46). He seems to recognize that women have qualities in their own right, not necessarily those of the masculine world “in female.” He says of her book Little Women, “She leaves memory-word-pictures of healthy New England childhood days-pictures which are turned to with affection by middle-aged children-pictures that bear a sentiment, a leaven, that middle-aged America needs nowadays more than we care to admit”(47). This leaven that middle aged America needs is the moral quality in Alcott’s writings that adults and children alike can reflect on and interpret to the rectitude of their souls.
In opposition to this praise of the moral virtue of Alcott’s writing, she disclaims her angelic image in a passage from Little Women, musing on the attitude she must have faced when submitting some of her earliest stories. In the incidence where Mr. Dashwood, the editor of The Weekly Volcano, the newspaper in which Jo’s sensation stories were published, replied to her surprise at finding, “that all the moral reflections-which she had carefully put in as ballast-had been stricken out” was that “Morals don’t sell nowadays.” Jo’s reponse was to have a brief moral lapse in writing her stories as Mr. Dashwood, “rejected any but thrilling tales.” She describes her fall from grace announcing that, “as thrills could not be produced except by harrowing up the souls of the readers, history and romance, land and sea, science and art, police records and lunatic asylums had to be ransacked for the purpose”(454-456). But as Jo had been careful to have some of her “sinners repent,” in these sensationalist stories, she had also repented of her moral lapse, putting away her pen and inkstand until she could do better.
Just as Jo overcame the temptation to write sensation stories just for the money, so Alcott did in her own life, with her writing material reflecting this progression. Elizabeth Keyser in a brief biographical introduction of Louisa May Alcott’s Work, describes Alcott’s works from her early sensation stories to her final success as a children’s author. She touches on Alcott’s unfamiliar adult works, like Moods,saying that they “had been roughly treated by both its publisher and the reading public,” indicating the resistance Alcott received when she attempted to assert herself as an adult writer. In Alcott’s efforts to portray the truth of woman’s search for independence, “her candid treatment of adultery and divorce as alternatives to unhappy marriage,”(72) she found not to be lucrative to either pocketbook or soul. Though Alcott tried her hand at adult literature, she was satisfied with the fact that her fortune and name was made in her children’s literature, which has endeared the hearts of children of all ages for generations.
As the characters in Little Women illustrate the many perspectives of women’s search for identity and the discovery of the roles they chose, most women choose the traditional roles of marriage and motherhood. But as Jo took on the role of marriage to Mr. Bhaer, and motherhood in the form of her boy’s school in Little Men, she did not give up her own identity in the calling. She depicted the multiplexity of a woman’s role without denying the traditions associated with womanhood, or the new found strength and dignity of her own identity. Women, like Jo, could not deny a part of themselves to find another. She had to have the independence to discover every aspect of her being and to develop each component in her own way. Whether wife, mother, writer, teacher, or any other role in which many women find themselves, Alcott’s Little Women is a classic that showed the importance of womanhood’s many different roles, without denying any part of womanhood itself.