Little Women, Big Issues
Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women is a widely accepted and very successful novel because it deals with issues that many people face, despite the test of time. The story of the March sisters captures the attention of its readers because more often than not, the reader can identify with at least one of the characters in some way. Two of the most predominant issues in the novel are the roles of women in the late 1800’s and social class. Alcott skillfully addresses these issues with real life situations, which is what makes the novel so personable to its readers.
The story of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy march is anything from perfect. From the start it is evident that the girls’ lives are far from perfect due to the hardships of poverty. Mr. March is away at war, leaving the girls and “Marmee” to tend to the household by themselves. Throughout the novel, it is apparent that women in this time had certain expectations. They were to be proper, prim, and hold their tongue when anger tempted it to speak out. In the beginning of the March’s story, Jo’s temper plays a big role in the relationship between her and her sisters. She often has a snide comment for anything she doesn’t agree with, opposed to Beth’s always-gracious character. Jo’s quick temper raises the topic of what was expected of women in this time. Since Jo is quickly reprimanded after a tantrum or outburst, and later given a lesson on how to behave like a proper lady, it can be inferred that women were expected to “keep their cool” in stressful times. Alcott seemed to convey the idea that women “must not have, much less act on, negative emotions” (Foote 65). For instance, when Amy burns Jo’s book that she had been working on for years, Jo’s temper is seen as a negative reaction. Instead of emphasizing how Amy was in the wrong as well, the focus was put on Jo’s fit. It was portrayed as being too cruel or savage, when in fact Jo’s reaction was very normal, as most people would react in the exact same way. It seems ludicrous to expect anyone to repress their anger completely, considering sometimes it is best to express your feelings, but women in this time period were not expected to have such emotions at all. During this period of time, it was essential for parents to teach their daughters that expression of anger was not acceptable or proper. As women, it was their duty to raise a household based on love and tranquility. Expression of anger showed a lack of self-control; women “must not sulk, pout, complain, or in any other way express her anger while she denies her personal desires” (Gaard). It seems that throughout the novel, not limited to Jo’s case, expression of anger is seen as a negative reaction instead of a productive expression. After Amy almost drowns in the frozen river, Jo confesses to Marmee that her anger is a problem when she states “It seems I could do anything when I’m in a passion; I get so savage…” ( Alcott 71). After listening to Jo’s confession, her mother explains how her own temper used to get the best of her until she learned to control it. This shows the lesson of repression being passed down through the generations as a characteristic to strive for. This characteristic, however, can either be a healthy or destructive alternative.
As one of the many themes presented in Little Women, social class seems to be the one that is most repeated. Being a poor family certainly takes a toll on the March’s in almost every aspect of their life. It keeps Amy from having proper art materials, Jo from satisfying her love to read, Meg from being the same as her wealthy peers, Beth from having the music instruments she desires, and Mrs. March from supplying her daughters with the materials they want. Early on in the novel, in the first chapter in fact, the issue of money in the March family is well pronounced. The setting is close to Christmas, and the girls are all discussing the things they wished they could purchase with their individual earnings. Once reality set in and the girls realized their wishes would not be fulfilled, a joint effort to buy something for Marmee was decided. The March sisters knew that money set them apart from their society in many ways, but they were determined to make the best of what they had. Class in the late 1800’s was not merely about money. It was about where individuals stood in society and often determined their futures, regardless of the hopes and dreams of the individual. In today’s time, women and men are not confined to certain expectations and rules. One is encouraged to be original and push past their personal boundaries. This greatly contrasts the expectations of people in the setting of Little Women, who often had their futures decided for them by their family class. Alcott portrays a contrast between poverty and wealth with the image of the March and the Laurence residences. The March house is small and rickety, while the Laurence house is grand and elaborate. Laurie’s college career is not what he had hoped for, but being the gentleman he is, it was what was expected for him. The same goes for Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth. Their dreams are somewhat out of the ordinary for their time and do not fall under the restrictions they are faced with as ladies. Social class determines the futures of both the wealthy and poor. Alcott uses the imagery of the households to show that even though the two families are not of the same class, both have expectations set out for them by the society they live in.
Given the economic troubles that they Marches face, it is no doubt that they handle it with pride and grace. Even though they are poor, their home is filled with more love than even the richest mansions; “Clearly the poorer house, the Marches have the more attractive home.” (Foote 70). Since the Marches were once rich, the eldest daughter Meg has had a taste of the good life and often wants more. When Meg attends the party at the Moffats, Mrs. March is worried that she will envy her friends and come back disappointed, but “she trusts that Meg will understand how to respond correctly to
the differences between herself and her friends.” (Foote 71). It is obvious to the family that they are different, but the home is undoubtedly filled with more love and compassion than anyone could hope for. It seems that even though the Marches face adversity and hardships, they are quite contented with being poor and handle it with grace.
Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women has struck the hearts of all who read it because of its real-life issues and situations. By portraying a family that undergoes many trials and tribulations, and showing how they deal with these situations, Alcott teaches life lessons that her readers can learn from even in today’s time. Social class may not have as profound of an affect on individuals today as it did in the 1800’s, but there is no doubt that it still exists. Certain expectations and the roles of women also still exist, but in dramatically different ways.
From the points made in this essay, questions arise. Given the March’s social rank in the 1800’s, they seemed to learn to be content with being poor. If the Marches were to live in America in 2011, would it be easier or harder for them to accept being poor? Consider economic changes since then. Would the Marches be able to live the happy life they did in the novel if they were a poor family in today’s time? Women’s roles in society have also changed since then. Is it still necessary for women to suppress anger in order to have a happy household? How have the roles of women changed since the late 1800’s? Elaborate and provide examples for the points you make.
- Gaard, Greta. “’Self-Denial Was All The Fashion’: Repressing Anger in Little Women” Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature. Vol. 27. December 1, 1991. MLA Database. UT Arlington Central Library, TX. January 28, 2011. < http://libproxy.uta.edu>
- Foote, Stephanie. “Resentful Little Women: Gender and Class feeling in Louisa May Alcott”. College Literature. 2005 Winter. 63-85. MLA Database. UT Arlington Central Library, TX. January 28, 2011. <http://libproxy.uta.edu>>