It’s been 150 years since Louisa May Alcott published the first volume of Little Women and, for a book once declared “uncouth” because its teenaged heroine says “Christopher Columbus!” the anniversary has created something of a frenzy.
Three new film adaptations mark the occasion, each with a cast more brilliant than the last. PBS released a three-part miniseries this past spring starring Emily Watson and Maya Hawke (the genetically blessed daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke) in full bonnet-wearing glory. A movie adaptation now in theaters sets the story in the present, with Lucas Grabeel (a former High School Musical heartthrob) playing the conveniently rich boy-next-door, Laurie. But the delirium reached fever-pitch when Greta Gerwig (of Lady Bird fame) announced that she will direct yet another movie adaptation, scheduled for release in 2019. The film is already so chock-full of A-list actors (Emma Watson! Timothée Chalamet! Meryl Streep!), it’s as if the casting agents raided “an ex-librarian’s secret Tumblr fan-cast fever dream,” as one article put it.
But the most unbearable part of the festivities is the purple-prose obituaries for girlhoods past that keep cropping up in newspapers and magazines, in which every writer apparently spent her childhood reading Little Women under the covers, no doubt with a basket of kittens nearby. And beating steadily through all the reminiscing, like a never-ending refrain, is a single name: Jo March.
Jo is the primary reason that, 150 years later, we’re still talking about a book in which the main characters are not only familiar with Pilgrim’s Progress but also read it for fun. She is the second oldest of the four March sisters, the little women of the book’s title. A rambunctious tomboy with a literary streak, she writes stories in her family’s attic and can’t be bothered to wear clean gloves. When you consider that almost every essay uses the same shorthand to describe each of the four sisters—the oldest, Meg, is always “maternal,” Beth is “saintly” or “dull,” depending on how charitable the writer is feeling, and Amy, the youngest, is “spoiled”—it’s not a surprise that we’re conditioned to favor Jo, who gets plum adjectives like “spirited,” “independent,” and “ambitious.”
Jo is the character who launched the literary aspirations of a thousand women writers, Ursula K. Le Guin, Simone de Beauvoir, Amy Lowell, and J. K. Rowling among them. “I, personally, am Jo March,” wrote Barbara Kingsolver, summing up the general state of affairs. (Kingsolver had better get in line. Both Ephron sisters have also claimed the honor, though they disagreed over who is more like Jo. While Nora wrote that she “identif[ied] with Jo,” Delia, ever the younger sister, claims that she “technically … was Jo.”)
I don’t feel the clarion call of sisterhood even though I, too, am Jo March. I’m one of four sisters. I love to read, wrote plays for my siblings to perform at Christmas, and if we’re proving our tomboy bonafides, wore the same pair of shapeless jeans and a baggy green T-shirt every day when I was 12. I even slept in our family’s attic growing up, although this was due to overcrowding, not artistic temperament.
And yet, I still can’t stand Jo. She isn’t a role model, she’s a self-righteous martyr who insists on being snotty and rude to her elderly great-aunt (the very great-aunt who employs her to read to her every day, so that she can earn money for her family). Amy, the youngest sister, is far more interesting, livening up the book’s more sentimental passages by lighting things on fire and falling through the ice while skating. She’s also the other artist in the family besides Jo, but unlike Jo, she is nice to her great-aunt and is rewarded with an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe, where she marries Laurie (who is still conveniently rich and buys her lots of art supplies). Of the two sisters, which one would you rather be?
Even when I read the book for the first time at age 10, I sensed that Jo was supposed to be the favorite, if not of every woman writer ever, then at least of Alcott. It’s precisely because Jo is the one I’m supposed to like that, perversely, I detest her. Nothing is more irritating than being told—even by Rowling—that you must love a character because she’s a good role model for young girls. Jo has now been overhyped to the point where this awkward, bookish teenager has become exactly the opposite of what she was intended to be, taking on the mantel of proscriptive goodness that makes virtuous characters like Beth so irksome.
I can appreciate how Jo, who is daring and throws snowballs at Laurie, paved the way for contemporary children’s book heroines like Katniss Everdeen, who is also daring and shoots arrows at the dystopian government agents trying to kill her. But it’s impossible not to gag a little at the sentimental swooning about Jo as writerly inspiration. Reading Little Women inspired me to write only inasmuch as I wanted to scribble out an alternate ending that doesn’t involve every feminist writer’s darling forsaking her solitary life of letters to marry Professor Bhaer, an unattractive, bumbling schoolteacher who doesn’t think much of her potboiler stories.
If it’s possible for a book like Little Women to have a dirty secret, this is it. In the end, Jo marries, produces two children, and opens a school for boys, which essentially makes her a more chaotic version of Meg, the domestic goddess sister. You can’t help but feel duped when it turns out that you can cherry pick a Jo March to suit your agenda.
As literature professor Anne Boyd Rioux points out in her new book, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, your interpretation of Jo probably depends on which of Alcott’s books you’re talking about. At the end of Little Women, Volume I, Jo resolves to stay single and continue churning out stories for local papers. But by Volume II (published a year after the first and ominously titled Good Wives) it’s harder to be enthusiastic about Jo’s work-life balance now that she’s married and declaring that being a single woman and a writer seems “selfish, lonely, and cold.” Patient readers have to wait until Jo’s Boys, an entirely different book set many years after Little Women, for Jo to finally become the famous author she always aspired to be.
In other words, Jo follows a more complicated—and interesting—arc than the one-dimensional girl-power narrative would suggest. And so do all the March sisters. Homebody Meg is taught that marriage is “the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman,” only to find that being a young mother of twins is hard work. Some of the book’s funniest and most sharply observed scenes are the missteps in marriage and parenting of newlywed Meg and her husband. Amy grows from a self-centered little girl into a young woman who is humbled by Laurie’s love for her, and even tedious Beth has a star turn. As she’s dying, Beth asks Jo to take care of their parents in her stead. Loving others will make Jo “happier … than writing splendid books,” Beth says. It’s a turning point for Jo, one that marks her transformation into a more nuanced character and, eventually, a better writer. For as Jo observes at the end of the book, surrounded by her husband, children, and sisters: “I haven’t given up the hope that I may write a good book yet, but I can wait, and I’m sure it will be all the better for such experiences and illustrations as these.”
Upon rereading Little Women recently, I was reassured to realize that there’s more to Jo and her sisters than a choice between being a literary goddess or a domestic one. The novel can get more than a little sanctimonious (one notorious passage describes women like Beth “living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet, sunshiny presence vanishes”), but there’s a lot to admire as well. Little Women is far funnier than I remembered, and Alcott’s sly observations are always worth savoring.
I might have even teared up a little at the final scene, in which three generations of Marches are gathered in an apple orchard together. (Although this impulse was tempered somewhat by my annoyance at Amy for naming her frail, sickly baby girl “Beth.” Why would you tempt fate?) Little Women is a book worth rereading and debating for another 150 years to come—as long as we remember that there are other little women besides that blasted Jo March.
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