Little Women is perhaps one of the most known, and most loved, American girls’ stories. Since its 1868 publication, it has inspired films, paperdolls, toys, art, at least one musical, and two later Alcott books that deal with the same characters. But what is it about these 4 sisters, their lives, that has us still reading and adapting their story? It’s difficult to say. The novel is mostly domestic–as one would expect from a text about girls published during this time. But Jo March is a force to be reckoned with. While her sisters focus on needlework, art, and getting married (and this is *not* to say that they are bad characters, as they all have their flaws and other interests, but are mostly focused on the domestic way of life), Jo shortens her name and her hair, gallops about, and is far more interested in making it as a writer than in making her way to wifedom.
At book’s opening, Josephine March is acting as the “man of the house” while her father is away in the War. She tromps around in big boots, runs about, and generally scandalizes everyone by how un-womanly she can be. She reads constantly, and we see the prevailing views on education when little sister Amy’s teacher says that it’s “as useful to educate a girl as to educate a cat.” But Marmee, the matriarch of the family, gives us different ideas about how and why girls should be educated and what the value of beauty is:
And so, luckily, Jo, who is in part based on Alcott herself, is part of a family (also partially based on Alcott’s family) that values not just the traditional roles of women but intellectualism and being true to onself. Indeed, many a young girl has wished that Jo accepted the proposal of neighbor-boy/best friend Laurie (especially when Laurie is Christian Bale, as in the 1994 film), but Marmee has the right end of this, agreeing with Jo’s rejection and supporting her daughter. I was one of those kids who, upon reading and upon watching the films, wished that Laurie and Jo were married.
But as I got older, I began to see the wisdom of Marmee’s words and the wisdom of Jo’s rejection. Jo is young when Laurie proposes to her–very young. She wants, more than anything, to be a writer, to escape the cage of domesticity and home. She recognizes both that she would not be able to pursue her interests and that she and Laurie have personalities unsuited for marriage to one another, and she smartly but kindly rejects his proposal. This is fundamentally unlike most girl characters up until Jo, and it is fundamentally different from how her sisters would’ve reacted to the proposal, as evidenced by their incredulous reaction to her rejection of Laurie. Jo has rejected a rich suitor who would’ve been able to support her lifelong. She has done so knowing that she’s not considered beautiful and that she doesn’t have other prospects on the horizon. Even now that’s a big deal—some 150-ish years ago, it was even more rare.
And Jo does, of course, eventually get married. Readers had large effect on this—the books were originally serialized, and readers were desperate for Jo to find someone to marry. Friedrich Bhaer, then, an odd but fitting match, became Jo’s husband. He helps to further educate Jo, teaching her other languages, and he not only does not prevent her from writing, but actively encourages her and serves as a sounding-board for her ideas. He’s not rich, nor is he described as particularly handsome. But he’s the man that Jo believes to be suited to her own ideals, and in the later books the two seem particularly happy, having started a school for boys and with Jo still writing.
And perhaps it is a bit of a cop-out that our Jo has to grow up and marry someone, anyone, as it seem unsuited to her character in many ways. Jo is impetuous and independent. She has a fiery temper. She likes to run and hates to be stifled in any way. While her sisters delight in dressing up, Jo only wants to dress up when she’s a part of the plays the sisters perform, and she often wants to (and does) dress up and play the male characters, getting to be a rascal and a villain rather than a damsel in distress. Jo wants to write, and she spends lots of time sitting away from everyone else, scribbling down information and stories. She publishes under a pen name, and she is thrilled to begin making money from her enterprises–something that was rare at the time, and is still reflected in women’s under-representation in the publishing industry (something Alcott would’ve been keenly aware of).
Jo’s marriage to Bhaer, though, represents a departure from traditional marriage roles, not just a reaffirmation of girls’ need to be married. Bhaer, as mentioned before, is poor—and Jo has already turned down a rich suitor; he’s not handsome—and Jo has already turned down a handsome suitor. Bhaer is not just uninterested in stopping Jo from working–he encourages her to continue doing so. And the two then create a school, based on Jo’s idea. In other words, her marriage to Bhaer represents not just a marriage, but a partnership that is more equal than many other marriage relationships that we seen in literature, and she has given up a much more “worthy” suitor before she eventually finds and creates this relationship with Bhaer. Jo’s marriage, then, is another way in which she represents a departure from the societal norm, another way in which Jo dares to be different.