Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic “Little Women” was a noticeably modern take on the late-19th century tale. Although Gerwig stayed true to the original tale and portrayed the characters beautifully, critics and fans alike couldn’t help but remark on some distinctive tweaks that brought the story into step with 21st-century feminist ideas.
Many have debated the themes and the ideas of the story, some championing it as a great feminist text, others finding it lacking in female empowerment.
This ability to spark debate is the wonderful power of great literature and it is not questions such as this that I would like to discuss in this article.
Rather, I hope to draw attention to one aspect of the story. That is that in 1868, Alcott published a book that gave readers an insight into the minds of four girls, their mother, and their aunt. It followed the development of four sisters, documenting how they thought, learned, shared, and grew together. This, at the time, was rather subversive: a tale of the domestic life of six women which foregrounded female voices.
Even more subversive was the fact that their aunt had chosen not to marry (and appeared to show no regrets about it) and that one of the sisters was adamant that she never would. The book does not take a strong stance for or against marriage but rather details the reasoning behind each girl’s opinion. Even from this simple fact, Louisa May Alcott did something amazing: she proved that a woman is a many-faceted thing.
The myriad of womanhood
By presenting her readers with six women, each one beautiful, strong and intelligent in her own way, Alcott proves that there is no singular “woman”, but there are infinite varieties of females. There are quiet women and loud women, women who play piano and women who read, women who care for others and women who are terrible cooks. But each one is a woman nonetheless.
Little Women shows us, women, who are inherently distinct, yet who come together as a family and as friends. In this way, she highlights the idea of collective femininity built upon love, inside of which there are many different yet equally important individuals. As the main character Jo (loosely based on Alcott herself) says, “Writing doesn’t confer importance, it reflects it.”
If you haven’t seen the film or if you are looking for some comforting recognition of the myriad types of females existing in this beautiful world, read on for some inspiring moments from the 2019 film.
“Just because my dreams are different than yours, it doesn’t mean they’re unimportant”
Meg, the oldest sister, says this to Jo on the day of her wedding. These words are in response to Jo’s impassioned speech imploring her sister to abandon the marriage and run away with her to become an actress.
Meg’s calm response shows that she knows what she wants, and she will not allow herself to be convinced to doubt them just because Jo’s more unconventional and adventurous dreams make hers look less exciting.
“You will be bored of him in two years and we will be interesting forever.”
This wonderfully forward-thinking statement forms part of Jo’s attempt to convince Meg not to marry. In those days marriage was seen as the only path for women, therefore the inference was that a woman’s only use was to be a wife.
Here Jo comments on the fact that not all women should be expected to be satisfied with this singular path. Some women, like herself, need more fulfillment than just the love of a man.
“Women have minds and souls as well as just hearts, and they’ve got ambition and talent as well as just beauty. And I’m sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for.”
Continuing in the same vein, Jo speaks passionately about the multiple desires of women. In the story, the second March sister bursts forth in a blaze of independence, strength, and ambition. She highlights the fact that a woman should not deny any aspect of her personality simply because it does not align with the ideas of society. She cannot pretend to be satisfied with only love and marriage and comfort if she seeks adventure, fulfillment, and independence.
It is true that for some women, like her sister Meg, love and marriage are enough, yet Jo proves that we make a grave error when we assume that all women are the same and have the same desires.
“I care more to be loved. I want to be loved.”
Spoken by Jo after the death of her sister Beth, these words highlight a very important point. Just because strong, ambitious Jo craves independence, it does not mean that she cannot also want to feel love and affection.
As we grow, we manifest many desires and we should never be ashamed of how we feel. The fact that the same woman who uttered the words: “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe” can speak these tender words of longing highlights the infinite variety contained within one single woman and therefore all women.
“Why be ashamed of what you want?”
With these words, the youngest sister, Amy, demonstrates her maturity. She is bold and unashamed as she proclaims her desire to marry rich. This shows a rare level of authenticity. Amy has analyzed this part of herself, understood where it comes from and as a result, she has no fear of being honest about it.
Over 100 years after its publication, the story of Little Women is still relevant and inspirational for women and men the world over. Proving that every woman is possessed of a fascinating, kaleidoscopic variety, Louisa May Alcott encourages us to be true to ourselves and, most importantly, to love each other.