‘Little not attractive enough to be imitated by

‘Little
Women’ is a 19th century novel, written by an American author Louisa May
Alcott. She wrote it on the request of her publisher and it was an immediate
success. The setting of the novel is in New England in the time of conflict,
American Civil War Alcott was thirty-five when the editor at Roberts Brothers,
Thomas Niles, approached her about writing a book which would be aimed
specifically at female audience. Alcott never liked girls and didn’t know many
except her sisters, but her experiences proved interesting. She turned her
real-life adventures and tribulations of herself and her sisters, May,
Elizabeth, and Anna, into the adventures of her fictionalized characters of
March sisters, Meg (Margaret), the eldest, who loves wealth, Beth (Elizabeth),
quiet, peacemaker, and a self-suppressing girl, Jo (Josephine) is tomboyish,
rebellious, and masculine in manners, and Amy, the socially ambitious youngest
of the four sisters. Compared to the contemporary works, Alcott’s March girls
seemed like real girls, as they had faults and made mistakes, but what made the
book realistic was that the girls tried to correct their faults. This was
something unusual as the books used to be mere stories of unnaturally good and
devout girls and boys, who were not attractive enough to be imitated by the
reader. Alcott wanted her female readers to grow into womanhood that is marked
by independence and equality. Although, the war is not specified, and the
characters are sheltered, it provides a backdrop for the novel. And an
alternative war takes place at the home front due to the absence of Mr. March,
who served as a chaplain in the war and shortage of supply due to their genteel
poverty. Alcott’s decision to set the novel during the war is seen by critics
as establishing a metaphor for the character’s personal conflicts. According to
Judith Fetterley,” The Civil War is an obvious metaphor for internal conflict
and its invocation as background to Little Women suggests the presence in the
story of such conflict.” (Fetterley,
1979).

                Marmee steers the moral center of the family
and each girl copes with the war in different ways. Meg strives to be a lady
and learns to live a modest life, Jo writes fiction, Amy aspires to be an
artist, and Beth takes care of the family. They had to learn to control their
desires to become ‘little women,’ but acquiring this title requires them to
accept their position as inferior to men in their lives. Jo is considered to be
a feminist, as it was exceptional and daring for a woman to focus on her career
than on her marriage. Jo struggles to find her place in her family and in the
world. Jo shows her resentment at not being able to fight in the battle and
says, “I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy, and it’s worse
than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with papa, and I can only stay at
home and knit like a poky old woman.” (Alcott and Alderson, 2008). Jo, like Alcott, was involved in
war-related activities and offered aid to the families of soldiers by sewing
and knitting for them and prepared boxes to be shipped to the Union soldiers. March
girls are kind and charitable. Marmee advises them in the first chapters to not
to be self-indulgent when others are suffering. They are told to renounce their
selves and to think about others, hence, the four sisters bought presents for
their mother and gave their breakfast to the Hummels, a poor neighborhood
family. There is paternal exhortation through the letter sent by father to
fight the rebels like selfishness, bad temper, vanity, and discontent through
self-control. Marmee counsels Jo to control her temper just like she has
learned to control and every day and never shows it to anyone. Alcott adheres
to the different responsibilities and separate spheres of men and women. Men
belonged to the public sphere and to the world of business, politics, they
provided financial support to their family. They had superior intellect, power
and authority. Whereas, women belonged to the public sphere of the society,
they raised the children, provided them moral support and looked after the
house. In the chapter entitled ‘Castles in the Air,’ Meg dreams of a big house
with lots of servants, luxurious things, and pretty clothes but she learns that
love is better than luxury in the chapter ‘Harvesttime.’ After marriage she got
tired of waiting idly, she gets rid of all servants and makes work for herself.
In the incident of Meg’s dress and John’s coat, Meg feels guilty, swallows her
desire to buy a new dress and buys a coat for john. It shows that women don’t
have real work and don’t have to go out in the world and thus don’t need new clothes
unlike men, who deserves a new coat.

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              Amy and Jo’s ambitions are not
domestic. Amy wants “to be an artist, and go to Rome, and do fine pictures, and
to be the best artist in the whole world.” (Alcott and Alderson, 2008). She realizes that she just has talent and is not a genius and
started to support the work of others. She learns that the best thing that can
happen to a woman is to be loved by a good man. Jo wanted to become rich and
famous by writing books but later understands that the life she wanted earlier was cold
and selfish and that she will have better stories to write now of all her
experiences with her husband and children. The representation of the character
of women is far different than that explicitly shown. According to Amy, women
should be agreeable, and they must watch themselves as they are economically,
emotionally, and financially dependent on men and their income. Women will only
be tolerated if they are agreeable because they have no function in life and
they should be cheerful towards others to lessen their guilt of being useless. Marmee
counsels Meg that men have temper unlike ours and if you are not careful
everything will be over within a flash then where will you be? It shows that
male anger must be attended to and female anger must be bottled-up. The
implicit message here suggests that acquiring the character of little women was
a matter of harsh necessity than of a wise choice. Jo introduces herself to
Laurie as a “businessman – girl, I mean.” (Alcott and Alderson, 2008). This explains her belief against her economic
dependence. She had to sell her hair to earn money for her sick father. Selling
one’s body or flesh is their capital and better receive the best price, which
is marriage. (Fetterley, 1979). Fear simmers in Jo’s life and converts
her from being a rebel to a little woman. She hated love and detested men and
women in romantic context, Amy’s flirting and Meg’s capitulation to John Brooke
was disgraceful to her. She didn’t want to marry unless it is to her sister,
she saw boys as equals and only played cricket with them. But later having Beth
dead, Meg married and having a happy home, and Amy engaged to Laurie, struck Jo
with a strong sense of loneliness and changed here attitude, “An old maid,
that’s what I’m to be. A literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse, a family
of stories for children, and twenty years hence a morsel of fame, perhaps.” (Alcott and Alderson, 2008).  

              The ideology of
marriage is destabilized. Getting a good man is the reward of self-control,
concern for others, and of being love worthy little women. As men are the
center of the family, Mr. March’s first appearance is of a broken man leaning
on his wife’s arm who is rarely referred to and remains in his library. Marmee
does all the work attributed to a husband. Beth, the character in the novel who
followed Marmee and the ideals of a little woman, dies. She was devoted to her
duty, looked after her family, never expressed her needs, controlled her anger
and selfishness, and was always kind but was the least interesting character.
She pays the price of being a little woman. On the other hand, Jo who denies
and rebels against all little womanly attributes is the most attractive. The
story of Beth shows to be a little woman is to be dead and Jo is consistently
shown the consequences of not having self-control.  Due to her anger, she forgets to warn Amy of
the thin ice and nearly loses her, but she is saved in time by Laurie. Alcott
faced problem in creating someone to marry Jo, someone who the society
approves, as little women can only marry up, not down or across. She is married
to Professor Bhaer and her rebellious nature is neutralized. March girls were
not the only ones who had to submit, Laurie also faced patriarchal pressures.
His grandfather desired that he became an Indian merchant just like him. Jo and
Alcott were of the view that boys always have a capital time, but this was not
true about Laurie. He was wealthy but sad, he was lonely, frustrated, and
unhappy due to his place in the world of men. He wanted to enjoy his life,
become a famous musician and live for what he liked. His grandfather feared
that he wanted an unproductive and unmasculine career like his father. Laurie
is not free to pursue his own career which is against the cultural
expectations. There is a conflict between pleasing others and pleasing oneself.
Laurie tells Jo that he wants to break away, so does Jo, but she replies that
being a girl she must stay home and be proper. This reflects the cultural truth
that girls must submit. Bhaer shames Jo for writing trashy sensational stories,
she feels ashamed and burns them up. Similarly, Amy shames ‘Lazy Laurence’ to
leave his boyish artistic dreams and to “wake up, and be a man.” (Alcott and Alderson, 2008). Amy wants him to
be industrious and successful or else he will be seen as a failure. She
feminizes him further by reminding him of his soft and white hands and she also
uses her artistic abilities to convince him to become a man. She drew him, but
in reality, Laurie had no manly features of that in the picture. He grew to
dislike his boyish behaviour, thus, destroyed his manuscripts and longed for
some real work. Amy acts as grandfather’s agent, culture’s assistant, and as a
mentor.

              In conclusion, I
agree that Alcott calls for equal rights for men and women. She defends them
from the regulations imposed by society as well. Laurie returned to his
grandfather and Jo gave up writing sensational stories by being shamed by Amy
and Bhaer respectively, hence, proving the parallels between boys and girls
lives, their submission, and confrontation to cultural limitations.

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