There are a lot of pop culture landmarks that I missed as a result of growing up largely without a television and with a cultural worldview that was obsessively centered on books for the first eighteen years of my life to the exclusion of almost everything else. As longtime readers of this blog will know, that’s something that I try to make up for, mixing in classics with a firehose-like stream of new movies, television shows, books, and movies. And over the winter break, I knocked one of the titans off the list when I finally sat down to watch The Godfather. It’s a tremendous movie, and watching it made me want to revisit an unexpected but surprisingly logical companion piece: the 1994 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
If The Godfather is about Michael Corleone’s inability to escape his father’s business, and about men’s desire to become their fathers, Little Women is about the ways women help their daughters transcend their own experiences. Just as women are nearly invisible figures in The Godfather, from the passivity of Vito’s wife to the movie’s relatively slim treatment of Kay’s motivations for accepting Michael’s proposal after his return, men are relatively secondary figures in Little Women. The girls’ father and Marmee’s husband is absent for almost the entire first half of the novel and the movie, Mr. Lawrence, their wealthy next-door neighbor is a kindly but distant patriarch, his son Laurie is an interloper, if a beloved one, and Mr. Brooke and Professor Bhaer are suitors rather than fully-developed characters.
Instead, the main drama is between the sisters themselves, and in the question of their mother’s hopes for them. Where Vito Corleone dreams that his son Michael will become not just legitimate, but a legitimate leader in society, Marmee harbors more modest aspirations, governed by both gender and time period, for her little women. She hopes that her daughters will be able to marry for love, that they’ll have the opportunity to see something of the world beyond Concord. All of Vito’s dreams are frustrated, his son Sonny is gunned down while doing the family’s work, his adopted son Tom enters the family business even though his ethnicity might have excluded him from it, his great hope Michael kills a police officer and a Mafia rival and ends up becoming the next Don Corleone, and his son Fredo ends up dead on Michael’s orders.
But in their own ways, Marmee’s daughters fulfill her aspirations. Meg, her oldest, marries modestly, but for true love, and for a husband who is more present in her life than Marmee’s husband was in hers, and who, unlike Meg’s father, doesn’t impose difficulties on the family in pursuit of his political ideals. Beth dies young, a fate no mother would choose for her daughter, but she leaves the world in a perfect and brave communion with her family’s Christian ideals. Amy, her youngest, marries both well and for love, gaining security for her whole family without compromising her ideals. And Jo, her second-oldest daughter, travels furthest beyond the bounds of the role proscribed of her as a woman, tasting modest literary success and finding a husband who eventually helps her found a school where she educates the scions of wealthy families in a way that comports with Marmee’s ideals and also gives poorer children an opportunity for social promotion and intellectual advancement.
In a way, and certainly not intentionally, these very disparate works have ended up capturing the dynamics of masculinity and feminism that we live in today. Women have, through very difficult work, carved out new paths for ourselves and passed them down to the generations of women that have followed after us. Men keep getting handed down the same old archetypes of how to be a man, the same demands to avenge violence done against their families, to provide, to take responsibility that isn’t theirs, to pass judgement, to provide strength. We’ve got a lot of culture that argues that this is a tragedy in and of itself and that it can lead to dreadful ends, that the diversion of Michael’s considerable talents from the sphere where they were supposed to be useful—American public life—to another one where they’re applicable—organized crime—is a terrible waste, that the rechanneling of Walter White’s talents from science and teaching to meth production results in monstrosity. But we don’t have enough triumphs and new models, enough stories of boys growing beyond their fathers in a way that produces incredible joy for both parties. It’s no mistake that Louisa May Alcott, who gave us Little Women gave us her Little Men, the story of a woman who, having transcended the limits laid out for her, raises surrogate sons who are allowed to be more than angry, more than greedy, more than merely brave.