I was fascinated to read Deborah Weisgall’s essay on Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s, in part because she says that when she went back to the novel as an adult, “I did not recognize the story I was reading”:
What happens is fierce: Jo burns off half of Meg’s bangs when she tries to frizz her hair with a curling iron, just before a party — a party organized, like the one that opens Pride and Prejudice, to introduce eligible girls and boys. But Austen’s Bennett sisters accept as a given that looks and fortune get husbands; such a crass assessment of their marketability outrages the Marches. Next, because Jo has not invited her to the theater, Amy burns Jo’s manuscript, stories that Jo had been working on for years. Jo, in retaliation, lets Amy skate on the river without warning her that the ice is thin. Amy falls through, and Jo barely manages to rescue her. Then Jo cuts off and sells her own glorious hair — the only beautiful part of her — to buy her mother a present. Beth is pathologically shy and hardly leaves the house for fear of having to talk to people. When Laurie’s tutor declares his love for Meg, everyone is thrilled but Jo, who is bereft at the imminent dissolution of her family. She understands the heartbreak inherent in marriage and in the separation, the growing apart — and possibly the growing objectivity — that marks the end of childhood.
That pain and ferocity are part of why I liked the novels in the first place: I sobbed at the movie theater when Beth (Claire Danes) died, but Little Women was one of the first novels I read where a girl was allowed to be outraged, to be genuinely uncomfortable in her own station and her own skin. Jo March is not just the heroine of literary little girls everywhere, but of ones whose clothes don’t seem to do for them what other girls’ do, whose attempts to iron their hair result in cinders and who make do at parties, who are simmeringly angry, and often uncomfortable in their own skin and the conventions they live in. When her sister Amy, a pretty, socially successful little girl, burns Jo’s manuscript after Jo has been invited to a play and Amy excluded from the invitation, the act is such a violation because Amy is invading the territory where Jo is queen. Jo goes on to write other works, but the book Amy destroys is lost to Jo, and to us, forever. Jo’s temper is presented as dangerous, but it’s also a vital life force, the thing that propels her out of her small town outside of Boston to work in New York, where she’s exposed to new people and new ideas, and ultimately to the man who will become her husband.
And yes, it’s a novel about compromise, but also about growth. The March girls begin the novel with their castles in the air, their dreams for their future, but grow up to be women who understand that, as Megan Draper’s mother put it to her in the finale of this season of Mad Men: “The world could not support that many ballerinas.” It’s not that they’re crushed — their dreams evolve. Jo March, who spent her girlhood escaping into worlds of her own invention through her fiction, becomes a woman who constructs an alternate reality in the real world, through her school for boys and girls at Plumfield. Amy, who despite her ruin of Jo’s work had artistic ambitions of her own, ultimately becomes a patron rather than a full-time artist herself, though she continues to sculpt. Meg, who wanted nothing more to be a wife, ends up a mother to two remarkable children, and in the novel’s sequel, Little Men, is widowed early, becoming the accidentally independent woman Jo always planned to be. Little Women is a fierce novel because that’s what required to stand up to the uncertainty of life and to adapt rather than be crushed by it.
“I am angry nearly every day of my life,” Mrs. March tells Jo in the novel, explaining to her daughter that she’s tried to control and transmute her anger rather than to give in to it. Being a woman, it turns out, is a lot like being Bruce Banner.