|Samantha Mathis, Christian Bale, Little Women, 1994|
The sisters are taught that, though they are poor, “we’ve got father and mother and each other,” as Beth says on the very first page. They were once well-off, but the family lost its money and the girls struggle with envy of their friends, sibling rivalry and overcoming their failings, just as any modern kid does. Alcott’s program is to show, as Jane Smiley writes, what education can do: “Getting ahead is not her purpose – attaining self-control and acting in accordance with the Christian virtues of modesty, self-reliance, charity and hopefulness are the goals she sets for all the girls.”
Jo is willful, ambitious and a tom-boy, writing stories and plays for the sisters to act out. Meg is swayed by her more affluent friends, even after she marries for love. Beth loves music, but after an illness, comes to accept the fact that she will not live long. Amy, the youngest, is also headstrong and ambitious, but she uses sweet and tasteful methods to gain what Jo tries to achieve through honesty and outspokenness.
Amy is vain, proud of her golden curls, but she is sad that her nose doesn’t come to an aristocratic point, and that she must wear her cousin’s ugly clothes to school. In fact, when she is punished by having her hand hit with a ruler, Marmee takes her out of school. The girls’ parents do not believe in corporal punishment and shaming. When the girls sit about one afternoon, building “castles in the air,” Amy’s is “to be an artist, and go to Rome, and do fine pictures, and be the best artist in the whole world.”
Growing older, Amy makes an effort to provide an outing for her drawing class of twelve as a thank you to the girls who have been nice to her. The family pitches in to help, but only one of the girls comes and Amy feels foolish. When she helps at a charity fair, she tries to be unselfish and is rewarded finally by Jo convincing Laurie, the March’s amiable and handsome neighbor, and his friends to come and patronize her table. Jo praises her, but Amy says, “You laugh at me when I say I want to be a lady, but I mean a true gentle-woman in mind and manners … I want to be above the little meannesses, and follies, and faults that spoil so many women.”
When Amy convinces Jo to come calling with her (Meg is now married and Beth in poor health), Jo embarrasses her by telling wild stories. Echoing her mother, Amy tells Jo, “Women should learn to be agreeable, particularly poor ones; for they have no other way of repaying the kindnesses they receive.” Amy is rewarded when Aunt Carrol asks her to come on a family European tour, though Jo had longed to go.
Jo cannot agree to marry Laurie, because she feels more like a sister to him. It makes Laurie very unhappy. He goes to Europe, meeting Amy there in Nice. He is moping and Amy gives him a dressing down, calling him “Lazy Laurence.” Laurie is surprised Amy is considering marrying Fred Vaughn. “One of us must marry well,” she says. “In time I shall become fond of him.” Laurie says he understands, but says, “Quite right and proper as the world goes, but it sounds odd from the lips of one of your mother’s girls.”
Amy misses Laurie very much when he leaves however, and refuses Fred. Laurie reminds her of home, and when Beth dies, he comes to Vevey to comfort her. They recognize their love for each other and agree to “always pull in the same boat.” They are married and return home. The story ends happily with an apple harvest a few years later, when Meg, Jo and Amy all have children and Jo has started a school for boys with her German professor.
The economics of our modern world certainly differ from those in 1868, since women have won for themselves places in every field, the right to vote and (nearly) equal pay. But the question of feminine power is just as alive now as it ever was. Do women achieve their aims more by Jo’s methods or Amy’s? It is still true that some women have more money, and some women are blessed with a great deal of talent, hardly ever in the proportions anyone expects.
Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women from incidents in her life and that of her sisters, as well as the progressive principles of her unique parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott. The girls learn from the mistakes which their parents freely allow them to make. The morality of the book reflects the classical belief that selfishness turns in on itself, whereas kindness to, love and respect for others is our only hope of happiness. This transcends whether a person is a man or a woman, of course. But the fact that Little Women shows us four different kinds of femininity makes it ever interesting.