This month, I finally got around to reading Little Women, after somehow managing to avoid it for 24 years. And—well, I had pretty mixed feelings, to be honest. I loved reading it (I mean, it opens on a Christmas scene; it’s like it was written specially for me), and I got really attached to the characters—but I found the messages pretty hard to get on board with. I just wanted to read about Jo’s adventures without Louisa May Alcott preaching at me all the time. However, after doing a bit of digging into the life of Alcott herself, and spending a few hours in the “Team Jo and Laurie” side of the internet, I may have come full circle.
Before I get into the Jo and Laurie vs Jo and Prof Bhaer debate, I need to explain why I didn’t fall head-over-heels for this book. The main problem that I had while reading it wasn’t necessarily the gender stereotyping and heavy religious overtones—because I get it, this book was written 135 years ago, so it’s a little out of date. (My favourite author of all time is Jane Austen, and it would be a lie to say there’s nothing problematic in her novels—but I know how to contextualise these issues.) The reason I found Little Women so particularly problematic was that I’ve always heard this book so lauded as a feminist classic today—and I was struggling to see how that could be the case.
Yeah, Jo March is fantastic, and I loved watching her defy the gender roles of the time (which were BS by the way—like girls weren’t even supposed to use slang)—but it didn’t seem like Louisa May Alcott viewed her in quite the same way. In fact, most of the big moral moments seemed to revolve around Jo being “tamed” and learning how to be more “ladylike”. There were points when I felt like throwing the book across the room with frustration; I just wanted Alcott to relinquish her toxic grasp over the characters that I was so falling in love with.
But after finishing Book 1 (which I wrote about here), I started researching who Louisa May Alcott really was—and what I discovered made me change my entire stance on her. Because it turns out Alcott is Jo March.
Louisa May Alcott was the second of four sisters: Anna, the eldest, married a man named John; Elizabeth, the third sister, died of scarlet fever which she contracted while helping a poor family; Abigail May, the youngest, was an artist who studied in Europe. Yeah, they’re the March sisters. And Louisa was our darling, tomboy, feminist writer (who was pressured into writing Little Women, which she described as “moral pap”, as part of a deal that would help her father get a publishing contract).
After that, my experience of reading Book 2 was very different. Suddenly, the moral lessons to which I had so objected seemed more the fault of the publishers than of Alcott. I began to sympathise with her; these characters, based as they were on her own beloved sisters, must have been so important to her—and so that feeling I had of wanting them to be freed from the incessant moralising must have been a million times worse for her.
The thing that brought me firmly over to Team Alcott, however, is the one thing that most people despise about the book. I’m almost afraid to admit it in public for fear of getting punched in the face—but I’m glad Jo married Professor Bhaer.
Look, I get why everyone wanted Jo and Laurie to end up together. I almost wanted that too. Their love story was so believable, so endearing. He loved her for her, without wanting her to become more ladylike or to submit to him (his eventual wife, Amy, calls him “My Lord”—yeuch). Jo and Laurie grew up together, and she was the only person who was able to get through to him (until Amy—yeuch again because this relationship always felt icky). So yeah, Jo marrying Laurie would have been a wonderful, romantic ending to the novel.
But Jo didn’t want to get married. And nor did Louisa May Alcott. She remained single and happily independent throughout her life, even raising May’s child as a single mother, and that’s what she wanted for Jo, too—but the public was clamouring for a happy ending. And in those days, that could only mean one thing.
“As if [marriage] was the only aim and end of a woman’s life,” scoffed Alcott in her journal. “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.” So she didn’t.
And yeah, it kinda sucked. When Jo married Bhaer, who criticised her writing and praised traditional values, we had to let go of the vision we’d once held of Jo as a “reformer” who would change the world with “brickbats and hooting”. We had to watch the feisty character we once loved fade into a lonely spinster longing for a husband, and then gratefully accept a dull and unromantic professor. The whole thing felt like a bleak ending to what had once been a hopeful novel. We started with four strong-willed young women, and we were left with one exhausted and overwhelmed by a husband who expects his supper on the table each night, one tragically dead (in the saddest scene in literature history, by the way), one submissive and married to a man who’ll always love her sister more—and our heroine an empty shell of her former self. Yikes, why am I praising that decision?
It’s because Louisa May Alcott taught her readers a lesson. Everyone who presumed to hope for an ending for Jo and Laurie other than the one Jo wanted to choose for herself; everyone who wouldn’t listen when Jo repeated that she didn’t want to get married; everyone who thought they knew better—Louisa May Alcott proved them all wrong. Jo didn’t belong to the wifely role they wanted to force her into, and if the readers couldn’t accept that, they couldn’t have her at all. So Alcott stole her back, leaving a shadow in her place to perform a dutiful and disappointing “happy ending”, and leaving the readers to rather regretfully wish they’d let Jo chase her own “castles in the sky” after all.