Be A Good Girl
As I unpacked my old copy of Little Women for the class reading, a sense of nostalgia came over me. I remember holding the large book in my hands, looking at the cover and trying to figure out what each of the sisters looked like. When I opened the book, a receipt from1978 fell out. I would have been eleven years old when I purchased and read Little Women. I remember enjoying the book so much; I remember thinking it was fun to see how all of the girls turned out. I don’t remember leaning any lessons or thinking about the message of the book. As an adult reader, I found myself feeling disappointed, sad, shocked and angry about the messages in the book. One of the universal themes in Little Women that was apparent to me was that girls and women, especially poor girls and women, need to know their place in society. Alcott doesn’t mess around trying to be subtle about this theme, she smacks the reader that is paying attention right in the face with it throughout the book. Knowing that Alcott originally didn’t want to write a “girls story” provides insight into, what seemed to me, a tongue and cheek story of how girls should behave and what they should expect from life.
From the very beginning, the girls are sitting around complaining about being poor. “‘It’s so dreadful being poor!’ sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress” (3). The other girls add their complaints, but soon realize that, courtesy of sweet Beth, “We’ve got father and mother and each other”(3). Right from the start the message is clear, be a good, humble, sweet, happy, girl. Even though this message is clear, it seems as if Alcott was making fun of what she was preaching. Throughout Little Women the theme of women and girls knowing their place in society is delivered in the following mini-lessons.
Be a good girl. The March girls pave the way to being good with their game “Pilgrim’s Progress” and resolve to be good. They play games to be good, they talk about being good, and think that their lives are better because they are good. The sisters are constantly being taught lessons at every turn. I think that Alcott viewed these lessons as humorous lessons that she couldn’t quite conform to.
Ladies, if there isn’t a physical man in your life, look to God to find happiness. When Jo misses her father, her mother tells her, “...go to God with all your little cares, and hopes, and sins, and sorrows, as freely and confidingly as you come to your mother” (108). The message to girls is there must be a man in your life. Alcott paints the picture of women depending on God, especially when there is no other man to depend upon.
Men are the anchor of women’s life. The repeated message in Little Women was that no matter how much women did to contribute to the household, they were not as important as the man of the house. After the girls’ father returns, it seems that he doesn’t have to do much but sit around and read while they all take care of running the household. “To outsiders, the five energetic women seemed to rule the house, and so they did in many things; but the quiet scholar, sitting among his books, was still the head of the family, the household conscience, anchor, and comforter; for to him the busy, anxious women always turned in troublous times, finding him, in the truest sense of those scared words, husband and father”(308). Mr. March sits back and enjoys being the anchor of his family. He was even the anchor when he was away at war, with the girls and Mrs. March seemingly existing because there was a father and husband coming home some day. This aspect of Little Women made me curious as to who Alcott’s disappointing anchor was.
Girls, always work hard, idleness will only cause you grief. After an experiment in leisure, the girls learn a “hard” lesson- not working is unpleasant. After lounging for awhile, the girls found, “it was an immense relief to them all to have a little work, and they took hold with a will...” (144). Jo states at the end of the experiment, “lounging and larking doesn’t pay” (151). After the week’s experiment Marmee sends the message home with a little speech to the girls. “Have regular hours for work and play; make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand time by using it well. Then youth will be delightful, old age will bring few regrets, and life become a beautiful success, in spite of poverty” (152). Alcott’s message here is that women must stay busy. This makes me curious about possible grief that Alcott may have experienced while spending her time writing instead of “making busy.”
As a woman the best thing in life that you can do, is be a good wife. After Meg’s trials with making preserves, her husband comes home with a friend expecting to show off his beautiful wife, his perfect clean home, and entertain his guest with dinner. But, Meg wasn’t as proper and appealing as she should have been; she had been busy all day. Of course, her husband, John, was disappointed. “John was a mild man, but he was human; after a long day’s work, to come home tired, hungry, and hopeful, to find a chaotic house, an empty table, and a cross wife was not exactly conducive to repose of mind or manner” (359-356). The scene that evening was a surprise to John because Meg began “her married life with the determination to be a model housekeeper” and that John “should find home a paradise” (354). When reading the novel, I get the feeling that Alcott never aspired to be the domestic goddess that she promotes in Little Women.
If you are a woman and poor, you should be proper and nice even if you don’t feel like it. Amy explains to Jo after visiting the depressing Aunt March, “Women should learn to be agreeable, particularly poor ones; for they have no other way of repaying the kindness they receive. If you’d remember that, and practice it, you’d be better liked than I am, because there is more of you” (384). While reading this novel I got the sense that Alcott didn’t feel like being nice at all. She completed her task of “writing a novel for girls,” and made her own ideas and thoughts heard, therefore getting around what her male publishers and her father expected her to nicely do.
Girls, you may be smarter, but you will always be weaker. “... for when women are the advisers, the lords of creation don’t take the advice till they have persuaded themselves that it is just what they intended to do; then they act upon it, and, if it succeeds, they give the weaker vessel half the credit of it; if it fails, they generously give her whole” (549). Alcott lets the readers know that even back in 1800's there was “girl power.” It was just that girls had to be quiet about it, and accept the blame for men’s failures.
Girlsyou must try to be pleasing to look at. Amy tries to change her “unappealing” small nose by “putting a clothespin on her nose, to uplift the offending feature” (157). Throughout Little Women the girls (with the exception of Jo) are constantly concerned about their appearance- their looks and their clothes. Meg refers to her appearance concerns as her “aristocratic tastes.” I think that Alcott tries to stay true to herself though Jo, who considers herself “spinster like,” and not caring about her outward appearance.
Ladies, it is your job to teach the boys well. “Let the boys be boys, the longer the better, and let the young men sow their wild oats if they must; but mothers, sisters and friends may help to make the crop a small one, and keep many tares from spoiling the harvest, by believing, and showing that they believe, in the possibility of loyalty to the virtues which make men manliest in good women’s eyes. If it is a feminine delusion...”(553). In this message I think that Alcott is calling attention to the fact that boys can be boys, but girls must be perfect. If girls are virtuous, then the boys will learn their lessons and become manly.
Girls, be submissive and be gracious about it.. After Beth dies, Jo finally begins to have a deeper relationship with her father. “Happy thoughtful times there in the old study which Jo called ‘the church of one member’ and from which she came with fresh courage, recovered cheerfulness, and a more submissive spirit; for the parents who had taught one child to meet death without fear were now trying to teach another to accept life without despondency or distrust, and to use its beautiful opportunities with gratitude and power” (567). It seems as though Alcott viewed her relationships with men as submissive experiences, where men tried to teach her lessons of life.
Ambitious girls have a hard time. Amy resolves her conflict with ambition finally realizing that she has talent, not genius. She resolves the conflict by marrying well, thereby putting herself in a position to help other poor ambitious girls. Laurie is amazed at how angelic Amy is when she says, “Yes, indeed; and there’s another class who can’t ask, and who suffer in silence. I know something of it, for I belonged to it before you made a princess of me, as the king does the beggar maid in the old story. Ambitious girls have a hard time, Laurie, and often have to see youth, health, and precious opportunities go by, just for want of a little help at the right minute. People have been very kind to me; and whenever I see girls struggling along, as we used to do, I want to put out my hand and help them as I was helped” (600). Alcott’s ambition to write finally got the best of her when she wrote Little Women. When she moved away from her fantastic and Gothic stories with untraditional females, she was stuck with the task of her “novel for girls.”
A woman may only become complete through a man. This is especially apparent with poor Jo when her professor returns and her family knowingly watches her bloom. “They never asked why she sang about her work, did her hair three times a day, and got so blooming with her evening exercise; no one seemed to have the slightest suspicion that Professor Bhaer, while talking philosophy with the father, was giving the daughter lessons in love”(611). Alcott must have hated to write this part of the story, but she gave in and it was her answer to the reader demand that Jo marry Laurie. However, Alcott still didn’t “cave in”; she did marry off Jo, but not to who the readers expected.
In light of these messages to young women throughout the book, I can’t see Little Women appealing or offering much of anything to modern readers. As I read the novel, I tried to imagine what my eleven year-old daughter would think of it. Would she love the characters as I did when I was young? I don’t think so. I think she would feel sorry for the girls, and wonder why they had to be the way they were, because being “pleasing” is the last thing on her mind. Then I thought of what my alternative students would think. I don’t think they would make it past the first hundred pages; I think that they would become disgusted and set the book aside. I think my female students would consider being secondary to a man as hilarious. I think that they would be angered by the classist views of the book, because modern students see themselves in control of their destinies rather than their “positions in life.” I can see using the book to say, “hey ladies, look how far we’ve come.”