Get the Sunday Star paper tomorrow (Apr 1) for your 20% discount coupon on ‘Little Women’ at Kinokuniya bookshop.
Last month held a couple of personal milestones. I turned 35, thereby officially crossing the line into my mid-30s. And I started on a new job after having worked at my previous one at Star2 for about 10 years.
Therefore I reached for a book, as I’m wont to do when I’m feeling uprooted or in need of reassurance. I find great comfort in re-reading childhood favourites at times like these, and the one I turned to this time was Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women.
I’ve read Little Women, written in 1869, countless times since I first picked it up when I was 10. Like many young girls, I immediately fell in love with Alcott’s family of little women, the March sisters: almost-grown-up Meg; strong-willed, rebellious Jo; sweet and gentle Beth; artistic but rather spoilt Amy.
Set during the American Civil War (1861-1865), it is a book almost entirely concerned with the world of women. With Mr March away at war, the family is managed by the girls’ mother whom they call Marmee. Struggling for money, the two eldest daughters Meg and Jo work to support the family.
Despite these grim circumstances, what immediately jumps out of the book is how vividly Alcott writes about the characters and their stories. The girls’ adventures, their joys and sorrows, relationships with each other. Despite being set in the 1800s, there is something so relatable about the way Alcott brings these young women’s hopes and desires to life.
What I’ve found notable over the years though, is how my reactions to the characters have changed as I have grown.
Like many readers, Jo is my favourite. Her hot temper, her refusal to bow down to convention, her propensity for making mistakes, her love for books and writing, her loyalty to those she loves – she feels real, relatable. She is someone you both wanted to grow up with and grow into, But it was almost as if the story of Little Women – and its sequels Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886) – couldn’t quite figure out what to do with Jo.
Alcott first ended Little Women with Meg’s engagement, but due to overwhelming demand from readers wanting to know more about the characters, she wrote a second part. This was published as Good Wives (1869) but later integrated into Little Women as one novel.
The second part’s title is self-explanatory. The “little women” of earlier years have grown up, and in keeping with the times, marriage and eventually children are seen as the natural course for these now adult women. And it is in Jo’s story that this seems the most unsuited.
As a preteen, I was as obsessed as most others with that one central divisive issue of Little Women: should Jo have ended up with Laurie instead of Prof Fritz Bhaer? I was convinced then that the answer to this was a resounding “yes”.
Laurie, or Teddy as only Jo calls him, was the epitome of every young girl’s childhood love: handsome, an intellectual equal, attentive and just different enough for there to be sparks.
When I re-read the book in my late teens though, it was suddenly Jo’s relationship with and eventual marriage to Fritz that seemed to make sense. Rather than the volatility and impetuousness of a teenage romance, Jo’s connection with Fritz seemed to be one built on maturity, support and shared goals.
The last few times I’ve read the book, however, I’ve increasingly grown dissatisfied with this end for Jo. It is a well-known fact that Alcott – who surrounded herself with intellectuals, was a self-avowed feminist and never married – based the character on herself. Yet, the conventions of her time seemed to dictate that Jo should not somehow be made to “suffer” this fate.
So instead of becoming a writer like she’d always dreamt of, Jo marries Fritz, has two sons and they start a school for boys together. It is a perfectly lovely ending, but it doesn’t feel like the ending Jo deserves.
And in Jo’s Boys, we get some indication that perhaps Alcott didn’t think so either. In this final novel, the last she wrote before her death, Alcott reveals that Jo never stopped writing – and that she was the author of Little Women. But it feels like a weak reward for the woman who was once a fiercely independent girl who desired nothing more than to chart her own course.
Jo is often lauded as being progressive. Alcott’s depiction of the girls in Little Women in general is credited for inspiring generations of young women to expand their traditional aspirations of marriage and family to include larger goals and ambitions.
But the more I read of Jo, the more I’ve come to realise that Jo really is a woman ahead of her time – so ahead, in fact, that even her creator and the narrative she is in feel backward in comparison.
And as I’ve become older, I’ve come to wish for Jo more than what Little Women ultimately gave her. But as a reader who has grown up with the book, this realisation is as much a part of Little Women as the story itself. Learning to see not just the book’s strengths but also its limitations helps me see how my own view of progress is not static but a constant process of renegotiation and redefinition.