As an undergraduate preparing to write a thesis on 19th-century American girls’ literature, I read many so-called sentimental novels. Most were written by women for a female audience, and nearly all disparaged the popular culture of their time as frivolous and materialistic while trying to orient their readers toward more pious pleasures. This seemed like a noble endeavor. Yet I found almost all of these books frustrating because they seemed to share a simple, enervating and reductive formula: the more a heroine cries, the greater her piety. Religion and sentiment were synonymous.
Then I reread a childhood favorite of mine, one of the most popular, and certainly the most enduring, girls’ novels of the period: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Published in 1868, it tells the story of the four March sisters coming of age in their impoverished New England home during the Civil War. This seemingly simple tale is based loosely on Alcott’s life. Nearly a century and a half later, as I made plans for my own life, I found in it a thoughtful guidebook for young adulthood and beyond.
Some of what is different about Little Women, compared with its more sentimental contemporaries, has been duly noted by the many filmmakers and literary critics who maintain an ongoing interest in Alcott’s most famous novel. But a great deal of the novel’s complexity has been lost to the kind of oversimplified debates so prevalent in our time.
The various arguments around Little Women have long boiled down to this: Does the novel empower women, or does it oppress them?
When critics read the novel as empowering, they focus on Alcott as a proud rebel against the 19th-century cult of domesticity and the sentimental Christianity upon which it rested. They see her as attempting to reform that world from within with a novel that rejected all the pre-emptive categorizations and premises that would have put it on a shelf alongside tracts like those referred to above. These are the critics who view Little Women as a female utopia, free from any male intrusion.
When critics read the novel as oppressive, they focus on Alcott as a (usually reluctant) captive of a perniciously moral domesticity to which the fictional March sisters also succumb. These are the critics who cite Alcott’s own characterization of her novel as a “dull” book that she wrote only for the money her family desperately needed, and lament that Little Women was not really imbued with the rebelliousness and ingenuity of its author.
Does the novel empower women, or does it oppress them?
Even readings of Little Women that reject the above binary tend to enforce this core belief of many educated people in our time: When it comes to women’s place in our culture, what is traditionally religious is regressive and of low quality; and what is progressive and of high quality must, by extension, be in conflict with traditional religiosity. In honor of the novel’s 150th anniversary, I would like to offer a new and different reading.
In Little Women, Alcott does reject the tearful sentimentalism that so many of her contemporaries embraced in their own rejection of their time’s secular culture; yet she also rejects that same secular culture just as emphatically—and with just as much religious foundation—as they do.
While Alcott’s novel embraces an intertextuality that reveals its author’s extensive reading, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) is its central influence. This allegory about a sinner named Christian conquering his sins to reach salvation was standard 19th-century educational fare. In Bunyan’s allegory, Christian embarks on the road to salvation without his wife, since she would be too much of a distraction in his endeavor to be “saved.” His only companions are male, and the challenges he has to conquer are various types of physical dangers.
In Little Women Alcott boldly adapts Bunyan’s rugged pilgrimage to the domestic space of the March women. In this way, she offers a vision of what female virtue liberated from the limits of sentimentality could look like.
Alcott offers a vision of what female virtue liberated from the limits of sentimentality could look like.
In the novel’s first chapter, “Playing Pilgrims,” Marmee reads her daughters an excerpt from their father’s letter from the Civil War’s front lines: “I know [the girls]...will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully, that when I come home I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.” The language here, adapted from Bunyan, may seem rather unsuited to a group of impoverished girls tasked with traditional female occupations—keeping food on the table and the house clean—and struggling merely with their own small flaws: vanity (Meg), anger (Jo), shyness (Beth) and selfishness (Amy). But Marmee insists that women’s work in the domestic space is a pilgrimage on par with Christian’s journey: “Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City.”This conviction that the work of the domestic realm merits and should sustain an intellectual religiosity of purpose, not merely an emotional religiosity of sentiment—that the home should be a place of sober character formation for all—is the central contention of Little Women. It is this unique and radical premise from which Little Women addresses the two areas of female life that continue to generate the most spilled ink today: courtship and motherhood.
‘To Be Loved and Chosen’
There is a dominant strain of literary critique on Little Women that holds that the first half of the novel evinces a feminist power that has to do with the absence of men, but that the second half, originally entitled Good Wives, is a disappointment because the March girls—now women—become wives. The dominance of this reading is not surprising, since derision of marriage and glorification of single womanhood is one prominent strain in modern feminist thought, and it is typically feminist critics who have been interested in Little Women.
Meanwhile, today American women continue to purchase coldly practical “land a man” books with titles like Get the Guy: Learn the Secrets of the Male Mind to Find the Man You Want and the Love You Deserve and Single Ladies: Why You’re Still Single and How to Attract the Man of Your Dreams. These guides teach women how to change virtually every aspect of themselves to please a potential mate. Hence, these two seemingly competing ideas—that women are at their most fulfilled without men and that women should catch a man at any cost—coexist to create a popular culture as confounding as it is disempowering.
Both women become better wives because they become better people.
Alcott, who died in 1888, would be surprised at our modern elites’ glorification of single women, since her lifelong spinsterhood brought her no accolades. That her flinty and laudable pride in unmarried women’s dignity has led whole generations of critics to misread her as deriding marriage is just a reflection of how ingrained the other extreme—marriage as the chief accomplishment of womanhood—was in the popular culture of her time (and, if we are honest, in many pockets of our own as well). Little Women rejects that view, not in favor of its equally hollow opposite, but in favor of better marriage—unions based not on commodification, but on a foundation of collective self-mastery and shared spiritual growth.
Addressing Meg and Jo, Marmee says: “To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing that can happen to a woman, and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience.” When Meg responds that it is difficult not to put her time and energy into catching a man when “poor girls don’t stand a chance unless they put themselves forward,” Marmee replies: “Better to be happy old maids than unhappy wives, or unmaidenly girls, running about to find husbands.” What a wonderful seeming juxtaposition that isn’t a juxtaposition at all: Loving marriage to a good man does indeed offer the greatest happiness, but a woman can certainly be happy and whole without that, provided she stays true to herself.
In suggesting that her daughters spend their late teens focusing on their own self-improvement rather than on attracting potential mates, Marmee is attempting to mold sober adult women who are ready for the shared self-improvement that a good marriage requires. The models of marriage that Alcott puts forth look a lot like conquering oneself, but together. Jo begins to prepare for marriage when she takes to heart her eventual husband Friedrich’s criticism of her writing as “trash” motivated by money—secular sensation stories that were, for Jo as for the real-life Alcott on whom she is based, a source of both pleasure and shame. Meg grows closer to her husband, John, when they overcome together her vain desire for the expensive dresses that their poverty precludes. Both women become better wives because they become better people, indicating that “good wives” are no more and no less than women living out their unique moral purposes within marriage.
In the (not so) simple rigor of doing one’s duty is the greatest glorification of God.
‘The Deepest and Tenderest Experience’
Meanwhile, for Alcott, good men are a lot like good women. They are the men for whom domestic work, especially parenthood, is the gravest moral work. And they are the men who understand the practical and characterological demands of parenthood’s purposeful love.
Most sentimental novels of the era, if they addressed young parenthood at all, glossed over it as a blissful experience full of cooing babies and maternal smiles. Alcott introduces the reality of hard work to this fanciful picture.
When Meg’s twins are little, she recoils at the suggestion of leaving her children in someone else’s care to attend a play, clean her house or get some exercise. But one evening, when Meg is unsuccessful at getting her toddler son, Demi, to stay in his bed, John takes over. Unlike Meg, who has been “conquered” by the boy’s wailing every night for months, eventually sitting by him until he falls asleep, John lets Demi (to use a modern phrase for a timeless problem) cry it out. To Meg’s rebuke, “He’s my child, and I won’t have his spirit broken by harshness,” John replies, “He’s my child, and I won’t have his temper spoilt by indulgence.” Eventually, after a reign of screams so prolonged that John himself falls asleep, “more tired by that tussle with his son than in his whole day’s work,” Demi, too, goes to sleep, secure in his father’s “justice tempered with mercy.”
In Little Women successful motherhood is about a religious morality centered on toughness of mind, not softness of heart.
For Alcott, motherhood is “the deepest and tenderest experience of a woman’s life.” The gleeful denigration of motherhood so common among some of our secular feminists today would likely puzzle her. But she would have recognized with concern the modern manifestation of sentimentality left unchecked, the roots of which are evident in her portrait of Meg—namely, our so-called helicopter mom, so consumed with the instinct to provide for her children the safety and comfort of today, that she neglects the duty to prepare them, with just as much urgency, for the self-mastery of tomorrow.
In Little Women successful motherhood—like successful womanhood more generally—is about a religious morality centered on toughness of mind, not softness of heart. Parents ready children to understand what Jo eventually and painfully learns: In the (not so) simple rigor of doing one’s duty is the greatest glorification of God. In this way, Alcott depicts the home, the traditional province of women’s work, not as a haven from moral rigor, but as the space where its most important and empowering seeds are sown—not just for women, but for men as well.
It has been nearly 10 years since I completed that undergraduate thesis, mostly on Little Women. Today, I am a wife and mother. With my husband, I strive (and fail at least as much as I succeed) to live and to parent with passionate moderation: to resist today’s iterations of both sentimental excess and secular aimlessness, and to help my own children become little pilgrims. They are boys, but when they are old enough, I will read them Little Women.