"Little Women" is a classic novel by Louisa May Alcott. Based on her own experiences growing up with three sisters, the novel is Alcott's best-known works and presents many of her personal viewpoints.
This novel is something of a conundrum for feminist scholars because while it portrays a strong female heroine (Jo March, an analog for Alcott herself), the ideals of hard work and sacrifice and the ultimate goal of marriage seem to stymie true individual rebellion from any of the March sisters.
Here are a few of the quotes that show the contradictions in the themes of independence and feminism in "Little Women."
March Family's Money Problems
"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents." Jo March.
Right out of the gate, Alcott shows the March family's precarious financial situation and gives a glimpse into each of the sisters' personalities. The only one who doesn't complain about the lack of Christmas gifts is Beth (spoiler alert: much later in the novel, Beth dies, giving readers a mixed message about the virtues of sacrifice).
None of Alcott's characters ever raise the question of why Mr. March keeps returning to his post as a war chaplain even though his wife and daughters are close to destitute.
Virtue and Pride in 'Little Women'
Alcott had strong, unyielding views on "proper" behavior.
"I'm not Meg tonight, I'm 'a doll' who does all sorts of crazy things. Tomorrow I shall put away my 'fuss and feathers' and be desperately good again."
Meg's wealthy friends dress her up to attend a ball, she flirts and drinks champagne. When Laurie sees her he expresses his disapproval. She tells him to lighten up, but later feels ashamed and "confesses" to her mother that she behaved badly A poor girl getting to enjoy a party hardly seems like the worst possible behavior, but the moral code of Alcott's novel is strict.
Marriage in 'Little Women'
The reality for women in the 19th century who were not wealthy was either marry a wealthy man or work as a governess or teacher to support their parents. Despite her somewhat radical feminist views, Alcott's characters do little to deviate from this norm in the end.
"Money is a needful and precious thing,--and, when well used, a noble thing,--but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I'd rather see you poor men's wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace." -Marmee.
The March sisters' mother seems to be telling her daughters not to marry for the sake of money or status but doesn't suggest that there's any alternative to marriage. If this is a feminist message, it's a seriously dated and confused one.
"You have grown abominably lazy, and you like gossip, and waste time on frivolous things, you are contented to be petted and admired by silly people, instead of being loved and respected by wise ones."
Amy lets Laurie have it, and this moment of brutal honesty is the beginning of their romantic relationship. Of course, Laurie is still pining over Jo at this point, but Amy's words seem to straighten him out. This is sort of a pivotal quote from “Little Women,” because it reflects Alcott's personal views about vanity, gossip and the like.
Trying to 'Tame' Jo March
Much of "Little Women" is spent describing how Jo's stubborn, headstrong behavior needs to be subdued.
"I'll try and be what he loves to call me, 'a little woman,' and not be rough and wild; but do my duty here instead of wanting to be somewhere else." - Jo March.
Poor Jo has to suppress her natural personality (or try to) in order to please her parents. It's easy to infer that Alcott may have been projecting a little bit here; her father, Branson Alcott, was a transcendentalist and preached strict Protestant values to his four daughters.
"An old maid, that's what I'm to be. A literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children, and twenty years hence a morsel of fame, perhaps… "
Jo says it, but this is yet another example of Alcott's voice coming through her main protagonist. Some literary scholars have interpreted this and some of Jo's other “tomboyish” points of view to indicate a homosexual subtext, which would have been taboo for a novel of this era.
But in another instance Jo laments Meg's impending marriage, saying:
“I just wish I could marry Meg myself and keep her safe in the family.”
Whether intended or not, to a modern reader, Jo's personality and resistance to being paired with a man (at least in the early chapters) do indicate the possibility that she was uncertain about her sexuality.