Teen Angst and Economic Woes in “Little Women”

Little Women is a book wholly concerned with not just growing up, but growing up without malice, without want, and without insecurity. If a little simplistic in its moralizing, it never shies away from how continuous and painful that process can be, especially for two characters who are often misunderstood, arguably even under-served by the source material itself: the ambitious yet domestic Meg, and the young, aspirant, and headstrong Amy.

The four sisters in Little Women, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, each have two warring sides: the subdued, docile creatures society expects them to be, and the creative sides they all, one way or another, have to give up. Collage by Pippin Hart. Credits in this post.

In its eventful century and a half, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has proven infinitely adaptable. It’s spanned plays, a musical, graphic novels, and buckets of films and miniseries, an acclaimed 2019 adaptation by “Lady Bird” director Greta Gerwig among the most recent and notable entries. It doesn’t just keep getting read; it keeps getting retold, often with drastic changes at hand. Generations of directors have sensed the tension in store if only certain conflicts lasted longer than chapters’ end, how powerful the books’ ideas might be had they been allowed to speak for themselves, how much louder a few relationships might have been with a little more attention. In short, the phenomenon seems to perpetuate itself like this: there’s just enough necessary tweaking to be done to present a challenge, but too promising a journey for four wholly charismatic main characters––artistic, romantic, familial, societal––to pass up.

At curtain, it’s the middle of the Civil War. Four sisters, while their father is away serving as a chaplain, are prevailed upon to spend Christmas alone with their mother and not much money, and to not feel to bitter about it, thankyouverymuch. Meg, the oldest, is the moral mentor of the bunch, though not without her own quandaries. Jo, the rebel, resents the feminine expectations she’s saddled with, and “hates to think I’ve got to grow up and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a Chinaaster.” Beth, shy and an avid pianist, quietly and humbly takes her lot while the others yearn. Amy, the youngest, is the one who cries out at the injustice. (“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all.”)

These four, the ur-Hogwarts houses of personality quizzes, each represent a different art form, a different moral struggle to overcome, and a different life path, in an era of strikingly few options for young women. Choose your affiliation carefully, for it will drastically affect the choices you make in your adapted screenplay.

But take heed––Little Women is not lengthy without reason: Alcott’s saga of the March sisters is rich with detail. It gives its characters downtime that any tale heavy on plot could hardly imagine spending. No childish trifle is left un-learned from or un-ruminated over. It is a book wholly concerned with not just growing up, but growing up without malice, without want, and without insecurity. If a little simplistic in its moralizing, it never shies away from how continuous and painful that process can be, especially for two characters who are often misunderstood, arguably even under-served by the source material itself: the ambitious yet domestic Meg, and the young, aspirant, and headstrong Amy.

Jo, the second-oldest, has a vibrant and exciting character arc as a writer, which, coupled with her early rejection of her time’s gender roles, tends to make her the star of the show. Alcott’s depiction of creative life is thrilling indeed, the trials of a young writer made devastating when seen through Jo’s eyes, straining to keep up with her pen in the late hours of the night. But Amy and Meg’s moral struggles––many tied to being ashamed of their family’s poverty, valuing wealth above character, striving for means at emotional expense––are what really illuminate the book and its ideas after all this time.

Meg, at one point, goes to stay with the Moffats, rich family friends of the Marches in a chapter titled “Meg Goes To Vanity Fair,” a standout in the novel for its keen observations of class disparity, particularly in the way Meg feels compelled to belong in the well-off world. As powerful as Little Women believes wise words to be, it also acknowledges that they don’t quite cut it, the unspoken pangs of shame in the heart of an insecure teenage girl holding even more sway. The chapter also makes good use of Laurie, the neighbor boy who befriends the family (and also happens to have a substantial fortune). The objections he raises to Meg’s uncharacteristic adoption of the Moffats’ “fuss and feathers” don’t ring as faultless judgement in this situation (like much of what male characters say to female characters in Little Women), but as a lens on his oblivion in turn. Meg’s efforts to grow past a desire for affluence are some of the chief achievements of the first part of the book, and they come to a defiant triumph when she falls, in spite of circumstance, for a lowly tutor. Her character fades most regretfully from the spotlight come part 2, where, instead, Amy’s comes to grapple with materialism and resolves, with an answer that isn’t quite as compelling, but suggests the possibility for adaptations (or critics) willing to come to her defense.

Amy’s is a more prickly spirit to root for in the first place––she’s almost the quintessential unlikable female character. When we meet her, she’s 12 and loudly committed to sophistication, peppering as many multi-syllabic words into her “vocabilary” as will make her sound cultured, and disdaining Jo’s sloppy and unfeminine habits, railing against, among other things, whistling and slang. But upon closer inspection, Amy and Jo, as, respectively, artist and writer, have very similar tragedies, devoted to their art forms in a society that would never allow them to do it in full.

Amy’s, however, is entangled with a contested love story, and can get lost in the will-they-won’t-they. (To be fair, it’s a great will-they won’t-they.) The fact that she doesn’t fully step back from wealth the way Meg does, though, can make way for a nuanced look into her situation, especially as it pertains to marriage, in a way that doesn’t instantly and unequivocally condemn her for being mercenary. Ultimately, her arc is plenty satisfying food for thought. But it also leaves just enough to be desired to incite arguments in perpetuity.

Hello! Thanks for reading. I make new posts (usually book reviews) every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. But enough about me––I want to hear from you! What do you think of Little Women? Which adaptation is the best? (Overall, I like the 2019 version; what it does with the timelines is whip-smart and it captures all my favorite parts beautifully, but my favorite take on Beth is in the 2017 PBS mini-series. That version’s Amy is really well-drawn as well, but you just can’t beat Florence Pugh.)

Author: Pippin Hart

Pippin Hart read Jane Eyre when she was sixteen, and will spend the rest of her life chasing the high.

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