By Angela Hubler
“Wouldn’t it be fun if all castles in the air which we could make could come true and we could live in them?” says Jo, in chapter 13, “Castles in the Air.” Jo thus encourages utopian dreaming, not only by Laurie and her sisters but by generations of readers, revealing why this text has been a touchstone for artistic and ambitious women for 150 years. Laurie and the March girls express their hearts’ desires, and as the novel progresses each sister achieves—at least to some degree– what she has pined and labored for: Meg is mistress of the “lovely house, full of…pleasant people”; Jo writes books “out of a magic inkstand”; Beth remains “at home safe with father and mother” until she flies in at “that splendid gate”; and Amy goes to Rome and develops her talents as an artist.
Of course, generations of critics have argued about the degree to which the trajectory of the girls’ lives, especially Jo’s, diminishes and tames their dreams, and the power of these arguments must be acknowledged. However, Alcott’s depiction of the force of traditional constructions of gender upon girls’ lives may be liberating rather than limiting. As Judy Simons and Shirley Foster argue, classic girls’ literature, including Little Women, “conveys the difficulties and anxieties of girlhood, and . . . suggests that becoming a ‘little woman’ is a learned and often fraught process, not an instinctual or natural condition of female development” (What Katy Read: Feminist Re-Readings of Classic Stories for Girls, 93). Thus, Alcott’s depiction may allow readers to understand the insidious ways that patriarchy shapes girls and boys, and enable their resistance.
The dreams in this chapter are liberatory in yet another way: the March sisters dream of improving not their appearance but their character and accomplishments. As Joan Jacobs Brumberg shows in her fascinating analysis of girls’ diaries from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, the resolutions that girls made historically pertained to being better people. Indeed, a journal entry made by thirteen year-old Louisa exemplifies Brumberg’s claim:
I have made a plan for my life, as I am in my teens, and no more a child. I am old for my age, and don’t care much for girl’s things. People think I’m wild and queer; but Mother understands and helps me. I have not told anyone about my plans but I am going to be good. I’ve made so many resolutions, and written sad notes, and cried over my sins, and it doesn’t seem to do any good! Now I’m going to work really, for I feel a true desire to improve, and be a help and comfort, not a care and sorrow to my dear mother. (Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals, ed. Ednah D. Cheney, 48)
By contrast, twentieth century girls’ diaries, says Brumberg, focus on “good looks” rather than “good works” (The Body Project xx). The body, not the mind and character, is seen as central to “strategies for self-improvement or struggles for personal identity” (xxi). Such an argument resonates with my students, who share stories of “boob jobs” as graduation gifts. Seen in this light, the venerable Little Women offers a progressive challenge to contemporary cultural attitudes about femininity.
Angela Hubler is an Associate Professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Kansas State University where she has the pleasure of discussing Alcott and Little Women with students in many of her classes.
Illustration by Cecilia Latella.