I can’t remember the number of times I’ve read Little Women. I’m pretty sure I read it at least twice when I was a kid, but perhaps it was three times or more. I read it again in my late 20s/early 30s when the book group I’d formed with friends decided to read it—or I should say re-read it, since most of us had read it as children. That reading shocked me: I hadn’t realized it was so—oh, what’s the word? Old fashioned? Dated? Filled with admonishments to behave like a proper young lady and defer to one’s husband, to control one’s anger, blah, blah, blah. Certainly not what those of us fighting for equality wanted to hear.
So I was surprised to read that Greta Gerwig was making yet another film version of Louisa Mae Alcott’s book. It seemed to me that the Winona Ryder/Susan Sarandon version had done well to emphasize the best of the novel—the unbreakable bond between sisters, the struggle to develop a creative life despite limitations of time and class, and of course the charms of a 20-year-old Christian Bale.
But gosh, I thought, it’s Greta Gerwig. Gerwig grew up in the Sacramento neighborhood where I myself live and she graduated from my high school alma mater (albeit a few decades after I did). I’ve recently reconnected with some high school pals and, with some home-grown pride, we’ve all taken a particular interest in whatever she puts out here in the market place. We all agreed to make an event of seeing her movie.
So I decided to give Little Women, the book, another try. I started reading during the hectic holidays, and my review in one word: relief. It was so pleasant to read this old-fashioned, dated book. In a modern world that is brazenly transactional, where it seems our leaders’ primary concern is “what’s in it for me?” it was so refreshing to read a story about four girls who are willing to exert the effort to grow up to be good people. To make their parents proud. Because Kindness is its own reward. Yeah, I know it sounds sappy, but it’s not. Louisa Mae makes it work. The girls get into mischief, they complain about being poor, about not having as much money as the other families in their community, etc. Normal teenage stuff. But the message again and again is gratitude for family, for sisterly devotion, for friendships.
Then I got to the second part. Oh, dear.
Like Jo March, Louisa Mae Alcott needed to write for money to help support her family. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was a philosopher, a dreamer, an educator, and a member of the Transcendentalist Community of mid-19th century Massachusetts whose more famous members included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. His ventures were less than financially sound. So Louisa Mae put out the first part of the book, hoping it would prove to be popular enough to warrant a sequel. And so it was.
As a reader and writer (but only amateur book critic) I notice a decided difference between the first and second parts. The first part tells the story of how Mrs. March, her four daughters, and their one servant, Hannah, manage life without Mr. March who is serving as chaplain to Union troops during the Civil War. It begins on Christmas Day and ends on Christmas Day a year later. In many ways it is a tightly constructed story filled with fun, frustration, near tragedy and finally joy. A modern audience may note how creative the March girls are. Without computers, TV, radio, or podcasts to amuse them, they write and perform their own plays, play musical instruments, sketch and paint, embroider slippers, invent games. It’s no wonder these characters have inspired young readers for generations.
But Part 2! Well, the sisters are three years older. Only one is still home with her parents. The other three are off on their own adventures. This creates a plot that is disjointed and a story that focuses on #LifeLessons. There’s an overabundance of speechifying as this character or that one feels compelled to point out another’s flaws. Yeah, I get it–sometimes in life these little interventions are necessary, but I don’t want to read about it. Not really.
Even though it was initially sold as two parts, the Little Women we know today is sold as one volume. But thirty years ago, as a young feminist, I think I would have been happier to just read the first part and call it a day. The older me now sees that the Louisa Mae who wrote the second half did it to make money. This is not to say the second half lacks literary merit. Not at all, but the commercial motivation even becomes a plot point as second daughter Jo struggles to define herself as an independent woman and a writer.
This is why we need Greta Gerwig’s innovative adaptation. Out of the rambling second part of the book, she pulls out the connecting thread: the economic plight of women, not just in the 19th century but today. Jo March exemplifies the struggle for a woman to be an independent voice in a world that reflects a masculine sensibility and calls it universal. Sure, things have changed and improved for women since the publication of Louisa Mae Alcott’s classic in 1868. And yet, even now, we hear the film is apparently being received as a high brow chick flick, something reserved for girls with their moms, and old ladies with their book clubs.
It would be easy for me to rant and rave here, but let me just say this: an artist’s purpose is to manifest her vision, not to waste energy trying to convince men of the validity of that vision. I am grateful for Louisa Mae Alcott. I am grateful to Greta Gerwig for giving me another chance to see her with new eyes.
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Photo above by Becca Tapert on Unsplash.