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>Little Women and the Feminist Imagination

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Would it be too geeky to say that I haven’t read any literary criticism for ages and therefore, I had a wonderful time reading the essays in Little Women and the Feminist Imagination? Little Women is one of those books from my childhood, but I only recently read the whole novel all the way through and enjoyed it thoroughly.

My dream a few months ago about having to give a lecture about Little Women was still fresh in my mind when I descended on Little Women and the Feminist Imagination and decided to make it part of the first wave of my library loot. I galloped through it in a matter of days. Here are some of the essays that stood out for me:
  • “Waiting Together: Alcott On Matriarchy” This was a comparison of the Bennet girls and their mother in Pride and Prejudice and the March girls and Marmee in Little Women. In a nutshell, Mrs. Bennet sends her daughters out into the world to find their husbands. Marmee keeps her daughters close to home and the men are attracted to their home and hearth.
  • “Reading For Love” Catharine R. Stimpson introduces the idea of the “paracanon” — books that we read not because they’re “the best of the best” but books that are loved regardless of their stature. “…If a beloved book were human, it would embrace us.” “We are grateful to the beloved text for being there.” “The reader and text are a couple.” Strange as this sounds for a discussion in a volume of literary criticism, it’s got a familiar feel. Stimpson makes the excellent point that finding out about students’ paracanons could go a long way in informing and creating a course syllabus.
  • “Portraying Little Women Through The Ages” is a discussion of the three film versions. Personally, I love the 1933 version. Angular and New England-bred, Katharine Hepburn is the perfect Jo. The other sisters don’t seem quite right, but Hepburn and George Cukor’s direction and his respect for the book make it all okay. Second on my list is the 1994 version. The spirit of the novel shines strongly, but they mess with the text too much. All the sisters seem right — maybe Winona Ryder a little less than the others, but I love her, anyway. Laurie (Christian Bale) is just as I always imagined him. Marmee is slightly too modern, but hey, it’s Susan Sarandon and in my book, she can do what she likes. Gabriel Byrne finally gave fans of the book and films a Professor Bhaer that’s easy on the eyes. Running an extremely distant third is the execrable 1949 version with June Allyson as Jo. If you haven’t seen it, run right out and avoid it. The casting sucks (except for Margaret O’Brien as Beth, which is undercut by having Elizabeth Taylor play her younger sister Amy) , the direction sucks, the music sucks, it’s too Technicolor-y. Ugh.
  • “Getting Cozy With A Classic: Visualizing Little Women (1868-1995)” A discussion of some of the many illustrators of Little Women. The book has never been out of print, so there have been hundreds, maybe thousands of editions. Four illustrations from the first edition are included in this essay. They were done by May Alcott, Louisa’s sister. To call them bad is almost like a compliment, as if they were real art. Girl couldn’t draw. Having said all of that, I did enjoy seeing them from a historical perspective. Poor May’s drawings were dropped in favor of an illustrator named Billings for the 1870-something edition, then in 1880, Frank Merrill did a great job, but unfortunately, this is also the edition that was published by Roberts Brothers, who got the bright idea to “clean up” Louisa May Alcott’s text by removing slang, colloquialisms and “correcting” the characters’ grammar. Happily, the original text was restored during the 1980s. The author of this essay, Susan R. Gannon, points out that the same things seem to get illustrated over and over, like Marmee with the girls around her chair as she reads the letter from Mr. March, exhorting them to become you-know what. Gannon particularly examines what illustrators have made of the skating scene, in which Jo (who is seething because Amy burned the book Jo had been writing for her father) fails to warn Amy that the ice is softening, and Amy has an accident. All of them, from May Alcott on down, avoid Jo’s murderous anger. May Alcott drew Amy as a fashion plate, skating confidently on the ice, Frank Merrill played up Laurie as the rescuer and other editions have shown Jo weeping on her mother’s lap after it’s all over.
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  • “Queer Performances: Lesbian Politics In Little Women” Was Louisa May Alcott a lesbian? Was Jo March? (The ideological kind, rather than the genital kind) Homosocial relationships are the strongest in the novel. “Patriarchy ultimately divides and conquers the women who empower each other through their love.” Okay…
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  • Another essay, written by a male, wonders what is there to attract the male reader. The best bet would be Laurie, but as Jo is a boyish girl, he’s a girlish boy…a 5th sister. He finally realizes his dream of being part of the March clan after Beth’s death makes a place for him. The other men are indistinct.
  • David Watters takes a look at the novel via architecture. He notices where scenes take place and what these places and rooms typically meant to a 19th-century reader.
  • “Communities of Education in Bronte and Alcott” As even casual readers of Charlotte Bronte know, she had an extremely negative view of education, whether it was on the teaching side or the student side. Alcott shares some of this negativity (Amy’s bad experience at school with Mr. Davis and the pickled limes), but seems optimistic that education can be done right, as with Jo’s work at Plumfield in Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Alcott was an outspoken admirer of Bronte’s work, saying it possessed both brain and heart.
  • “Learning From Marmee’s Teaching” This essay discusses the miseducation of girls both in Alcott’s time and in the 1990s. Marmee’s firm belief in volunteer work and her feeling that helping others was a panacea for many ills (although this zealousness led to Beth catching scarlet fever from the Hummels) has its modern-day echo in Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia.

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  • While some of the essayists regarded Jo’s marriage as a failure or simply tragic, others read the trilogy and focused instead on what Jo became — a successful writer and educator with loving family all around her. Professor Bhaer allowed her to flourish; he let her be her own person.
  • Janice Alberghene, one of the co-editors of this volume, compares Little Women to a 1948 novel by African-American writer Dorothy West titled The Living Is Easy. Cool! I had no idea this novel even existed. One more for the wishlist!
  • “Alcott In Japan: A Selected Bibliography” Compiled by Aiko Moro-Oka. Disappointment. The introduction to this bibliography is a scant two paragraphs. First translated into Japanese in 1906, Little Women is really popular in Japan because “most Japanese families lived simply and creating a happy home was their ideal”. Also, “Young women were encouraged to aspire to careers by Jo’s energetic and independent way of life.” I wish there had been more discussion. How did Aiko Moro-Oka respond to the novel? Personal recollections from a sampling of Japanese women would have been nice as well. If the Japanese like it, I wonder how the Koreans feel. I did see a Korean copy of it a couple of years ago in the bookstore at the train station in Gumi. I picked it up and was pleased that I could pick out the characters’ names in Hangul.

Right now, I’m all about Alcott. I went out and bought Jo’s Boys this weekend. Do you think my book group might consider reading Little Women?

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