Why “Little Women” Still Resonates with Readers Today
By: Mies Allen
The story of fanciful Amy, charitable Beth, wise Meg, and vivacious Jo may have been penned just over 150 years ago, but Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has stood the test of time, arguably becoming more poignant as the years go on.
In light of the release of Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaption of the classic tale, starring Saoirse Ronan, Timothee Chalamet, Florence Pugh and Meryl Streep, we take a look at the reasons why we still love the March sisters so much, and how the story is still relevant to the little women of the 21st century.
Written for women, by a woman
The latter half of the 19th century in the USA was a transformative era in literature. Following an example set by the romantic British poets and authors, books and poetry were gradually becoming more accessible to the general population, and creative freedom was at its highest ever. However, Alcott came at a time when male writers dominated bookshelves, and many female writers still hid behind male pseudonyms to have their work published – Alcott herself published early works under the name A.M Barnard.
The difficulty women faced to establish themselves as writers during this time is reflected in Little Women, as Jo March is criticized for her interest in fantasy and disinterest in allowing the fate of her heroines to be only marriage – as her publisher wishes. This is a great factor in what keeps this story so poignant for women nowadays, as we are still able to relate to how both Jo and Alcott had to defy expectations to fulfil their truest desires.
Modern women are still so often ridiculed for their interests, whether they be too typically feminine or not in line with what people expect, as well as often being underestimated within our careers, feeling the need to prove our worth to our male counterparts to be compared to them. As much can be seen in Gerwig’s own lack of nominations for Best Director at the Golden Globe of BAFTA awards, ironically.
A true portrayal of family and sisterhood
The beauty of Little Women also lies in its portrayal of ordinary family life. The March girls are not part of an extraordinary family, nor do they have a dramatic life, but that is exactly what makes them so easy to enjoy reading about or watching. To watch any cinematic retelling of this story, including Gerwig’s, is to feel as though you are growing up alongside these girls – their lives are not perfect, they face money troubles, grief, and feuding as every family does. This is exactly what makes the happy parts of this story so emotional and enjoyable—the characters feel like us.
Something entirely special about Little Women is how Alcott presents the unshakeable bond of sisterhood. Although each girl has a personality that clashes with the others, there is nothing that can come between them or truly jeopardize the love they feel for one another – something that has arguably never been replicated so beautifully in any other story.
Marriage and choice
One of the most impressive morals weaved into Little Women by Alcott is how she tells her readers that women should have a right to choose whatever path they wish – with one desire not being worth more than any other. The clearest portrayal of this is Jo’s initial difficulty in accepting Meg’s choice to become engaged, believing that nobody is good enough for her sister to marry. While it is certainly important that Jo is a voice for women who do not see love and marriage as a goal, it is just as necessary that Alcott showed that women like Meg who do have more traditional aspirations are still entitled to their choice, and no less strong in doing so. We so rarely see stories in which there is a diverse portrayal of what women wish to become, but Little Women demonstrates how the dreams and roles of four girls are all just as important and necessary as each other.
Complex female characters
What is arguably the most unique thing about Little Women and the reason why it is still so widely loved in the 21st century is that it is a story that is not only focused on women but presents them as well-rounded and fully developed characters. The downfall of many beloved stories from the 19th century is that female characters are often supporting characters used to aid the story of a male protagonist, or if they are the driving force of the story, they are often one-note and fall into a certain archetype – particularly the virtuous lady.
Little Women, however, focuses on four girls each with distinct character flaws and virtues that are explored deeply, and each character grows and develops and the story goes on. Not one character is entirely ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and this is what allows the reader or audience to have a genuine connection with them. Furthermore, the March girls are guided not by a male, but by their mother, Marmee, who nurtures them into their fully developed characters. So little of this story relies on male characters to move the narrative along, making it almost a story sacred for women readers and audiences.