The ambivalence of Little Women

little womenFlorence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Emma Watson in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019). Courtesy of Wilson Webb/Columbia Pictures.

A recent story about Little Women in the Deseret News discusses why Alcott’s novel remains so popular:

“Why do we keep remaking ‘Little Women’?”

Several Alcott scholars were quoted for the article, including Greg Eiselein, Julie Pfeiffer, Anne Phillips, and yours truly.

One reason for all the new adaptations has to do with the book’s 150th anniversary. Both studios and publishers saw an opportunity to revisit a classic that has been a perennial seller ever since its first publication in 1868. The popularity of Little Women may also have much to do with the way that the story lends itself to performance. As an actress herself, Alcott gave her stories a theatrical quality that has made them more suitable to adaptations for stage and screen.

That said, Little Women was ready to be rediscovered by a generation of readers and audiences for whom the story is something new: an American classic about the ambivalence women feel about womanhood.

What made Little Women so popular when it was first published is what makes it popular today. It is a story about growing up and how one feels about reaching adulthood. At the center of the novel is an ambivalence about that. As such, the novel alternates between nostalgia for one’s childhood and an encroaching maturity.

The most recent adaptation by Greta Gerwig interprets this self-reflexive sentimentality as a cross-cutting narrative splicing between the present day of Part Second and the memories contained in Part First. The effect can be confusing for some. There are moments when it feels a little belabored. For those who know the story well, Gerwig’s back-and-forth style connects the two parts of Little Women in a more cohesive way than they are in the original two-part novel.

Gerwig’s experimental style is a better statement of the conflict between conventionality and individuality at the heart of the story. That individuality is often associated with feminism, as it has been a touchstone in the lives of so many important women writers, artists, and leaders who find the story of Jo affirming and empowering. This is not to say, however, that Little Women is reducible to a socially progressive allegory. It is a novel that may be interpreted from a number of perspectives. The ways that the March sisters find compromise and follow different paths to happiness might be challenged depending upon the variety of feminism with which one may identify.

I see Little Women as a conflicted novel, forward-looking in some respects but in other parts it is quite conventional. It speaks to the same conflicted feelings we all have about how the world is and how it ought to be. This, I think, is the real secret to the novel’s popularity. One may find themselves identifying with the ways Jo or Amy challenge gender stereotypes and social conventions, while also indulging nostalgic feelings for traditional roles and values. It will be interesting to see how different audiences across the country respond to this latest adaptation.


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