The Emancipation of Little Women: On Library of America’s “March Sisters”

On the limits of archetype and power of self-mythology in “March Sisters.”

The Emancipation of Little Women: On Library of America’s “March Sisters”

March Sisters by Carmen Maria Machado, Jane Smiley, Jenny Zhang, and Kate Bolick. Library of America. 196 pages.

IN THIS THOUGHTFUL, acute collection of essays, four acclaimed women writers offer a personal take on the lasting impact of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. To commemorate the novel’s 150th anniversary, Kate Bolick, Jenny Zhang, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jane Smiley each take on one of the four March sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, respectively) as their subject, and probe their relationship to the character — both as a model and an imperfect reflection of themselves — over time.

Little Women was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, and quickly gained popularity among readers and critics alike. The novel tracks the lives of the four March sisters from girlhood into womanhood — poised and proper Meg, independent and fiery Jo, sweet and loyal Beth, and tough and calculated Amy — and in so doing, constructs a tableau of family life during the American Civil War. At the time, there were few literary representations of women (fewer still of poor or nontraditional women) and readers became deeply invested in the characters’ lives. As is noted in the preface of March Sisters, readers inundated Alcott and her publisher with letters demanding to know the fates of the sisters (and sometimes addressed the letters to the sisters themselves) until 1933, 45 years after Alcott’s death.

Today, the power of Little Women rests in its endurance: 150 years later, the book continues to grace childhood bookshelves and classrooms; several prominent female writers, artists, and thinkers have cited it as inspiration for their own work: Ursula K. Le Guin, Patti Smith, and Susan Sontag, to name a few. Little Women has also been reimagined into numerous screen adaptations; Greta Gerwig will release her film rendition this December.

But Little Women’s greatest offering, the writers of March Sisters seem to settle on, is the opportunity to find ourselves in the characters. In tracing the natures of the four March sisters against their own lives and judgments, Bolick, Zhang, Machado, and Smiley all consider the utility of archetype writing and, in doing so, unearth complicated truths about the evolution of their own female identities.

Early on in her essay, Kate Bolick asks, “What was the point in reading about myself?” While the question appears here as an aside, it ultimately reveals itself as a core inquiry of the entire collection.

What is the point in reading about ourselves? At one point, Machado deftly recognizes our fundamental ache for archetypical writing: “Little Women was an early example of character archetypes as clearly mappable, Cosmo magazine-style personality types, a prototype for Harry Potter’s houses or His Dark Materials’ daemons.” For better or for worse, the process of identity-formation is often greatly aided by a model — as Machado writes, “We gain much by blunting ourselves against the archetype’s hard surface.”

At the most rudimentary level, each author expresses frustration with her character and grapples with the extent to which she provided a model of female empowerment. Bolick finds Meg’s domestic wife-and-mother goals simple-minded and boring: “[Meg] is yawningly familiar, the quintessential good girl of morality tales and parental remonstrances the world over.” Zhang admits to feeling irritated by Jo’s self-exceptionalism and resistance to romance, adopting criticisms she herself had received as a result of her ambition: “I should have identified with Jo […] [but] there was nobody I detested more than Jo March.” Machado empathizes with Beth, having herself been a chronically sick child, and bemoans the experience of having others write your narrative for you: “How do you keep other people from making you a Beth? How do you stay out of other people’s stories?” And Smiley reevaluates Amy, who she once viewed as vain but now finds to be a shrewd realist who learns to play the game: “[Amy] thinks that the best option for doing what she wants it to learn to navigate and make use of the world she is stuck with.”

But of course, it’s all so much more complicated than those cursory judgments. First, there’s the perspective that time affords: obviously, our perception of a character, of a person, changes greatly with age and distance.

Bolick traces her changing and fraught relationship to clothes and beauty, eventually empathizing with Meg for being “wholly at the mercy of how others experience her manifest beauty, and ultimately deprived of her own pleasure.” Zhang teases out her bitterness toward Jo by acknowledging how her need to be self-sufficient clashes with her simultaneous contempt for people who automatically view her as such. “I have started to resent when other people, especially those who are married with children, praise me for not caving into societal pressures,” she writes. Machado observes that Beth’s lack of desire is ultimately more condemning than her premature death: “Beth does not rage against the unfairness of her situation; but even worse than that, she wants nothing.” And Smiley, despite acknowledging Amy’s prevailing reputation as a cold, self-absorbed baby, now identifies with her code of conduct. “My job as a girl,” Smiley remembers, “was to look around and decide what I wanted to do, what I was able to do, and how these two things might be combined.”

After a lifetime of their own successes and disappointments, the authors have softened toward the four sisters — if they do not outright laud the girls’ temperaments and decisions, they at least better understand their constraints. 

Whether or not we are conscious of it, it’s also nearly impossible to evaluate our singular self against a singular model in art. The essays illustrate this fact: while the writers are tasked with writing about themselves, their discussion of identity inevitably bleeds into that of their mothers, grandmothers, and daughters; while they are tasked with writing about one of the March sisters, they can’t help but invoke the other three — plus Alcott herself — if not as direct subjects, at least as instruments for comparison.

One of the beautiful things about March Sisters is that it’s all very relational. By nature of there being four subjects and four authors, there is no single, definitive model — of femininity, of feminism — to measure against. The worlds of Little Women and March Sisters and the authors’ lives are all reconstructed to exist on the same boundary-less continuum; on this new plane, it’s less interesting to point out the differences in these women’s circumstances than it is to note the familiarity of their frustrations. The experience of figuring out exactly what type of woman you are, the writers suggest, transcends the borders of time and politics; in fact, it renders them all merely incidental.

But this idealistic position — that the experience of being alive could ever be universalized by art — stands at odds with another other long-held notion about archetypical writing: that it is innately limiting. It is true that creating a symbol often requires us to sacrifice nuance for limpidity: Meg had to be hyper-traditional, Jo had to be hyper-bull-headed, Beth had to be hyper-passive, and Amy had to be hyper-selfish in order for Alcott to prove a point about women’s lack of options. Our intellectual brain may be able to understand this as a necessary evil of supposed “realism,” but our emotional brain will likely still crave characters who are just a tad more real — that is, a little nearer to who we understand ourselves to be.

The trouble might be that with the relative lack of female models (especially in 1868), we as readers need those that do exist to stand for everything that we are, everything that we want womanhood to be. Simultaneously, we are at best frustrated, at worst oppressed by the real-world demands to be only one type of woman; these not incompatible but competing wants make it difficult to fully valorize any stock character.

But as it turns out, thanks to the writers’ deep and disciplined investigations, the March sisters aren’t so blunt, after all. It’s our perfunctory readings, or the media’s repackaging of the story, or pop culture’s relentless editing-out of nuance that has cast the women as so one-dimensional. In fact, as Bolick, Zhang, Machado, and Smiley ultimately find, the girls present complicated and therefore more true portrayals of the stubborn difficulties of being a woman.

Equally enduring but more depressing is that the binaries the March sisters faced in the late 19th century still hold today. Despite the very real strides that have been made to expand women’s choices in the 150 years since Little Women made waves, the authors still feel bound by a series of either/or labels: pretty or plain, married or single, mother or artist, idealist or pragmatist.

Our current cultural moment is one that often demands we politicize our experience, that often asks us to justify our lifestyle by aligning with a cause. But what if our choices aren’t symptoms of an underlying crusade? What if we’re just living in a conscious personal effort to reconcile, in Bolick’s words, “the competing desires for autonomy and intimacy”? Zhang echoes this sentiment when she writes of her status as an unmarried, childless woman in her mid-30s: “My life has not been in the service of some kind of resistance or in accordance with any great ideology […] sometimes I just want to shed a tear in peace, without it being a statement about anything at all.”

Likely, there’s no way out of this push-pull cycle: even as we continue to resist the too-tight molds that literature has created for us, we’ll continue to search for ourselves in it. But rather than viewing the prototypes as limits to our ability to seek individuality, might they actually serve as a fulcrum around which we build the rest of our messy, contradictory lives? There is a point in reading about ourselves, according to the writers of March Sisters. At the very least, we ought to consider the idea that self-mythologizing is not purely escapist or self-absorbed, but rather a process that aids us in imagining — and then becoming — who we are.


Emma Baker is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

LARB Contributor

Emma Baker is a writer and current graduate student in NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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