Little Women deserves a different place in the American literary canon–and that place is in schools.
By Lucy Woods
Before publishing Little Women in 1868, Louisa May Alcott was apprehensive that readers would find her semi-autobiographical book dull. Despite her worry, the book was quickly well-received and became a best-seller because of its rich writing and realism. Initially not just women flocked to read Alcott’s brave new American novel, but also men. A story about American women’s hopes, ambitions, dreams, and downfalls was not just exciting, it was also eye-opening for the men and women of her time, and the themes, still relevant today, make it surprising that the book has diminished in popularity.
After its initial publication perspectives shifted, and so did the image of the once coveted Little Women. Slowly the perception of the novel changed; covers of the book started to come in bright floral patterns, depicting the four March sisters in expensive dress that they would not have been able to afford. Movies and TV shows were released with sweeping soundtracks leaning into the romantic lives of the four girls, further gendering it and removing men from having any interest in it (Devers).
The 2019 release of Greta Gerwig’s brave new adaptation of Little Women has catapulted a series of conversations regarding the novel and its importance. While the novel has been adapted into film and TV shows starting in 1933, Gerwig’s most current rendition of the narrative has a new audience questioning the book’s influence on today’s society. This startlingly courageous version of Little Women has stayed true to its roots in keeping most of the lines from the original novel while also creating it to be incredibly relatable to modern viewers.
All the memories a viewer may carry from previous renditions of the Little Women are not banished, rather they are built upon. Gerwig’s outlook on the novel played into this: “Readers who see Little Women as a romance or a story about morals are not looking closely enough” (qtd. in Devers). The fact that Gerwig truly saw the story for what it is, rather than something to look down upon, was apparent in her production of the movie.
It’s true that Little Women is about simple struggles within daily life, but it also delves into deeper themes, which is something that Gerwig communicates through a few touches in the script. Gerwig cared very much about shooting on film, shooting with her specified cast, and shooting on location. She wanted to make the film as big and glorious as possible due to the great importance that she feels the story carries.
Today, it is common that most men do not have interest in reading Little Women. To the vast majority of men, the novel is exclusively for girls, and the movie version is an insignificant “chick-flick.” This kind of closed-mindedness overlooks that there is much for boys and men to learn from stories about love, relationships, friendships, and rejection. Couldn’t America’s culture of toxic masculinity be helped through starting to teach Little Women in schools?
There is nothing wrong with the “girl culture” that boys have seemed to avoid and sometimes disrespect. For the most part, women and girls don’t dismiss a book solely because it has a male protagonist or that the author is male. On the other hand, men and boys are less likely to read books regarding so-called feminine issues. In particular, books concerning domestic life are often deemed small or unimportant to the male collective, but they are nothing of the sort (Devers).
Over time Little Women has not only lost popularity within homes but also in schools. From the release date of Little Women, it has slowly been disregarded as a major work of literature. It boasts important themes concerning life, tragedy, death, and socio-political critiques much like Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick do, yet Alcott is not mentioned alongside those classics (Hornaday). It’s not unlikely that a high school expects graduates to be familiar with Romeo and Juliet, The Scarlet Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby (Devon). These titles have literary merit, however, they also fail to represent a canon that reflects the heterogenous audience of today’s youth. According to Anne Boyd Rioux, author of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Matters, at the time of the 1994 movie version of Little Women starring Winona Ryder, less than five percent of schools were teaching Little Women. A majority of the people that had read the book were introduced to it at home.
Some may contend that novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird or Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl boast female representation, but Rioux would argue that while these novels are noteworthy, they do not represent girl culture. However, there are several books about boy culture that are frequently recommended and canonized such as The Catcher in the Rye and Tom Sawyer.
The New Yorker critic David Denby recently wrote a book about how literature is taught in American schools. He interviewed an esteemed 10th grade high school teacher who spent the year focusing on the theme of the individual in society. Throughout the year, the female students were visibly frustrated by the lack of the female representation in the books the teacher chose. Denby asked the teacher about the book choices and learned that “intensity mattered more than inclusiveness” (Boyd Rioux). So instead of including some female perspectives about the individual in America, he strayed from it. Therefore, the American individual most represented in school literature remains male (Boyd Rioux).
Also, teachers tend to regard Little Women as a book that should be read at home, that it is not suitable for a classroom. This is an issue expressed by teachers through a concern that Little Women contains feminist undertones (Boyd Rioux). Teachers are aware that Little Women has become less of an innocent family tale and instead one that could ignite awkward conversations. Sometimes teachers avoid feminist issues and have found that books with male protagonists are less controversial (Boyd Rioux).
However, there are teachers fighting to “reconstruct the canon” by introducing authors that stray from the constraints of solely white male writers. This is not an easy task, because Little Women has fallen off a cliff of intellectual oblivion; it’s hardly even on teachers’ radars (Boyd Rioux).
Another reason why some teachers are hesitant to present material like Little Women is due to their worry that male students will not react well to it. When Little Women first came out, men were just as crazy about the story as women were. They flocked to buy the book with as much avidity as modern day Harry Potter fans (Hornaday).
However, in our current age, the rich narrative of becoming that is set on a domestic backdrop is nothing compared to settings in marbled hallways of power, the western frontier, or the criminal underworld. Little Women has been inaccurately relegated to one gender (Hornaday). Amy Pascal, producer of Little Women, thinks that the dismissal of a woman’s story compared to that of a man’s is nonsense:
How can [men] not identify with the process of writing, with the process of being an artist? Why would it be different for a woman than it would for a man? There are a zillion stories about wishing you didn’t have to grow up, from ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon’ to Huck Finn to ‘Peter Pan.’ Every story about a boy is about the boy not wanting to become a man and having to become a man. This is a story about a woman not wanting to give up all the things she had in childhood, yet having to do it. It’s the same. (qtd. in Hornaday)
This quote emphasizes the importance that Little Women can have on all genders. Little Women is one book in which a boy may not only just relate to some of the characters, but may also for once feel like an outsider. Usually it’s the girls that feel the most secluded within a story.
We must be able to normalize the fact that a boy or a man could read Little Women without rebuke from anyone. Little Women is not a story solely for women, but to be enjoyed by the masses. Reconstructing the canon may be a slow process, but it’s attainable. The world deserves to have a better representation of Little Women in schools, not just at home. Our society is made up of a myriad of strong women, which are shown beautifully through the four lives of the March sisters. Just because something may appear simple, doesn’t make it any less important.
- Boyd Rioux, Anne. “Why Don’t More Boys Read Little Women?” Literary Hub, 2 April. 2019, lithub.com/why-dont-more-boys-read-little-women/
- Devon, Black. “Reconstructing the Canon.” Harvard Political Review Reconstructing the Canon Comments, Harvard Political Review, 25 April. 2019.
- Devers, A.N. “‘Little Women’ Is a Work of Genius. Let’s Treat It Like One.” ELLE, ELLE, 10 Dec. 2019.
- Gerwig, Greta. “Greta Gerwig on the Lives of Little Women – And Why ‘Male Violence’ Isn’t All That Matters.” Vanity Fair, Vanity Fair, 10 Jan. 2020.
- Hiscock, Kate. “Little Women.” Flickr, 6 November 2012, www.flickr.com/photos/slightlyeverything/8178462585/
- Hornaday, Ann. “Can Real Men Love ‘Little Women’? Greta Gerwig Thinks They Should.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 19 Dec. 2019.