What Young Women Need to Know About Little Women

In exchange for vivid portraits of female characters’ lives, readers of Alcott’s novel had to endure a lot of harmful moralizing—which Greta Gerwig’s new movie version strips away.

An illustration from Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women"
M. V. Wheelhouse / Getty

In some quarters, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women—the seventh film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel—was as eagerly anticipated as any gift protruding from under a Christmas tree. I heartily recommend the film, which went into limited release yesterday. I also believe that girls reading the book should receive the kind of disclaimer that the writer Geraldine Brooks said her mother passed down: “Nobody in real life is such a goody-goody as that Marmee.”

For those unfamiliar with the book, Marmee is Mrs. March, mother to Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Little Women has an episodic quality rather than an overarching narrative arc, but if you squint hard enough, there is a discernible pattern: Mrs. March counsels her daughters on their values and behavior; they fall short of her standards; and they turn to her for forgiveness and more guidance. The pleasure of Gerwig’s new movie version is that she discards the sermons and focuses on the March sisters’ hopes and triumphs and heartbreak. There haven’t been a lot of stories—on the page or the screen—that feature fully fleshed-out, imperfect young women. And when they have surfaced, the stories tend to be laden with piety and impossible standards. It is almost as though, in exchange for being allowed to see real girls, we are deluged with moralistic judgment and directives for ever more pristine behavior.

This can make for cloying storytelling. In Alcott’s book, the March parents set the bar absurdly high. Mr. March—who is volunteering as a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War—writes to his daughters that they are, as Alcott puts it, to “do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully.” In essence, they are to aspire to sainthood.

Generally, young people, or readers of any age, don’t go for this kind of sanctimony. But as a fourth grader, I fell for it in a big way, poring over the book’s pages as if they were holy writ. I was sufficiently concerned that my daughter might not know to consume Little Women with a heaping of salt that I insisted on reading it aloud to her, even after she asked me to just “hand it over” so that she could tear through it on her own.

During these read-alouds, I’ve come to realize that the moralizing wasn’t what drew me in as a kid. It was the fact that Little Women’s protagonists are complex girls with rich inner lives. The boys, for once, are in supportive roles.

It’s hard to overstate how unusual that was in the literature I grew up on in the 1980s. The other novels I swooned for—such as Watership Down, The Chosen, The Once and Future King, etc.—had male protagonists. To the extent that girls made an appearance, it was generally as love interests. That formula is turned on its head in Little Women. The March sisters are the central figures, and they pursue different paths. Meg, the eldest, becomes a wife and mother. Jo, who can be mercurial and impolitic, burns to be a great writer. Beth is painfully shy and virtuous. Amy, the youngest, has artistic ambitions; she is more manipulative and vain than the others.

I, like virtually every other girl who wanted to become an author, found a patron saint in Jo March. Gerwig has spoken about the debt she owes to that fictional heroine. It seems apropos that she’s followed Lady Bird, her triumphant debut as a screenwriter and solo director, with Little Women. Both films examine the experience of girls who yearn for more than what they have and document the sacrifices they make to be true to who they are.

Gerwig is open-eyed about her characters’ foibles, but she doesn’t treat them harshly. Those who know the book well will spot several sly slap-downs of Alcott’s more didactic passages. In addition to the four March sisters, the principal protagonist is their neighbor Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence, a handsome, rich young man who loves Jo passionately. On her wedding day, Meg March asks Laurie to promise to abstain from ever again consuming alcohol, and he accedes. In the film, in contrast, during the nuptial festivities, he spirits away a glass of wine and shares it with Jo.

Another Alcott scene dripping with sanctimony concerns Meg’s visit with wealthy friends while she is still single. At a ball they host, she commits the sins of wearing an off-the-shoulder dress, drinking champagne, and flirting. In the book, she feels sufficiently guilty that she goes down on her knees in front of her mother to “’fess.” In Gerwig’s version, when Laurie warns her that Jo would disapprove of her transformation, Meg asks him not to judge her: “Let me have my fun tonight. I will be desperately good for the rest of my life.”

Of all Gerwig’s edits, the one I found most gratifying concerns how Mrs. March discusses handling anger. Little Women devotes long passages to the importance of girls curbing their temper. When Jo laments to her mother that she cannot refrain from lashing out, Marmee confides that that she has been “angry nearly every day of my life … but I have learned not to show it; and still hope not to feel it.”

Thing is, Mrs. March has every reason to be pissed. At the beginning of the book, we learn that Mr. March’s imprudent loan to a friend has left the family impoverished. In real life, Alcott’s father, Bronson, was even more irresponsible. As Anne Boyd Rioux describes in Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, the family nearly starved to death after the failure of a utopian community that Bronson had co-founded.

Of course, as 19th-century women, Marmee and her real-life model, Abigail Alcott, couldn’t do much to change their circumstances. Tranquilizing themselves may have been a prudent, even self-preserving option; it’s just not a quality I’d want my 10-year-old daughter to emulate. Gerwig’s heroines have more agency, and that is reflected in how she has reworked the scene between mother and daughter. Her Marmee acknowledges that she has been angry nearly every day and tries “not to let it get the better of me.” But she also adds this proviso: “There are some natures too noble to curb, too lofty to bend.”

When Gerwig deviates from the source material, she’s arguably being more faithful to the vision Louisa May Alcott had for her fictional family than she was able to put on the page. Alcott wasn’t crazy about the preachiness; in her diary, she dismissed Little Women and the subsequent coming-of-age books she churned out as “moral pap for the young.” She didn’t practice what she countenanced either. While the book argues for teetotaling, Alcott herself was a drug addict.

I was shocked when I learned this. As a child, I wanted to inhabit the book, to the point where I tracked down the schedule Bronson Alcott wrote for his four daughters, which mandated that they wake up before dawn and take a cold bath. I tried to follow this practice and gave up after the first morning. I did, however, internalize the Marmee lectures the way some people do sections of the Bible. To learn that Louisa May Alcott’s own behavior deviated so much from what the straight-arrow Marches demanded left me feeling bamboozled.

I was eager to share the book with my daughter anyway. She’s growing up at a time when there are innumerable books for young people with strong female protagonists. Yet Alcott’s 151-year-old novel, stripped of the pontificating, is still relevant to modern girls. Jo does not fall into the trap of perfectionism: “Not being a genius, like Keats, it won’t kill me,” she tells herself. She loves the process of creating imaginary worlds. Gerwig captures these moments so skillfully; in one of the most transporting scenes of the film, Jo takes to her desk after she has lost her childhood love and her sister, and heals herself with pen and paper. A young woman, in other words, saves herself.

It’s a message that any girl, at any time, would do well to take to heart. That’s why I took my daughter to Gerwig’s film yesterday. It was as perfect a Christmas gift as I could give her.