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book review

We may need ‘Little Women’ now more than ever

From left: Kathryn Newton, Willa Fitzgerald, and Emily Watson in this year’s “Masterpiece” adaptation of “Little Women.”
Courtesy of MASTERPIECE on PBS, BBC and Playground
From left: Kathryn Newton, Willa Fitzgerald, and Emily Watson in this year’s “Masterpiece” adaptation of “Little Women.”

The subtitle of Anne Boyd Rioux’s engaging reassessment of “Little Women” may seem to protest too much. When a 150-year-old novel is the basis for not one but two forthcoming movies — a modern-dress version opening in September and a star-studded period piece in development by screenwriter/director Greta Gerwig — the need to explain “why it still matters” would appear to be minimal. 

Rioux has a point, however. As she ruefully acknowledges, 21st-century girls left to their own devices prefer fantasy or dystopian adventures, and although both the “Harry Potter” series and the “Hunger Games” trilogy feature intrepid young heroines who owe at least a tip of the hat to Jo March, these books and movies lack the textured evocation of day-to-day female experience that made “Little Women” a cherished touchstone for generations of readers — and not just female ones. Rioux names male devotees, including Teddy Roosevelt and James Carville, and argues persuasively that Louisa May Alcott’s nuanced examination of the losses and gains inherent in the process of growing up can strike a chord in readers of any gender.

If they can be convinced to try it. “Little Women” is the kind of long, leisurely narrative increasingly unread in our age of Internet-induced attention deficit. It has also dropped off the school reading lists we now count on to expose kids to classics people once read for pleasure, a victim of the alleged “crisis in boys’ reading.” Rioux is enjoyably blunt about educators’ current obsession with encouraging boys to read by giving them only books about boys. To the rhetorical question of one library media specialist — “How many 12-year-old boys will be engaged by ‘Little Women’?” — she replies tartly, “As far as I can tell, no one is concerned about whether 12-year-old girls are engaged by ‘Tom Sawyer.’ ” One of the primary purposes of literature, she reminds us, is to immerse readers in other people’s experiences and other points of view; sex-segregated reading diminishes girls and boys. So do gender stereotypes, as Alcott was presciently aware in her portrait of Jo’s best friend (and later unsuccessful suitor) Laurie, an aspiring musician whose macho schoolmates call him “Dora.” 

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Rioux’s astute analysis of how a 19th-century bestseller “devoured by children and adults of both sexes” was gradually downgraded to just-for-girls status will surprise no one who read her excellent “Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist,” a similar blend of biography and cultural history. The opening chapters of “Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy,” which chronicle how Alcott came to write “Little Women,” lucidly delineate the social, political, and literary crosscurrents that shaped her character and career. She was encouraged by her father, radical philosopher and reformer Bronson Alcott, to ignore contemporary strictures against women writers, but she was closer to her mother, Abba, embittered by a lifetime of sacrifices to support an unworldly spouse. The conflict between Louisa’s literary ambitions and her desire to make money from writing stemmed from her early exposure to the cost of idealism.

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Happily, “Little Women” enabled her to achieve both goals. The line between the children’s literature and adult fiction was fluid enough in 1868 that “Little Women” could attract an enthusiastic mass audience with its vivid portrait of four very human girls groping toward womanhood. Reviewers praised it as “fresh, sparkling, natural, and full of soul”; the perception that it was sentimental came later, as the literary canon was formed with masculine parameters in the 20th century. 

Feminist critics around the end of that century had their own problems with “Little Women.” Naturally, they acknowledged awkward, ungainly, ungirly Jo as an inspiring protofeminist icon, beloved by girls everywhere. How could they not? Alcott gave Jo all her personal angst and forceful personality; she is the novel’s most vibrant character, next to whom her more conventionally feminine sisters pale in comparison. (Anyone who claims to prefer Amy, as critic Caryn James did in a 1995 essay, is striking a pose.) But feminists regretted that Alcott felt obliged to marry her off and disliked the book’s “glorification of [female] altruism.” 

Rioux wades womanfully into the debate, coming to a long overdue balanced assessment: “ ‘Little Women is such an ambiguous novel. In its competing narratives of quest and romance, rebellion and resignation, rejection and adjustment, ‘Little Women’ offers its readers multiple options, none of which is the one message.” True, but not the whole truth. From these conflicts, Alcott plucked a generous vision of life in which service to others and individual fulfillment are complementary; husbands and wives are equal partners; and cooperation is better than competition. It’s an ideal more than a reality today as it was in 1868 — all the more reason, Rioux’s affectionate and perceptive tribute asserts, that we should still be reading a warm, entertaining novel that suggests ways we can get there.

MEG, JO, BETH, AMY: 

The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters 

By Anne Boyd Rioux

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Norton, 273 pp., illustrated, $27.95, 

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Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post.