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Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters

Review

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters

There’s something about LITTLE WOMEN. As the book nears its 150th anniversary, Anne Boyd Rioux explores its enduring meaning for new generations.

As is well known, Louisa May Alcott was to some extent writing autobiographically as she created the character of Jo March. Called “Lou” as a child, the would-be writer was “tomboyish.” She was brought up in a household that hardly could be considered conventional, though the conventions for women oftentimes overhung her ambitions. Her father was Bronson Alcott, a peer of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The lives of Louisa, her mother and three sisters were infused with the rarefied philosophy of transcendentalism. In practice it amounted to eccentricity; Bronson was a vegetarian, forbade the taking of wool from sheep or the use of cotton produced by slaves, and eschewed all worldly luxuries. The family often relied on the largesse of others. This dependence on charity and her father’s peculiarities were elements Louisa chose to leave out of her first book.

"There’s something about LITTLE WOMEN. As the book nears its 150th anniversary, Anne Boyd Rioux explores its enduring meaning for new generations."

Targeted for girls, LITTLE WOMEN skirted such subjects as the probable depression of her sister Lizzie (Beth), the career ambitions of Anna (Meg) and the artistic aims of May (Amy). Beth became mysteriously frail and shy, Meg a conventional sort who longed for a beautiful home, and Amy vain and flirtatious. Mother Abigail, Marmee in LITTLE WOMEN, was a secretly angry woman who taught her daughters that, contrary to the mores of the era, they should cultivate their intelligence, not their appearance.

Though LITTLE WOMEN has rarely been included in school curricula, it has survived as an international classic, Rioux postulates, because of its credible portrayal of four very different but likable sisters coming of age in difficult circumstances. Jo remains the one most readers choose to identify with. Her independence and determination mirror her creator’s wish to find fame as a writer, a destiny that both Alcott parents saw in her from an early age. To do so, she had to overcome societal expectations, and though she had not anticipated garnering a readership by writing children’s stories, it is LITTLE WOMEN more than any of her other works that has immortalized her.

The book has been recreated on film since the early days of Hollywood, with stars like Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Bennett in leading roles, has “spun off” several television series, and two movie versions are planned for 2018. Feminist Germaine Greer said the novel made her cry, and Gloria Steinem, upon re-reading, declared she was now old enough to identify with Marmee.

Rioux is an award-winning professor at the University of New Orleans. She believes that despite the obvious extreme contrasts between the world of Alcott’s day and our current, fast-moving cyber reality, girls are still girls, still seeking meaningful lives beyond the confines of childhood fantasy, embracing sisterhood, hoping for “companionate marriage,” and, like Jo, pursuing recognition and independence.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on August 24, 2018

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters
by Anne Boyd Rioux

  • Publication Date: August 21, 2018
  • Genres: Literary Criticism, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0393254739
  • ISBN-13: 9780393254730