Little Women Analysis
‘Little Women’ has been an influential girls’ novel written by American author Louisa May Alcott in 1868. This novel became a classic for young people and overcame its author’s expectations. Although it has been placed in the field of juvenile fiction, it deserves the attention to criticism based on different literary approaches. For the purposes of this essay, two works of criticism are considered: “Resentful Little Women: Gender and Class Feeling in Louisa May Alcott”, by Stephanie Foote, and “Louisa May Alcott, William T. Adams, and the Rise of Gender-Specific Series Books”, by Sarah Wadsworth.
Stephanie Foote remarks the importance to inquire into the productivity of negative emotional responses in Little Women, such as anger, resentment, and self-recrimination, in order to understand the construction of a “little woman” (65). The author analyzes some key passages in the novel, in which the March girls face class and social conflicts, leading to those negative emotions. In this sense, Foote considers gender and class effective positions, and she recalls Pierre Bordieu’s statements, which define class and status as matters of feeling, not intrinsically related to money.
‘Little Women’ allows studying the emergence of middle-class styles and sensibilities. The March girls represent this middle class and women’s role within it. “The domestic identity of the Marches … combined with the fact that all of the girls’ work suggests that the instability of legible class identity is crucial to the novel’s understanding of gender, as well as to its understanding of why the girls felt injured” (Foote 70).
Foote focuses on Meg and Amy’s characters, as well as Jo, in order to analyze their emotions regarding class and status, which are also tied to gender and morals. “The characters endure a series of mortifying confrontations with their own social inadequacies, and that they, therefore, experience astonishingly negative and emotions ranging from anger to shame to resentment to injury” (Foote 81).
The role of the domestic sphere is important for feminist criticism. In Little Women, a home is a place where the social distinction can be learned, practiced and reconfigured, because the family transcends the injuries produced by structural or economic inequalities. At the end of the novel, the March girls “find that their ambitions for fame and renown, for fortune and comfort, for gentility as well as for freedom, can all be accommodated in the middle-class household that, in the world of the novel, are not only the sources but the balms for their wounded and negative emotions” (Foote 82).
This article bases its study in the text of Little Women, and it does not take other information from outside the novel, e.g. historical or biographical considerations. Feminist works on Little Women constitute a starting point for this work of criticism, and, despite Foote’s critics to other feminists, her article can be considered a feminist approach. However, her analysis of Little Women does not denounce men or the injustices of women’s role. It considers gender as implicated in class. Bourdieu’s theoretical assumption of the class is essential for this analysis. This conception of class as an affective matter is developed in the course of the examples taken from the novel.
Foote’s application of her feminist approach to Little Women is one of the strengths of her article. The conception of a class makes sense with the novel as a totality. The author follows a path, during her analysis, from the initial chapter of Little Women to the final one. Hence, the reader could appreciate the entire novel, while following the arguments on class and gender. The characters are well-defined in this context. The general manner in which Foote refers to feminist critics is a weakness of this article since no authors are specified. This article nurtures from feminist literary criticism, but it lacks a concrete theoretical foundation.
Another approach to Louisa May Alcott’s works is offered by Sarah Wadsworth in “Louisa May Alcott, William T. Adams, and the Rise of Gender-Specific Series Books”. This author describes the phenomenon of juvenile fiction differentiated by gender in the second half of the nineteenth- century, through an examination of William T. Adam’s and Louisa May Alcott’s careers. Adams and Alcott exemplified the professional status of writing for boys and writing for girls in the United States in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Louisa May Alcott wrote girls’ books which challenged the traditional models of femininity within conventional female plots.
Wadsworth describes Alcott’s role in defining, shaping, reinforcing, and revising the qualities, interests, and aspirations of her target audience. Wadsworth quotes some journals in which Alcott demonstrates her reluctance to write a girls’ books, a task is done because Thomas Niles, a partner of Roberts Brothers, asked her to write one. The writing process of Little Women is followed in Alcott’s journals and letters, as well as her biographies.
Niles’ suggestion of a girls’ book has inspired by the success of Oliver Optic’s books for boys. Oliver Optic was the pseudonym of Reverend William Taylor Adams, author of more than a hundred books for boys. The publication of boys’ books preceded the discovery of girls as a separate audience. The discrepancy between boys’ and girls’ readings reflects their divergence of roles. However, Alcott “marked an important advance in the social function of girls’ reading” (Wadsworth 27), because she shaped women’s role beyond motherhood, advocated education and career opportunities for women, and celebrated their qualities.
Wadsworth used a cultural approach for her article. The analysis of Little Women is developed in the framework of the history of the rise of gender-specific series books during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. This article examined the interrelationships between gender, culture, publishers, market, and literature in this context. However, Wadsworth does not provide a literary analysis sensu stricto, because her study focuses on cultural forces that had changed or imposed the rise of gender-specific books, and scrutinized it as a cultural phenomenon.
Neither of the two articles considered the formal aspects of Little Women, narrative voice, metaphors, and imageries. Wadsworth’s methodology includes Alcott’s biographies, letters, and journals, and uses other references on the phenomenon, unlike Foote, who only based on the text itself.
Wadsworth provided historical context on the creation of Little Women as a publishing phenomenon in the market of the United States, which could be considered one of the strengths of this article. It describes the characteristics of girls as readers and inquires about the causes of Alcott’s success. Little Women and other Alcott’s books are compared with Oliver Optic’s series. A weakness is a fact that Little Women is seen as a market product that enabled girls’ identification with the characters and situations, and this ignores its aesthetical value and the fact that literature goes beyond the public. ‘Little women’ is supposed to reflect the girls of its time, but Wadsworth does not mention the literary construction of the characters since her article focuses on Alcott’s writing history.
Foote, Stephanie. “Resentful Little Women: Gender and Class Feeling in Louisa May Alcott.” College Literature 32.1 (2005): 63-85.
Wadsworth, Sarah A. “Louisa May Alcott, William T. Adams, and the Rise of Gender-Specific Series Books.” The Lion and the Unicorn 25.1 (2001): 17-46.