Little Women: Representing Womanhood in the 19th and 21st Centuries

More than entertaining reading material, Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novels serve the purpose of providing young readers an instruction manual on how to behave, and more importantly, a model on how to grow-up. Especially among the classics, the effectivity of this character of the Bildungsromanreveals itself in longevity, or staying power, often bringing with it gender-specific ideas of what it means to be an accomplished adult. Specifically, these refer to the values that define the place of an individual and her/his ambitions within the professions, society, and most significantly for the nineteenth century during which most of the surviving Bildungsroman were written, within marriage and family.

For young girls, Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical Little Women, set during and after the American Civil War, holds a special place. A “Great American Novel” in its own right, it is a story that passes from grandmothers to mothers to daughters repeatedly throughout the generations, and reaches beyond the Anglophone world through several translations. The story is likewise kept relevant by numerous cinematic and television adaptations that interpret the plot to align with the predominant values of the time it was broadcasted. Latest among these is Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation which has the distinction, first, of returning to the text to produce a more feminist, openly female-empowering script, and second, of reshaping the ending in line with Alcott’s original intent, without the pressure of a publisher’s marketing strategy.

Described by Alcott as a “domestic drama”, Little Women provides four models of coming into womanhood personified by the four March sisters: romantic Meg, a talented actress who chooses to pursue happiness in domestic matrimony; tragic Beth, who incarnates the unified family as the eternal little girl; and the artists Jo and Amy, who struggle between the need for absolute devotion to the family, and the pursuit of their crafts in traditionally male fields while searching for the elusive “genius”. A fifth protagonist is embodied by the Marches’ neighbour, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, a wealthy orphan and another aspiring artist who offers another perspective of growing-up and an outside yet intimate lens into reaching womanhood as he plays the role of brother, suitor, and husband, respectively, with the March sisters. Importantly, the second part of the novel, originally published separately as Good Wives, famously deviates from Alcott’s original intention to keep Jo, based on herself, a literary spinster, forced by her publisher’s equating of the “marriage plot” with commercial success.

Mariage is an economic proposition,” two of the four sisters insist throughout the film and Gerwig illustrates how this nineteenth century reality permeates not only the romantic perspectives of the Marches, but also how they pursue their art. She also illustrates the ways in which the gatekeeping of the predominantly male concept of genius can be used to exclude female genres that are characterised by femininity and domesticity.

This workshop, entitled “Little Women: Bildungsroman and models of adulthood in the 19th and 21st century,” is organised as part of the integration programme of CIM Horyzonty’s 2022 ESC short-term volunteers, with a focus on one of the organisation’s core values: women empowerment. 

Its procedure is as follows: a screening of Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation to give the audience a bird’s eye view of the models of womanhood advanced by the March sisters and the lens offered by Laurie Laurence, so that they may understand the complexities and motivations behind each, and identify which model(s) they feel the greatest proximity to. Based on their choice in the film which is not limited by gender, the audience will select a short curated anthology of excerpts devoted to the personal and professional growth of each of the five protagonists. Finally, taking into account their own experiences and the model set by the character of their choice, the audience will answer the question, “What does it mean to be a well-raised young woman?”

Each protagonist has three chapters, and seven copies of anthologies for the audience to bring home and read at their own pace. Among these, there was a substantial demand for the sisters that pursued artistic careers in the film, possibly within the confines of mariage, or depending on the ambiguity of the ending, independent of the marital institution. The choice of Jo exhausted all seven copies, with audience members asking for more, while the choice of Amy totalled six. The more domestic and family-looking Meg and Beth tie at four copies each alongside the romantic figure of Laurie, but it must be noted that this latter was often taken only in conjunction with Jo or Amy.

Responses to the question posted on Mentimeter vary fairly importantly: a good number answered that a well-raised young woman is defined by her independence, but a good number likewise underscores the foundation of values, therefore aligning the audience’s views with all four sisters. An important number also makes the point that, as presented by the four models, accomplished womanhood is defined at the individual level and varies per person. One makes the very important observation that, in opposition to the liberties taken by the film, accomplished womanhood in the novel is intrinsically linked with acting within societal rules and expectations.

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