Friday, 8 November 2013
More Pleasurable Reading We’re Not Doing: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women
Yesterday, 7th November 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Prof. Ivy Schweitzer (Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Dartmouth College) to the third of the American Studies Seminar Series of 2013-2014. In collaboration with the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow, and as part of their 'English and American Literature Lecture Series,' Prof. Schweitzer discussed ‘More Pleasurable Reading We’re Not Doing: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.’ Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.
Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, first published in 1868, has gone on to become one of America's classic works of fiction. The novel brings vividly to life New England during the nineteenth century, which as Prof. Schweitzer demonstrated, Alcott was able to draw on from her own family experiences. Indeed, as a child, Alcott struggled with the ladylike behaviour that was expected of girls in the nineteenth century. Drawing on allusions to the character of Jo March in Little Women, Prof. Schweitzer revealed that Alcott too was a tomboy whose favourite childhood activity was running through the fields of Concord, where she would literally lift up her dress and run for miles. Like Jo, Alcott had an unladylike temper that she struggled to control and could not get over her disappointment in not being a boy, since opportunities for women were limited at the time.
In beautifully telling the story of how both she and her daughter came to read Little Women recently, Prof. Schweitzer discussed the various surprises she stumbled across as she digested it. For instance, in the character of Marmee March (the mother), we can find an incandescent rage that ripples through the pages, with Prof. Schweitzer highlighting a key except in which Marmee states:
I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo; but I have learned not to show it; and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.
Marmee makes this statement when she tells Jo that she too struggles with a bad temper. Throughout the novel, however, Marmee seems serene and composed, which suggests that the appearance of a docile woman may hide turmoil underneath. Confiding in impetuous Jo about her own flares of temper that she had learned to control through discipline, help from her husband, and prayer makes Jo feel better, as she realises that she is not the only one with a temper. At the same time though, Marmee’s words suggest that there is no hope for Jo—Marmee is still angry after forty years, and perhaps Jo will be too. As Prof. Schweitzer highlighted, this is likely an expression of anger by Alcott about nineteenth-century society’s demand that women be domestic, and is a compellingly honest narrative in comparison to Victorian literature of the time. As she read Little Women then, this form of anger helped Prof. Schweitzer transform the novel into a feminine quest story, with Jo as its central protagonist. For Prof. Schweitzer, her own pleasure in reading Little Women came through a rejection of the marriage plots and romance entanglements, and instead by basking in the story of Jo – or as she termed it, ‘…an interpretive rebellion of the novel.’
As Prof. Schweitzer highlighted then, Little Women was a fiction novel written for girls that veered from the normal writings for children, especially girls, at the time. And since, it has been championed by feminists for more than a century because an untamed Jo is so compellingly portrayed throughout most of the novel. Also, in the novel’s characterisation of the March sisters, rebellion is often valued over conformity. Likewise, whilst most of the novel confirms Victorian womanhood stereotypes, it also gives voice to transgender identity, amongst a host of other things. So while Little Women can be called a didactic novel, the question of what it teaches remains open.
Prof. Schweitzer then linked this to a discussion of contemporary heroines in relation to Jo. Whilst Bella is somewhat presented as an independent woman in the Twilight novels, Prof. Schweitzer found more in common between Jo and Katniss from the Hunger Games trilogy (A somewhat interesting Washington Post article on Katniss and her relation to heroines can be found here - http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2012-03-22/lifestyle/35448255_1_katniss-everdeen-heroines-young-adult).
In closing, Prof. Schweitzer highlighted how her talk was part of a wider project for J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, titled ‘Jo––She’s the Man! Recovering Little Women.’ In her lecture, Prof. Schweitzer mixed history, biography, literary criticism and a personal narrative to provide a detailed picture of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, and the various ways we can interpret her famous work of art. In what was an informative and highly popular lecture (the seminar room was filled to the rafters), Prof. Schweitzer captured the importance of reinterpreting classic novels, often considered ‘children’s novels’, to reveal some of their subtle but significant themes. I am sure I was not the only one in the audience who, on returning home, felt a necessity to re-read Alcott’s novel with this talk in mind.
By Joe Ryan-Hume
PGR at the University of Glasgow
The Centre’s seminar series continues with Prof. Doug Rossinow (Metropolitan State University) ‘A Movement of Movements or a Conjuncture of Forces? Interpreting the 1960s, Half a Century On.’ This will be held on Wednesday 20th November in Room 208, 2 University Gardens, at 5:15pm. All very welcome!