L.M. Alcott. Little Women. Boston: Roberts Bros, 1868. Illus. by May Alcott. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I just finished reading Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, for the very first time. I have to admit it has been a long process. Just when I started reading part II, I felt really engaged in the story and concerned about the girls distinct characters. They seemed all so amiable, diligent and so annoyingly sweet and proper that it took me a while to realize that I wasn’t giving themselves credit for being young, poor little women fighting and working to make their means. Something not quite common back them, I would imagine. Also, they seem to be acutely aware of their constrains as women, what makes them even more fascinating, specially Jo, who openly defies social conceptions of how a woman should dress, look or behave. Well, Jo is also someone who is so dedicated to writing and reading that I couldn’t help but feel closer to her, since we had so much in common.
English: Image at the beginning of Chapter 34. Darcy proposing to Elizabeth. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: George Allen, 1894. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In a battle between Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, though, when it comes to how they portray poor women, marriage and social conventions, Austen wins in my opinion. While Alcott writes a book embalmed in morality and virtue, often times preaching the value of work, love and family against the luxuries of money, Austen seems to have a more realistic point of view. In Pride and Prejudice, money is a big issue. It is what drives some people to act as they do, like the pushing mother, Mrs. Bennet, who wants all daughters to get married for money, or the young Mr. Darcy, who loves Elizabeth Bennet but avoids marrying her because of her family attitudes. The Bennet family, excluding Elizabeth and her sister Jane, all behave frivolously, always seeking for social status, money.
Although Jane and Elizabeth end up marrying for love, and becoming rich as a consequence, the other characters of the novel illustrate different aspects of marriage a social contract. Lydia, Elizabeth’s younger sister, rans away with George Wickham, an officer at the militia, to marry him, causing her family disgrace. She doesn’t seem to feel any remorse about it, showing a dismay for social conventions and moral. Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth’s friend, marries William Collins at 27 years old because she was afraid of being a burden to her family. In that sense, she marries for financial stability, but she doesn’t appear to be judged for her decision. This different situations serve two purposes: they show the customs of a the 19th century english society, and women’s dilemmas when it comes to marriage, but it also reenforces the importance of love in marriage, giving Jane and Elizabeth as the ultimate examples.
In Little Women, the March girls marry only for love. Meg falls in love with John Brooke in the end of the first part, and the second part is devoted to their life as newly weds and parents of the twins, Demi and Daisy. There is one episode where you see Meg struggles for being poor and not being able to have all the luxuries her friend has, so she buys expensive silk to sew herself a dress. When she tells John what she did, she realizes what a mistake that was, sells the silk and everything is back to normal. From that moment on, the couple is portrayed as being happier than ever in their lovely cozy home, a feeling that no money in the world could buy. Jo marries Professor Friedrich Bhaer and, after inheriting a state from Aunt March, opens her school for boys. Her dreams come true and she is as happy as she can be, although they also are poor. Amy is the only one that thinks that she should marry for money in order to be able to help her sisters, but that is momentary. She ends up falling in love with Laurie, a family friend who happens to be rich, and they too live as happy as they can be. The sisters story are, therefore, only about virtue, love and family, not bringing to the surface other examples that would add meaning to their resolutions. It is almost like moral speaks for itself, not requiring a counter argument to makes its first argument stronger.But, at the same time, the result is that you don’t have a critical view of society and marriage in all its multiple aspects, you have a statement confirming the importance of moral over money, which makes it a little dull.