You may not think of it as a tale for Christmas-time, but Little Women is one of my favorite films to watch as soon as the twinkle lights go up. With scene after scene of the little family gathered around a fire and a Christmas tree, it’s impossible not to get excited that December has come again at last.
Beyond it’s Christmas cheer though, the story also has quite a bit to say about some pretty hot topics even for the modern world. The 1994 version starring Winona Ryder as the indomitable Jo March I think captures very well what Louisa May Alcott intended to do with her novel. Though you may believe it to be merely a children’s story, Little Women is chock-full of some rather serious themes: Anti-slavery, transcendentalism, women’s rights, war, and the list goes on. Very quickly it becomes clear that Jo (Winona Ryder) is the new feminine ideal that Alcott seeks to promote. While the other girls follow typical (for the time) feminine pursuits of seeking love and marriage, Jo longs for adventures and accomplishments outside the home. Disgusted when her oldest sister Meg begins to fall for a young tutor, Jo remarks that she “can’t get over (her) disappointment in not being a boy, and it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with Papa, and I can only stay home and knit like a poky old woman.”
Set during the Civil War era, women definitely had few rights and were expected to fulfill their roles as wife and mother without thoughts of education or accomplishment. The March family, and Jo specifically, is rather radical however. They promote education, Mrs. March encourages Jo in her writing and even assists her in gaining a position as a governess in New York City when Jo grows fitful and restless in the domestic realm of her home.
Through Jo, Alcott captures the battle many women, even modern women, experience: the pull between loving one’s family so desperately yet simultaneously seeking to use their skills to change the world beyond their intimate family. Jo is, by far, the most sentimental of all her sisters. Though she longs for experiences beyond her home, she is in anguish over her family being “broken up” by growing up, getting married, and becoming women. When she at last goes to New York, Jo comes up against obstacle after obstacle for all the adventures she believes she will begin to have. The writing she intended to live off of is described by the serious journals as simple “fairy tales,” and she is crushed that the talent she had nurtured at home begins to be seen as insignificant in the world at large.
Longing to be respected as other male writers, Jo writes of violent battles, pens dark tales, and publishes under the pseudonym “Joseph March.” Despite her friend Professor Bhaer’s advice to “write what she knows,” for only then will her writing illustrate the passions of her heart and be memorable, Jo tries again and again to write how she believes she should. It is only when Jo returns home following her sister’s death when she discovers what Professor Bhaer meant. Sitting in the attic of her childhood home, the film shows Jo writing page after page of the “domestic” story of how she and her sisters grew up. The story, though Jo shrank from writing it for she believed it to be merely a woman’s tale, is a huge hit: Jo at last writes from her heart, her feminine heart. She wrote about what broke it, what fulfilled it, what she hoped for, who she loved, and why she loved them. She stopped trying to live out the adventures she wished she could have fighting alongside the men on the front-lines, and wrote about the battles she faced in her own life.
Jo came to understand that she didn’t have to try to live her life as a man did for she had something to offer they didn’t. She could use her femininity to her advantage. She began a school in the manor her wealthy aunt left her, married her best friend Professor Bhaer, and sought to teach others what her mother had first taught her. Though it took her most of her young life to understand, Jo realizes that in their own way, “women work a good many miracles,” and THAT power is a significant one indeed.