I spent significant portions of my childhood creating and wearing hoop skirts, so I have been curious about screenwriter and director Greta Gerwig’s new Little Women film coming out this Christmas. During middle school, I was a huge fan of all things Alcott. I read all of her works and watched every film adaptation I could find.
I couldn’t agree more with Gerwig when she recently told Vanity Fair, “This feels like autobiography … When you live through a book, it almost becomes the landscape of your inner life … It becomes part of you, in a profound way.” Gerwig’s will be the fourth major Hollywood adaptation of the classic novel. The story of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy seems to stand the test of time. Which has recently struck me as somewhat odd.
The evangelical, homeschooling world I grew up in promoted Little Women as espousing the lost values of America. Alcott frequently talks about a young woman’s ability to gain or lose virtue, and her characters find happy endings through marriage and children. There is no hint of sexual revolution in her pages.
Yet feminists in particular keep retelling the story. With the exception of the 1950s version, each adaptation of Little Women has featured some of Hollywood’s most outspokenly feminist actresses. Katharine Hepburn, who famously wore pants in public (a significant statement on gender in her time), played Jo first in the 1930s. The 1990s version featured Susan Sarandon, who had become a feminist icon in Thelma & Louise and publicly encourages men to identify as feminists.
This year’s version comes from a director who previously received accolades for writing and starring in the explicitly pro-choice romance, Francis Ha. Gerwig has said that the Alcotts were “the most modern people who had ever existed, up till that point,” and she has been forthright about her interest in portraying Jo and neighboring boy Laurie as androgynous and gender-neutral in their youthful years since “They find each other before they’ve committed to a gender.”
Whether homeschool-curriculum writers understood it or not, Little Women truly belongs in the canon of feminist literature. Long before the sexual revolution, and long before feminism was synonymous with abortion and reproductive freedom, the movement was about work. The main debate surrounding middle- and upper-class women in 19th-century America revolved around whether women should desire idleness or to be economically productive members of society. As labor began to be divided between men and women, idleness implied economic stability. The wealthier the family, the less women were expected to work in or outside of the home. Hiring others to do housework (maids, nannies, etc.) was for the economically stable woman. Earning wages was for the poor.
At the heart of Alcott’s feminism is her fundamental belief that all women ought to work. Throughout her novels, Alcott’s characters are women who are industrious economically and domestically.
Little Women is a tale of progress, and ultimately of virtue-signaling. In the opening pages of her novel, Alcott explains that the four March girls are on a journey of self-improvement. They each have their strengths and gifts, and each their own temptations. The real plot of the book is not whether they will marry, but whether these four young women will progress, becoming better people who do good.
The primary illustration Alcott uses to discuss the matter is The Pilgrim’s Progress. In the voice of Marmee, Alcott espouses in the first chapter of Little Women that “Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City. Now my little pilgrims, suppose you begin again, not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get …”
The novel is made up of vignettes from the girls’ lives chronicling their various paths up the hill of personal improvement. To conclude each vignette, Alcott offers a short sermon observing the karmic results of the girls’ actions. When they do good, they eventually reap the benefits, though the path might be painful. When they act selfishly, they fail, often comically suffering the outcomes in order to learn a lesson. There is a lesson to all of Alcott’s episodes: Moral people will eventually prosper and the wicked must bolster their efforts toward self-improvement.
This is why Little Women is endlessly attractive to modern feminists. For after all, feminism, like all of the world’s “-isms,” is at its core a system self-improvement, offering to adherents freedom and utopia. My peers talk freely about being “good” or “bad” feminists. They judge and are judged in turn according to the morality of third- or fourth-wave feminism. Hepburn, Sarandon, and Gerwig all have understood that the tale of individual moral progress within Little Women can be recontextualized for each new generation. Feminist role models must be recast according to feminism’s evolving morality.
To be clear, Alcott may have lived in the 19th century, but she was not an orthodox Christian. The system she puts forth, and which those involved with Little Women’s many film adaptations keep contextualizing, is without grace and mercy. The messiness of atonement, the pain of forgiveness, and the language of sin are not to be found in Little Women. Alcott and her family were neighbors of Ralph Waldo Emerson and were noted transcendentalists themselves. A growing movement in the early 19th century, particularly in New England, Alcott’s transcendentalism meant she believed that the human soul must be perfected in this life. She even maintained that religion could help. But she did not believe in the need for a crucified Savior whose blood dripped on behalf of four little girls. When she referenced Pilgrim’s Progress, she did so without referencing conversion. She promoted progress, without first promoting the new heart only grace can create.
Despite the ways I have been processing Alcott and Hollywood’s moralistic world, on a recent rereading, I discovered something new in Little Women. As often happens, stories often show us unintended glimmers of grace. Alcott’s discussion of the girls’ need for progress takes place against the backdrop of the girls longing for their father, who is away during the Civil War.
The catalyst for their desire to improve is a letter from their father. In it, he writes,
A year seems very long to wait before I see them, but remind them that while we wait we may all work, so that these hard days need not be wasted. I know that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.
These words are a hidden nod to the true motivation for virtue—the love of the father who sees in his children what does not yet exist. The works-based morality of modern feminism tells its adherents that right thinking and right living must be first earned in order to be considered lovely.
Within her most convincing sermon for works-based morality, Alcott inadvertently reveals what the Christian believes to be true—that the Father mercifully calls us lovely. In response, we are remade into the women he has meant for us to be.
Hannah Nation is a writer and editor based in Cambridge, MA, and temporarily living in the Netherlands. She received her MA in church history from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and serves as the communications and content director for China Partnership.