Feminist Practices And Representation Of Women Characters In Little Women


This essay focuses on Alcott’s Little Women as a feminist novel and explores the representations of feminism in the text. In that, my exploration is on three areas to showcase Alcott’s feminism in the novel. First, I argue Little Women is a novel that presents writing as a feminist practice that shifts from a coming-of-age, Bildungsroman towards a Kunstler Roman, which highlights Jo March’s subversive feminism at the time. Next, the essay also focuses on the gender fluidity in the novel to tie into the feminist Bildungsroman focus. Finally, my essay also goes beyond Jo March’s character to show how forgotten characters like Beth March are a reminder of how patriarchy erases women who do not seem to fit into the stereotypes of the time.


Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, refers to a genre of books that depicts the main character’s development. However, while many works of this genre focus on male characters, a female bildungsroman is not as widespread (Maier 320). Little Women, written by Louisa May Alcott in 1868, is one such coming-of-age novel. In the book, the author illuminates challenges in the characters’ lives, pressing gender issues, and questions about the place and role of women. Among the evident themes are those of family, work, and gender stereotypes pertaining to both men and women. The author depicts four sisters with different characters and paths in the given novel. Such an approach allowed Alcott to present four different ways of questioning social norms, pressures, and expectations in the 19th century. The paths available for women included either marrying young, remaining obedient to one’s parents, dedicating one’s life to pleasure, or seeking one’s true calling.

Jo March is the last sister who chooses to explore her abilities and pursue her ambitions. Since the beginning of the novel, Jo shows her nonconforming personality, making her different from the rest of the sisters. Her character is traced as a hot-tempered, goal-oriented, persistent 15-year-old girl who skillfully combines both stereotypical ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ personality traits the way they are traditionally perceived in society. Even the girl’s approach to her name indicates the binaries that are deconstructed in her name since her full name is Josephine, but she prefers a masculine-sounding version, Jo, thus subverting the feminization of her self. Throughout the plot, it is clear that Jo strives to achieve great heights in her life and not be conformed to the patriarchal yardsticks mapped out for women in her time. While not acting as a conventional woman of her century, Jo March chooses to defy traditional gender standards and desires to write a novel.

However, it is reasonably arguable that Jo March wants to only fight solely for equality, independence, and minority rights. What is frequently omitted in many analyses of the character and the novel itself is the fascinating writing path of Jo. Thus, it is worth considering the writing path and how it impacts Jo March and the writing of the self and the novel as a Bildungsroman. The young, ambitious girl finds her ultimate life goal “to do something very splendid” and develop her writing skills (Alcott 60). Writing, thus, becomes a space to create a feminist voice for Jo March as a metanarrative for Alcott herself in the novel.

Frame of Study

It is vital to point out that the phenomenon of feminism occurred not decades ago but hundreds of years ago, making the literature pieces that touched upon this topic, especially essential. In this case, the novel Little Women, written by Louisa May Alcott, and its diversity of characters help the readers understand the attitude of women toward societal pressure and expectations in the 19th century, contributing to the significance of this study in modern days. The popularity and relevance of the novel can be seen through various cinematic versions of Little Women, with the first interpretation first being released in 1949 and the last in 2019.

It can be seen that the novel has been relevant for centuries since it alludes to an obsolete patriarchal system that permeates the lives of both men and women and establishes societal expectations, and, thus, encourages a feminist vision. Hence, this study aims to analyze the phenomenon of feminism in Little Women through the gender fluidity in Jo March, as well as observe shifts from BildungsRoman to KunstlerRoman. In order to do this, the determinants of Jo’s binary identity and how such binary elements are constantly questioned, along with various feminist practices in the novel, will be examined.

Background of the Novel

While some readers might consider Little Women a simple novel, the book written by Louisa May Alcott transcends such plots and represents a feminist Bildungsroman. It illuminates the struggles of women and the establishment of their characters in a conservative, patriarchal world. The March daughters have big dreams at the beginning of the novel. For example, Josephine, the second child, aspires to be a writer. Meanwhile, Amy, the youngest daughter, wants to be an artist. However, as the girls reach adulthood and expectations for the young women rise, they find themselves having to forget about their wildest fantasies about what life could have been like.

While analyzing the plot, it is also noteworthy to illuminate the background of the novel. The story depicted in the book is intertwined with the life and experience of the author. Alcott, just like Jo, was the second daughter who also aspired to become a writer. The resemblance between the creator, Alcott, and the heroine, Jo, goes deeper. As Harriet Reisen states, “Jo March resembles her creator most in the fertility of her imagination” (Reisen 4). The author believed that both women shared the same rich imagination, which allowed them to create narratives with bits of violence and betrayal in one moment and fairy tales and emotional poems in the next (Reisen 4). Nevertheless, the paths of two genius women part when the topic of personal life as a writer is touched upon. In this respect, while Alcott became a prolific, dedicated, and successful author while remaining unmarried, Jo settled for family life in the end of the novel, which could be as rewriting as a response to the readership pressure and expected narrative of the age. Critics also generally agree that Alcott’s own life could be a probable scenario for Jo, who also grew up with three of her sisters in Concord.

It is also vital to mention that despite the fact that the renowned novel Little Women made Alcott one of the most recognized and praised writers, the woman initially hesitated to work on it. It was her publisher, Thomas Niles, who suggested the novelist write a book for young girls (Cheever 2). Consequently, Alcott decided to write about something that tended to be familiar, such as her personal experience with her sisters (Cheever 2). The writer was satisfied with the unpretentious and genuine book, which was completed in ten weeks. According to Alcott, her sister and lived through most of the events and experiences depicted in the book, which accounted for its success (Cheever 2). As a result, the work can be considered an autobiography due to the plot’s resemblance to the author’s life and Alcott’s voice. However, from this perspective, the novel can be seen as a metanarrative, giving a comprehensive account of 19th-century society, feminism, and gender fluidity.

Theoretical Framework

In order to understand rebellious women, the subversion of ossified dogmas of the conservative society, and gender fluidity in the novel, it is of critical importance to give an in-depth analysis of feminist practices and Bildungsroman. This involves considering the writing from the perspective of feminist practice and the general features of Bildungsroman. These two are not only intertwined but also shape the book’s perceptions and allow the reader to gain an insight into the influence of Jo’s character.

Writing as Feminist Practice and BildungsRoman

The first aspect that needs to be analyzed is the essence of Bildungsroman and how it is correlated with writing as a feminist practice. When it comes to the roots of the traditional Bildungsroman, also known as the coming-of-age narrative, they are linked to the 18th-century German Enlightenment’s constrictive gender and hierarchical class levels (Graham 200). The concept has changed into a literary classification for written works whose plot revolves mainly around the main character’s development and spiritual growth. The traditional Bildungsroman’s coming-of-age path is built on the idea of the male individual as the “universal self” (Graham 202). Thus, the pursuit of a central character, whether geographical or internal, in search of enlightenment or wisdom is a fundamental aspect of most works regarded as Bildungsroman.

Considering this aforementioned aspect, feminist critics have proposed a re-definition of the given style, asserting that the female main character’s growth varies substantially from the conventionally anticipated process of development of a man. In this case, a range of attributes of the female character development was introduced, including self-realization, internal and external goal orientations, schooling, profession, a shift in gender norms, perception of marriage, philosophical and religious views, and autobiographical aspects. All of these factors allowed female protagonists to attune to their true developmental courses. In many Bildungsroman works, female protagonists are expected to conform to norms and follow the standards established by society until the characters find their true selves and become conscious of their identities.

Traditionally, until the end of the 19th century, the hegemony of patriarchy played a dominant role in literature. Nevertheless, since the 19th century, questioning society’s preconceptions about the correctness of marriage, particularly for middle-class women with hopes and dreams, was later documented. In this respect, the 19th century can be considered the time that laid the foundation for writing as feminist practice (Howell 23). The reform concerning urban life and the journalist sphere allowed women to take on more prominent roles in society and voice their opinions and values with the help of their writings (Howell 23). Among the writers who contributed to the establishment of feminist writing was Sarah Willis Parton, also known as Fanny Fern (Howell 23). The work of this author addresses the concerns about gender discrimination and women’s autonomy (Howell 23). Moreover, the writer discussed the unfair and negative criticism directed at women writers by male authors. Thus, at this time, writing was not only a way to express oneself but a way to rebel against the prevailing brutal injustice.

Since the 19th century, writing as a feminist practice has shifted, becoming more widespread. Now, a significant number of feminist debates concentrate on whether women can “appropriate language and literature for a liberatory end” (Kaplan 339) because language is not only a means of obtaining cultural transformation, but it is also part of the issue that women face. Patricia Yaeger, a feminist writer, also advocates for a feminist theory by challenging four assertions that she claims to have too potently controlled feminist writing.

According to Yaeger, one of the first issues that feminist writing underscores is that men’s work is encouraged while feminist work is devalued. As a result, another issue of feminist writing involves masculine language that is believed to have complete authority “to restrict women’s identities” (Kaplan 346). The third aspect when it comes to women’s writing is that women have “a single relation to language” (Kaplan 346). This implies that “emancipatory strategies” are not accessible to the woman writer (Kaplan 346). In this field, language is defined chiefly as either masculine or feminine (Kaplan 346). Consequently, such ruling viewpoints become overbearing, forcing women writers to seek conventional textual distortions, incorporating Avangard approaches to indicate their beliefs.

Hence, writing as a feminist practice has always received backlash for freethinking or due to overbearing societal preconceptions. However, in the present society, a diverse range of feminist writers has contributed a great deal to literature by illuminating the struggles and aspirations of women. Even though feminist writers express many similar opinions, such as questioning gender roles, the variety of current work necessitates the concept of feminism rather than a solitary framework philosophy. In this regard, many feminist writers expose the dominant gender dichotomy while also subverting the existing limits. A feminist Bildungsroman is a genre that encompasses the given theme while focusing on the protagonist’s path. In this respect, Alcott’s novel pertains to feminist writing, covering the phenomena of feminism through the story of Jo March and her sisters.

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Penguin Books, 2013.

Cheever, Susan. Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography. Simon & Schuster, 2011.

Graham, Sarah, ed. A History of the Bildungsroman. Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Howell, Samantha. “The Evolution of Female Writers: An Exploration of Their Issues and Concerns from the 19th Century to Today.” University of Hawaii at Hilo HOHONU, vol. 13, 2015.

Kaplan, Carla. “Women’s Writing and Feminist Strategy.” American Literary History, vol. 2, no. 2, 1990, pp. 339-357.

Maier, Sarah E. “Portraits of the Girl‐Child: Female Bildungsroman in Victorian Fiction.” Literature Compass, vol. 4, no.1, 2007, pp. 317-335.

Reisen, Harriet. Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women. Henry Holt and Company, 2009.