Feminist Practices In “Little Women” Book By Alcott


This essay focuses on Alcott’s Little Women as a feminist novel and explores the representations of feminisms 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 feminist practice that shifts from a coming of age, Bildungsroman towards a Kunstler Roman, which highlights Jo March’s subversive feminism in 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 characters’ 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 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 with 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 developing 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, 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 she 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 the 19th century’s society, feminism, and gender fluidity.

Theoretical Framework

In order to understand rebellious women, 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 the 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 (Marisa 1). 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 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 a 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 strategie” 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 the 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.

Stereotypical Gender in the 19th Century and Different Feminisms in the Novel

In the coming-of-age novel Little Women, Alcott sheds light on the gender stereotypes that were prevalent in the 19th century. These gender stereotypes can be seen through both female and male characters who strive to transcend these boundaries set by society. Moreover, with the help of contrasting characters, the novelist illuminates feminism in the actions of a few individuals who are seen as disobedient and nonconforming.

Alcott confronts gender expectations through the protagonists, Jo, and her friend, Laurie. The friendship of the two is not only comical and sincere, but it also serves as a source for Alcott to challenge many traditional gender roles (Bender 141). The author breaks the cycle of gender stereotypes by naming characters Jo and Laurie (Bender 141). In this respect, the former can be perceived as a masculine name, and the latter can be confused with a more feminine name. Nevertheless, Alcott not only reversed this situation but bestowed personalities upon them accordingly. Later, when both characters meet for the first time, neither appears to be bothered or astounded by the other’s name (Bender 141). Thus, the idea behind such an approach of the author is never to criticize an individual based on their name and categorize them into specific groups based on their names.

From the first pages, Jo not only fails to comply with the conformist rules of society but refuses to do so as an act of rebellion, even with her mother’s pressure and endeavors to change her daughter. In comparison to another one of her sisters, Meg behaves in a suitable manner for a woman and comes the nearest to conforming to her mother’s perception of a ladylike personality. Meg criticizes Jo for using jargon and whistling, telling Jo that she is old enough to stop behaving like a child and start acting like a true lady. When scolding her sister, Meg alludes to Jo’s looks and behavior, claiming that even hair is an essential feminine part that should be well-kept (Little Women 13). Thus, the writer emphasizes the importance of feminine manners through Meg’s statement.

However, throughout the plot, there were more moments when Jo felt the pressure and suppression of her true personality due to the common perception of femininity in society. Another such moment was the preparation for Gardiner’s party, where Meg and Jo face a slew of challenges in order to look visually appealing (Bender 142). Since the girls had one pair of stained gloves, it was decided that they would wear one glove that was clean and hold the smeared piece in the other hand (Bender 142). This scene corroborates the idea of what kind of scrutiny from society the women of this time had to endure. Young girls had to constantly look graceful, wear beautiful dresses, and watch every step in order to avoid criticism.

As for other gender stereotypes and feminisms, they are manifested through two sisters who have different personalities, Jo and Beth. The latter epitomizes the perfect woman, who is comfortable being an obedient, people-pleasing woman (Bender 145). Beth is commonly referred to as a flat heroine due to the absence of any changes in her personality and her reluctance to follow any dreams (Bender 145). This individual’s core traits only involve kindness, humility, and empathy. Beth’s surrender to domestic life resembles the path of the majority of women in the 19th century (Bender 145). During this period, many women had no choice but to abandon their hobbies and education in order to take the roles of mothers and wives (Bender 145). Since only a few women could provide for themselves, home was seen as a haven with security and stability. Beth’s death, thus, represents the annihilation of perceptions of a perfect woman (Bender 141). Alcott is referring to the idea that being a wife and mother is not the only role for women. Jo proves that a woman can be a wife yet remain ambitious and independent.


Jo March: A Case from BildungsRoman to KünstlerRoman

Künstlerroman is a subcategory of Bildungsroman, and its plot focuses on the younger protagonists, more specifically on their aspirations and ambitions in the field of art, including writing, poetry, painting, or music. Thus, while Bildungsroman concentrates on a broader spectrum of spiritual growth, Künstlerroman puts emphasis on young artists’ development. In Little Women, for example, while highlighting the growth of Jo March, the writer accentuates the significance of Jo’s enthusiasm and strength in her quest of becoming a prominent writer.

Throughout the life of Jo, the reader can see the struggles and shifts in the young woman’s writing. In the first part of the novel, the author describes in detail how rich Jo’s imagination is and what kind of great talent and dreams the aspiring writer has. Jo defines her “castle” as “rooms piled with books” and a “magic inkstand” that could help her become as renowned as Laurie’s music (Little Women 188). Additionally, though Jo must learn how to perform household chores, her desire to be a writer is never viewed as a flaw in her character. Instead, her blessing and skills win support and recognition from her sisters, who fully endorse her aspirations to have a career in this field. For example, one of the sisters, Beth, is impressed by Jo’s ability to “act such splendid things” when completing their theater repetitions (Little Women 18). Her family views her as a Shakespeare, admiring and respecting her talent.

Jo believes in her ability to become wealthy and famous, and her desire to write only intensifies after her story is published. After first publishing and hearting the narrative, Jo’s sisters express their happiness and even cry with excitement (Little Women 203). The young girl is also pleased with her efforts that resulted in success. To a certain degree, Jo’s early triumph alleviates her prior stress about failing to create outstanding works and gives her more opportunity to pursue a writing career in the future. Later, whenever Jo faces challenges, she manages to deal with them artfully. For example, she uses it to improve her writing skills when she receives criticism. Additionally, the girl considered publishing her works anonymously, implying that it was written by a man to avoid being disapproved. To Jo, this was a quest where wealth and recognition took the first place. The girl saw writing as an opportunity to provide for her family and build her ego.

However, Jo experiences a shift in her writing at a certain point. This was a change that contributed to her as a character of both Künstlerroman and Bildungsroman. When Mr. Dashwood, a publisher, pushes Jo March to change the story and write something that the broad audience would accept, Jo feels as if she betrayed herself because her primary aim and style of writing have rotated and now were different from her initial dreams. After this revelation, Jo abandons her desire to write sensational books. The woman sees her works as nonsense and is appallingly embarrassed by perceiving writing only as a means of making money. Thus, this moment allowed the writer to become closer to writing as a form of art rather than merely as a source of profit. From then, the protagonist vowed to use her skills not to captivate the audience but utilize her writing skills to express her opinion and delve deeper into what interests her. This not only encapsulates the moment of growth as a writer but the spiritual maturity of a young individual.

As soon as Jo started to perceive writing as a conduit for her emotions and opinions, it became her personal therapy. Writing serves as an amalgamation of self-expression means and medicine. For example, in two of the poems, Jo reveals her thoughts and feelings on everything happening on the inside. The first poem reveals her grieving nature after the death of her beloved sister Beth, assuring that her life was full of meaning and everybody gained a lot of wisdom from her. In another one of her poems, Jo expressed her loneliness and desire in loving and be loved. While admitting that her poems are not perfect, they bring her a sense of serenity. Thus, writing is not only a way for Jo to articulate her thoughts and feelings, but it is also a source of peace and comfort for her.

Thus, the story of Jo March is indeed an artful transition from Bildungsroman to Künstlerroman. The reader follows her path and her spiritual growth of Jo. What can be seen is the desire of the protagonist to become a prominent writer and gain respect and recognition through her skills and knowledge. Meanwhile, during this conquest, several changes take place that further indicates the maturity of the character. Jo surpassed this stage like she surpassed her rich vocabulary and rebellious enthusiasm. Like a Künstlerroman heroine, Jo experiences transitions in her writing styles, going from writing to excite and captivate the audience to putting her interests first and using this form of art as a therapy and conduit for emotions and opinions. Jo escapes from traditional constraints and blossoms into a self-sufficient and brave female writer. Unlike a servile and defenseless wife and mother, Jo rejects the idea of reconciling with her fate as a typical woman and staying at home to deal with domestic duties. Instead, Jo chooses to follow her heart and do what she perceives as the right thing.

Gender Fluidity in Jo March

A long path of transitions and constant search for true identity is encapsulated in the gender fluidity of Jo March. The gender fluidity of Jo March is evident when comparing Jo at the beginning and end of the story. At first, the reader sees an obstinate adolescent who is not afraid to dream big and rejects conformist ideas of family and gender roles. However, in the end, Jo is comfortable marrying a professor, taking on more household duties, and removing writing aspirations as the main priority (Theodorou 2). Surprisingly, Jo’s personality has evolved significantly by the end of the book. The young woman transforms into a much more feminine character while becoming more indifferent toward the female-labeled duties she once reviled.

In order to observe the complete transition of Jo March and the triggers that made her personality shift between gender inclinations, it is vital to see her personality growth in chronology. To start with the beginning, Louisa May Alcott emphasizes the challenges the protagonist has to endure due to her gender. As can be seen from Jo’s lines, “it’s bad enough to be a girl” since Jo likes “boy’s games, and work, and manners” (Alcott, 3). According to Tuck (82), among the most complicated and transgressive issues in Little Women is the frustration that stems from one’s sexuality, “being “made” of one sex whilst desiring to “be” of another.” As a result, a reader observes the inner struggles of Jo March, who seeks acknowledgment.

From the beginning, the author illustrates Jo’s rejection of stereotypical feminine identification and aspirations. The young woman desires to take the male leadership role instead of succumbing to the role of a “little” woman. Jo wishes to have a real career, even if it is a male-dominated field and the chances of her success are minuscule. From the first pages, it is evident that the girl does not desire to be a typical revered woman since she “does not fit these ideals and begins to despise them” (Smith 4). The protagonist even refuses to be called miss March, and when speaking to Laurie, she asserts that she is “only Jo” (Little Women 43). This helps her lose the part that makes her feminine and sentimental against her will. Consequently, this allows the author to familiarize the readers with the boyish nature of the character.

Works Cited

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

Bender, Clare. “Gender Stereotyping in Little Women:“Let Us Be Elegant or Die!”.” Midwest Journal of Undergraduate Research, no. 8, 2017, pp. 140-153.

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.

Marisa. “Finding Their Voice: The Female Bildungsroman.” Mysite, Le Salon Literary Discussions, 2021, Web.

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

Smith, Shardai. “Dismantling Gender Roles and Redefining Womanhood in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.” The Seton Hall Journal of Undergraduate Research, vol. 4, no. 1, 2021, pp. 1-10.

Theodorou, Agapi. Jo’s progeny: Tracing the girl writer, 1868–1964. Diss. Middle Tennessee State University, 2013.

Tuck, Donna-Marie. “Blurring the Boundaries: The Sexuality of Little Women.” Working with English: Medieval and Modern Language, Literature and Drama, vol. 2, no.1, 2006, pp. 82-88.