The Anti-Wedding March:
Love, Marriage, and Femininity in Alcott’s Little Women
by Robert Russell
Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women is widely regarded among scholars as a work about the great bonds of familial relationships, the love that exists, persists, and endures between sisters, and the resilience of friendship. However, the novel broaches many other topics, ones more complicated and controversial than commonly realized. Themes such as femininity, the role of woman in society, as well as marriage, and the role of love in contrast to the transactional nature of matrimony, are significant subjects explored throughout the novel, particularly through various characters acting as vehicles in such an exploration. And of the four March sisters, none is more versatile as such a vehicle than Jo, the second oldest of the bunch and presumably the character based on Alcott herself. Jo is an avid reader and writer, a rambunctious, fearless tomboy, an independent adventurer, and an inquisitive young girl who, as she grows into a young woman, spurns the traditional conventions she recognizes society places upon women. She questions, combats, and protests the norms that work to subjugate and suppress women, and yet, at the same time, Jo is ambivalent about such structures, the societal mores surrounding femininity, love, and marriage. Such an ambivalence not only reveals the developmental trajectory of Jo’s character as the story progresses, but it also reveals a certain critique on the traditional perspectives of women, one which is expounded in her relationship with herself; her relationship with her sister Meg and her husband Mr. John Brooke; her relationship with Laurie; and inevitably her relationship with the older Professor Friedrich Bhaer.
The first instance of Jo’s ambivalence regarding a traditional understanding of femininity comes when she cuts her hair in order to raise money for her sick father. In chapter fifteen, a telegraph arrives for Mrs. March which reads, “Mrs. March: Your husband is very ill. Come at once” (Alcott 130) which sends the household into a frenzy. Suddenly, Jo presents a twenty-five-dollar contribution for her mother’s trip, and “As she spoke, Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short” (Alcott 132). The drama of the scene lends a bit of levity to the situation, especially as Jo, valiant and unwavering in her endeavors, appears unaffected. For the rest, her action is a grand gesture, impulsive yet out of genuine care and love; but for her, it is nothing, and she says,
“It doesn’t affect the fate of the nation, so don’t wail, Beth. It will be good for my vanity; I was getting too proud of my wig. It will do my brains good to have that mop taken off; my head feels deliciously light and cool, and the barber said I could soon have a curly crop, which will be boyish, becoming and easy to keep in order. I’m satisfied; so please take the money, and let’s have supper’” (Alcott 132).
Seemingly satisfied with the deed, Jo and the family return to the matters at hand. It is not revealed until later that night as the girls are falling asleep that Jo’s unbothered air regarding her selfless gesture may have in fact been a pretense. Meg hears Jo crying and says, “‘Jo, dear, what is it?’… ‘My–my hair…I’m not sorry…I’d do it again tomorrow, if I could. It’s only the vain, selfish part of me that goes and cries in this silly way. Don’t tell any one, it’s all over now” (Alcott 134). It is a small moment wherein the reader sees Jo grappling between two opposing convictions: on one side is her fearlessness, her ‘boyishness,’ and her unconcern with cutting her hair; however, on the other side is the love and attachment to her hair, her long “beautiful hair” being not only a part of her identity, but also a source of her femininity. And in a character like Jo, there are not many other avenues for expressing such a femininity. Jo’s hair is one of the few attributes that tether her to a sense of womanhood that, as much as she may want to detach and distance herself from, she cannot fully escape. Jo will continue to struggle with this inward ambivalence on the conventions of femininity, and in turn love and marriage. As she grows up and begins to see her sisters co-mingling with men and possible suitors, such a disdain for the conventionality that marks common courtship festers in Jo’s heart, transforming into an intense and emotive perspective of men, as is manifested in her views on Mr. John Brooke and his burgeoning relationship with her sister Meg.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment that John Brooke’s courtship of Meg officially begins; however, for Jo, it comes when Laurie’s reveals a certain secret about Mr. Brooke–that he had kept a glove that Meg had lost, and, as Jo relays to her mother, “Teddy joked him about it, and Mr. Brooke owned that he like Meg, but didn’t dare say so, she was so young and he so poor. Now isn’t it a dreadful state of things?” (Alcott 160). Mr. John Brooke, Laurie’s mentor, had accompanied Mrs. March on her sojourn to Washington DC to visit her sick husband, and as it turns out, he had been “perfectly open and honorable about Meg, for he told [them] he loved her; but would earn a comfortable home before he asked her to marry him” (Alcott 160). The very thought that Meg may get married sends Jo into a conniption, and she says:
“Mercy me! I don’t know anything about love, and such nonsense!...In novels, the girls show it by starting and blushing, fainting away, growing thin, and acting like fools. Now Meg don’t do anything of the sort…only blushes a little bit when Teddy jokes about lovers. I forbid him to do it, but he don’t mind me as he ought” (Alcott 160).
Jo’s reaction to even the potential of Meg’s getting married to Mr. Brooke is one borne of immediate disgust and disdain, for the very idea of love is something formidable; however, such a reaction gives rise to a few explanations. For Jo, love is nonsense; it is something that makes girls “act like fools” and drives people into irrationality and delusion. For Jo, love is not only the reason for such disdainful frivolity, but it is also the source for the subjugation and restraint of freedom, since love is the guise upon which marriage is founded. For Jo, love entails marriage, which means that Meg will no longer be her sister, but instead will be John’s wife. For Jo, love means a certain death of a relationship that she so cherishes which is why her reaction to even the possibility is so marked with animosity. Jo knows what will happen, and though she knows how happy Mr. Brooke will make Meg, she still recognizes that the conventional institution of marriage tends to impede and suppress the liberties and agency that Meg has heretofore known.
Furthermore, that Mr. Brooke is not a rich man is yet another concern that fuels Jo’s resistance against the very prospect of Meg’s marriage. Jo recognizes the transactional nature of marriage–that a woman must marry “well” lest her husband be unable to provide for her, which in turn, further limits her abilities, freedoms, and imparts an anxiety that pervades the household and diminishes her quality of life. Jo voices her concern to her mother:
“‘Hadn’t you rather have her marry a rich man?’ asked Jo, as her mother’s voice faltered a little over the last words. ‘Money is a good and useful thing, Jo; and I hope my girls will never feel the need of it too bitterly, nor be tempted by too much…but I know, by experience, how much genuine happiness can be had in a plain little house…I am content to see Meg begin humbly, for, if I am not mistaken, she will be rich in the possession of a good man’s heart, and that is better than a fortune’” (Alcott 161-162).
Money is a concern for Jo, much to the chagrin of her mother; but Jo, thinking pragmatically, understands that without money, a woman’s options are fewer, her agency is restricted, and the potential for being truly happy in life is weakened. However, money being a major concern, Jo realizes, is a symptom of the larger problem: the inherent dependence of a wife on her husband and the imbalance of freedom such a dynamic creates. That a woman must marry well in order to have any auspicious chance of true happiness is the deeper issue at heart, and for Jo, such an issue reveals the unfair societal structures that work to subjugate women and limit a sense of agency and independence. Jo’s detestation for love and marriage derives from an awareness of the patriarchal systems in place that suppress women.
Jo’s detestation comes to light in one of the most emotional moments in the story: when Laurie confesses his love for her. Walking “homeward through the grove” Laurie “has it out” and confesses that he has loved Jo for as long as he has known her: “‘I’ve tried to show it, but you wouldn’t let me; now I’m going to make you hear, and give me an answer, for I can’t go on so any longer’” (Alcott 284). His voice is tinged with heartache, and Jo, unable to stifle her own unrequited feelings, responds honestly:
“‘I’m so sorry, so desperately sorry…I can’t help it; you know it’s impossible for people to make themselves love other people if they don’t…I don’t believe I shall ever marry; I’m happy as I am, and love my liberty too well to be in any hurry to give it up for any mortal man’” (Alcott 285-287).
Here Jo expresses her resistance to love: it is not just out of her desire not to feign something that should be genuine, but it is also in her inability to surrender what is most important, her freedom. Jo understands what love and, in turn, marriage entail, and she is in no “hurry to give it up for any mortal man.”
However, Jo’s resolute stance on love and marriage, the foreboding acquiescence of her independence, changes in the wake of her sister Beth’s death. It is the other most emotionally charged moment in the novel, one which propels the characters, subjects, and themes into a new perspective. Beth’s death is a turning point in the novel, and for Jo, it is catalyst for a revelation on the themes of love and marriage.
“Jo discovered how much improved her sister Meg was; how well she could talk, how much she knew about good, womanly impulses, thoughts and feelings, how happy she was in husband and children… ‘Marriage is an excellent thing after all. I wonder if I should blossom out, half as well as you have, if I tried it, always “perwisin” I could,’ said Jo” (Alcott 338).
Again, she is caught in a certain ambivalence: wanting to maintain her liberty, agency, and combat the patriarchal forces that impose upon women and suppress their freedoms; but also wanting companionship, company, love. She starts to see how marriage is not the stranglehold that she had first thought it was, that love is not just relinquishing of certain liberties and freedoms, but rather entering into a complementary relationship wherein man and wife work together to better each other’s lives, a relationship built on trust and genuine love. And it is here that Jo realizes her feelings for Professor Friedrich Bhaer, the only man who has stoked the burning flame of passion in Jo’s heart with his selflessness, intelligence, and care. It does not matter that he is a poor man, or that he is an immigrant, or that he is forty years her senior; such concerns would have mattered in the past, but now, as Jo has developed and come to see the world differently, such details are unimportant. It is the enlightenment that Jo has come to: that there are greater forces beyond those that seek to oppress women, that true love outweighs the negative and prevails through hardship and strain.
Through Jo’s character, the themes of love, marriage, and femininity are explored in all their complexity and contradictory natures. Jo is a character who exists inside and outside the structures that govern, the patriarchal institutions that impose upon women, suppressing their liberties and fomenting the transactional nature of marriage. Such a dynamic is the source of much of Jo’s ambivalence–she recognizes the faults in the system and yet also gravitates towards what is at the heart of humanity: love. And in her growing understanding of love, marriage, and femininity, Jo subverts readers’ expectations without completely abandoning them. She continues to operate under the overarching limits imposed upon her by society–traditional structures of family, relationships, and marriage–but undermines the societal expectation that she marry rich or marry someone closer to her age. That Jo breaks away from such conventions is a testament to her character and, like the ambivalence she grapples with throughout the novel, only enhances the realism contained in such a romantic and timeless work of literature.
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women, edited by Anne K. Phillips and Gregory Eiselein, W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.