Are you one of those people that love Winona Ryder’s Jo March and Christian Bale’s Theodore Laurence? Or have you recently watched Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women in the nearest theater? Or maybe you are simply a fan of Louisa May Alcott’s novel and you refuse to watch any adaptation because you believe that no actors can fit the images you have in your head. Either way, you are a fan.
Little Women was first published in 1868, but it’s remarkable that the March sisters and their world are still so relevant to us today. There’s no need to pretend—growing up, almost all of us wanted to be Jo and we were devastated when she turned Laurie down. I mean, I don’t know about you, but after all these years I still can’t wrap my head around it. And don’t think that Christian Bale has got anything to do with it—I was a fan of the book first (although I do believe he makes a great Laurie).
No matter who your favorite sister was, though, we can learn something from every girl in the household, not just Jo. The themes of the book still resonate with us: the desire for independence, having to struggle so much more than a man to advance in your career (employers at job interviews still asking if you have a boyfriend/husband and if you plan on having kids any time soon, anyone?), having to put up with people’s expectations of women as if we owe the world something… The list goes on and on.
Little Women is, ultimately, the story of four sisters who support each other despite being all so different. There are few moments in the novel where one is jealous of another, but it has more to do with immaturity caused by young age than real hard feelings.
Meg, played by Emma Watson in Gerwig’s version, is the oldest sister. She is sweet and kind, but she sometimes feels inferior to other girls her age because her family’s financial situation doesn’t allow her to indulge a bit and buy the pretty things she likes. She appreciates clothes and dances and her ultimate goal is to have a family, so she clashes with Jo who can’t understand why anybody would want such a life. But this is where Meg teaches us a lesson: Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant, she tells Jo. I think this is a reminder to all of us women to stick together, no matter how different our ambitions and goals are. We gain nothing from putting somebody else down thinking we know best. We might actually learn something from those who are different.
Jo, portrayed by Saoirse Ronan, is the second oldest sister. Fiercely independent, she states that she regrets not being born a boy, because she craves the freedom she, as a woman, can hardly achieve. She’s a writer and she eventually leaves her small town to pursue her dreams. Sometimes too stubborn for her own good, she is a great role model for girls nevertheless: you can accomplish anything you want, as long as you believe in yourself and don’t allow other people to tell you what you’re supposed to do, or that you have to fit the mold in order to get anywhere in life.
Eliza Scanlen is Beth, probably the most overlooked sister in any adaptation. She’s caring and gentle, and she wishes that everybody could get along as she hates conflict. She’s the peacemaker of the family and she loves music with all her heart. Unfortunately, because of health reasons, she never has as many chances as her sisters to pursue her interests. Despite her shy nature she is very altruistic and is not able to ignore people’s pleas for help and this is a good reminder that, no matter what the circumstances, no matter how poor or limited our resources are, each of us can make the world a better place in our own right.
Amy is played by Florence Pugh. Her character comes across as a bit spoiled sometimes, since she’s the youngest, and she rows with Jo because of their differences but at the end of the day they always make up. Her passion is art and she declares that if she can’t succeed at it then she will stop painting and drawing, as she wants to be great or nothing. She claims that marriage is very much an economic proposition as, back then, it was the only way for a woman to ‘advance’ and create the life she wanted.
The characters surrounding the March sisters are also crucial. Their mother, their neighbor and Jo’s best friend Laurie, in particular, are as loved as the sisters. Laurie is very similar to Jo and, as a male, he also serves the purpose of showing us how double standards have always worked: what’s acceptable, expected and even encouraged from a man is frowned upon for a woman. As attractive as Laurie is, Jo still refuses him and goes on to marry a bohemian German professor who encourages her to become a serious writer. At that time, marrying someone like Laurie would have meant becoming confined to the role of an elegant wife of a wealthy man. As heartbreaking as it is, Jo’s rejection is then a choice made for her fulfillment and artistic independence—and a feminist statement that resonates today as much as it did in the 19th century.
I have to admit that Jo is still my favorite all these years later; nonetheless, I feel like I can relate to the other characters in a way that, as a child, I simply couldn’t. This is why Louisa May Alcott’s work is universal: she created timeless characters that will no doubt always be appreciated and adored.
Who is your favorite March sister?