I’ve been having something of a Little Women-fest on this blog for the past week and a half, but before I allow the book to rest, there is one more thing that has been teasing me that I wanted to explore. As I canvassed the internet and read the differing opinions of fans, I was struck by the intensity and implacability of opinion regarding who Jo March should have married and I began to wonder why that was. I am always intrigued when opinion is evenly split. It can mean that both sides have a good case, but neither has an overwhelming one. Does that mean there is a fault in how Louisa May Alcott set up her story? It could be, but I wonder if there is another reason, too.
When we read novels, we find characters we feel inherently in sympathy with, characters we understand or want to be like or especially feel invested in. When that happens, we say that we “identify” with that character and nowhere have I found a character more identified with than Josephine March (though with heady competition from Elizabeth Bennett). I have read it, heard it, and met many people who have told me that they grew up reading the book feeling a special kinship with Jo.
When I first read Little Women, though, I did not identify with her. I was a child and couldn’t see past some of Jo’s more glaring personality traits, like her temper, her impetuosity, her quirky and stubborn moods; traits I did not share. But when I read it again, I could see the common ground. Her childhood dreams of writing, the childhood dream that anything is possible and that money and fame are just waiting for you, her love of life and disinclination for and awkwardness in society, her desire to travel, her reading habits, her tom-boyishness, her warm love of her sisters, her fear of losing her sisters, her discovery that childhood dreams are not always to be, or even what we want as we grow and change – I could understand these things. She’s a dreamer and a bit of a social misfit and a writer. And she’s not considered conventionally attractive (we women can be insecure about our own appearance and I have not heard nearly as many women identifying with overtly beautiful female characters). Jo’s very modern, then, in her personality, but she has been loved in every generation since her creation in 1868.
In Jo March, Louisa May Alcott seems to have created the universal woman; we can all see something of ourselves in her. She’s complex and doesn’t stay the same, which also means we can see ourselves in different stages of her life. Perhaps we are more like she was when she was fifteen, or perhaps more like her when she is twenty-five.
My theory is that because we can project ourselves on Jo, it makes it very personal who Jo marries. It is no longer a question of who we think Jo should marry, but who we would rather marry. If you can’t imagine marrying a stuffy old professor, then you would hate it if Jo married him. But if, instead, you cannot imagine marrying an immature boy, then you would be appalled if Jo were to have accepted Laurie (I am, admittedly, being unfair in my descriptions of both Laurie and Professor Bhaer for dramatic affect). Her journey, her dreams, are the journey and dreams of so many women; it’s difficult not to take her ultimate destination personally.