The Question of the Hero and Heroics in Little Women
Published in two volumes, 1868 and 1869, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (LW) without interruption maintains its popularity in print and in film. Alcott was contracted by Thomas Niles of Roberts Brothers to write a “girls’ book,” the female equivalent of the bestselling boys’ novels of the post-Civil War era. At first, Alcott was resistant to writing for a younger, female audience. She emphatically wrote in her journal that “Mr. N wants a girls’ story, and I begin ‘Little Women.’ … I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it” (Journals 165-166). She was proven wrong. Little Women was an immediate critical and financial success, providing Alcott with a comfortable income that supported her and her family (at times, she ruefully referred to them as “The Pathetic Family”) until the end of her life.
Little Women is an idealized semibiographical novel. The more conventional and virtuous March family is based on the nonconformist Alcott family. Alcott’s famous father, the Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott known for his progressive ideas—and ineptitude in generating income—is replaced by the Rev. March, who is relegated to a periphery position in the book. Oldest sister Anna becomes the pretty and domestic-oriented Meg. Louisa becomes the tomboyish, independent writer Jo, one of the most beloved characters in literature. Shy, younger sister Beth retains the same name. The artistic May becomes Amy. Lastly, Alcott’s exceptional mother Abba May Alcott is transformed into the beloved Marmee.
Little Women conforms to the tenets of the 19th century domestic novel and espouses the female virtues prized then by society: piety, purity, domesticity, and subservience. The March sisters are guided by John Bunyan’s Christian allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress(1678), aspiring to emulate Bunyan’s hero Christian on his journey to reach the Celestial City. Like Christian, the Marches struggle with human foibles and temptations. Alcott’s novel is loosely constructed, more episodic than most, because the author often assigns characters and chapter titles to those used by Bunyan. The conventional ending, which Alcott had objected to, concludes with three happy marriages, grandchildren, and a jubilant Marmee declaring “Oh, my girls, however long you many live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this” (LW 380). At first reading, Little Women might appear, in its apparent conformity, to be a standard domestic novel. It is not. It is multi-layered and multi-themed. One subtle but powerful theme that sets it apart from other 19th century domestic novels is the question of heroism: What constitutes true heroism and who are true heroes.
Jo often bemoans not being a boy, especially not being allowed to fight in the Union army. She feels trapped because she “can only stay at home and knit like a poky old woman” (LW 13). She believes that women cannot play a heroic part in the war effort, even dismissing nursing as a secondary role. Ironically, Alcott seized this new opportunity afforded to women, serving six weeks in a Union army hospital until she was sent home, near death, with typhoid fever. Unlike the author, for Jo heroism is reserved for men. Her one outlet to fulfill her heroic aspirations is through acting. In the novel, the March sisters perform a play, “The Witch’s Curse,” written by Jo that puts forth prevalent romantic and heroic ideals, gleaned from her reading of gothic and sensational novels (such as the 1848 Undine, Sintram and His Companionsreferenced in the novel). The play, unintentionally turned into a comedy by a series of mishaps, is based on the Alcott sisters’ “Norna, the Witch’s Curse” (written by Anna and Louisa Alcott between 1847 and 1849, and published in 1893 by Anna Alcott Pratt). “Norna” and “The Witch’s Curse” encapsulate the adolescent view of what constitutes a hero. Female characters are relegated to minor roles, witches and love interests who must be rescued by the noble male hero. Because “no gentlemen were admitted . . . Jo played the male parts to her heart’s content” (LW 23). Fortuitously, Jo possesses a velvet doublet, a foil, and, most importantly, a pair of russet leather men’s boots. Hugo (Jo), the villain who has “wicked intentions” toward Zara (ineptly played by Amy) snarls and struts across the stage. Jo revels in this role, declaiming that she would love to play Macbeth: “Always wanted to do the killing part. ‘Is that a dagger that I see before me?’” (LW 15). But the evil Hugo is dispatched midway, betrayed by the faithless Hagar the witch (Meg). (Hagar switches a poisoned draught on Hugo that was meant for his rival—the hero—Roderigo.) Roderigo (also Jo) during his imprisonment “rent[s] his chains asunder manfully” (LW 15). In the last act, he has proved his worthiness (i.e., displayed his heroic qualities of courage and strength) and claims his insipid bride.
Jo, of course, has a skewed view of heroism, perhaps one shared by a significant number of people during this time period. As the novel unfolds, Alcott adroitly reveals that many heroes are not just found on the battlefield or in gothic fiction. Jo eventually realizes that calm and steadfast Marmee is the heroic exemplar of the March family. A woman of limited resources, she holds the family together, guiding four impressionable teenagers to become “little women” who “do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves beautifully” (LW 17). Marmee faces poverty stoically and ventures outside the domestic sphere, distributing supplies to those impacted by the war and watching over the needy German immigrant family, the Hummels. She instills patriotism in her girls and Christian teachings by example and the gifts of books (which critics have argued that are either copies of the New Testament or Pilgrim’s Progress). Marmee exemplifies how women in wartime, excluded from battles because of gender, could and did play heroic roles within society with grace and courage.
Though Marmee serves as Jo’s role model throughout the novel, introverted sister Beth’s storyline represents living a life heroically. Early in the novel, the narrator alludes to what will be Beth’s fate: “There are many Beths in the world, shy and quiet, sitting in corners till needed, and living for others so cheerfully, that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping, and the sweet sunshiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind” (LW 39). Beth is the only sister who takes up Marmee’s directive to look in on the Hummels while Marmee is away tending to her wounded husband in a Union hospital. Never as strong as her sisters, Beth tends to the ill Hummel baby who dies from scarlet fever in Beth’s arms. Beth contracts the fever almost immediately, nearly dies, and her health is ruined. During Beth’s decline, leading up to her early death, this once timorous sister faces her fate bravely and quietly. As her physical body grows weaker, her spiritual self grows stronger. Beth, too, is a hero, living for others in life, and comforting and guiding Jo to accept the finality of death. Impressed by the heroic examples of her mother and sister, Jo vows to forgo her wild, impetuous ways (and fanciful, gothic-infused notions of bravery) and face life as an authentic Christian hero (a la Bunyan).
The four major Hollywood film adaptations of Little Women also address the definition of heroism, some more so than others. Directed by George Cukor and starring Katharine Hepburn as Jo, the 1933 release, because it was produced during the Great Depression, emphasizes the poverty and uncertainty of the March family. Hepburn is an energetic Jo, tall and coltish as described in the book. Hepburn’s Jo is awkward (often hunching her shoulders when uneasy—also as described in the book) but performs with élan her dual male roles in “The Witch’s Curse.” Dramatics and romanticized views of what is heroism become the centerpiece of Jo’s writing and acting. The villainous Hugo is arrayed in the tall russet boots, sword, dashing hat, goatee and mustache. Hugo (Hepburn) swaggers and sneers menacingly. Quickly changing into Roderigo (also Hepburn), the hero, now bereft of facial hair, adorns a blond mop-like wig, but still wears the doublet and the boots. Although this scene is played for comic relief as (Jo/Hepburn) brings down the castle wall while trying to save Zara (Amy/Joan Bennett), it sets the tenor of the screenplay. Heroes are flashy, dynamic, and always on script—according to Jo March.
Though the 1933 adaptation is the earliest of the “talkie” versions of Little Women, it captures the spirit of the novel, especially the nature of heroism. Most of the time, the screenplay follows the book faithfully if at least chronologically (though many scenes were eliminated because of length). Of the four film adaptations, Cukor’s version tangentially references The Pilgrim’s Progress. Interestingly, a scene was added at the beginning by Oscar winning screenwriters Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, one that efficaciously raises the subject of heroic character. In the novel, Alcott scrupulously avoids discussing the war itself: no references to battles, political or military figures, causes for the deadly conflict, or even the name. It is simply referred to as “the war.” Furthermore, the 1933 film version addresses the setting and situation straightaway. After the opening credits, Union soldiers march through Concord, Massachusetts. The camera zooms in on a sign reading, “United States Christian Commission, Concord Division.” Marmee (Spring Byington) is distributing coats and blankets to people who have been devastated by the war. Byington’s Marmee is the closest portrayal to that of the novel: kind, motherly, and compassionate. Unlike subsequent Marmees, Byington neither endlessly preaches nor attempts to be more friend than mother. An old man, worn in spirit and appearance, approaches her for a coat. He tells her that although he was too old to fight, he gladly gave his four sons to the Union effort. Two sons have been killed, one is in a Confederate prison (infamous for its cruel and inhumane treatment of Union soldiers), and the last is lying in a hospital, probably near death. Marmee is visibly moved by the old man’s tale. The old man, however, bears his losses with determination and composure, evincing how the common man braves hardship and adversity quietly—and heroically. After the old man leaves (with a coat and some money from Marmee), she sighs to a co-worker that she is “ashamed of how little I can do.”
The 1949 version, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, glosses over heroism and focuses more on costuming and post-war optimism. (The March girls are routinely outfitted in clothes the struggling Alcott family could never have aspired to owning). The 1933 opening sequence has been jettisoned, even though the screenwriters for the 1933 and 1949 adaptations are the same. Also gone is the play performance (no boots, doublet, or valiant attempts to save the floundering Zara). All that remains is the rehearsal, with Jo (June Allyson) wearing a strapped on fuzzy mustache and a feathered hat—and a proper 19th hoop skirted dress rather than breeches and boots. The focus of the scene has shifted from Jo and her dramatic attempt to emulate what she thinks is heroic behavior to the comic and affected efforts of Amy (Elizabeth Taylor). The screenwriters do, however, provide a romantic backstory for Jo’s male friend Laurie (Peter Lawford)—which veers from the book. Laurie had run away from his conventional and watchful grandfather, joined the army under an assumed name, was wounded, and brought back to the safety of his grandfather’s guardianship. Jo is enraptured by this account, asserting that “I would have liked to have done the same.” Yet Laurie’s heroic efforts are as foolish as Jo’s definition of what heroism is—which eradicates the powerful and provocative themes of the novel and the 1933 version.
The 1994 adaptation, directed by Gillian Armstrong, focuses on women’s rights more than heroic behavior. The film begins with a voiceover by Jo (Winona Ryder) and briefly references the war. Marmee (Susan Sarandon) talks about delivering food baskets to the needy but is never seen carrying out such a charitable act. The play performance is no longer extant. As with the 1949 version, the focus is on the rehearsal. The play has been changed. It is scripted as a work-in-progress. Jo no longer plays the part of the heroic Roderigo—which was her passion. She has been supplanted by Laurie (Christian Bale), who has been included in their familial theatrical troupe. However, a few scenes later Laurie proves to be a real-life hero, not a fictional one wearing russet boots when he rescues Amy (Kirsten Dunst) from drowning in the icy pond. Though Laurie is a flawed character (spoiled, indolent, passive), in this scene he demonstrates that he can remain cool, level headed, and fearless (that is, a hero). Unfortunately, as with the 1949 version, heroism is supplanted by other thematic concerns.
The 2019 version, directed and adapted for the screen by Greta Gerwig, is an ambitious reworking of the story, admirable, scintillating—and problematic for many viewers. Gerwig eschews the traditional, chronological plot line. This is a non-linear film, which makes it challenging for viewers to follow who are not familiar with the book. The film starts near the end where aspiring author Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) is trying to convince Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) of Roberts Brothers to review her manuscript, which is revealed to be Little Women and the character of Jo is Alcott, negotiating for royalties and the ending she wants to keep in the manuscript. (Alcott wished Jo to remain unmarried but was convinced by her publisher—as depicted in the film—to marry her off.) The non-linear structure allows Gerwig to concentrate on the character development of each of the sisters, which in the previous cinematic versions, are subsumed by Jo’s storyline. The screenplay, thus, has a terraced effect that, in some cases, magnifies some of the novel’s multiple themes. Unfortunately, the issue of heroic principles is not one of them. When Laurie (Timothée Chalamat) meets Marmee (Laura Dern) for the first time, she immediately declares that “You must be part of their [the March sisters’] theatricals.” In one line of dialogue, Jo’s romantic notions (and her joyous acting out her desire to be a hero, if only one in a play) are dashed—and by Marmee. The Marmee of the novel and the previous film versions encourages her daughters to explore their talents and follow their dreams. This Marmee does not. The implication here is no more dynamic male roles for Jo. Women cannot take up the role of a hero—at least creatively.
Buried in this adaptation is Marmee’s encounter with the old man who has given his sons in an effort to preserve the Union. (The 1949 and 1994 versions omitted this scene.) Although not canon, the addition of this scene, illustrating the quiet heroism of the common people, set up an effective juxtaposition to Jo’s overwrought interpretation of who is a hero and what constitutes true heroic behavior. Sandwiched between some excruciating anachronistic dialogue devised by Gerwig to reflect 21stcentury issues rather than those of the 19th century, Marmee has the same discussion with the old man. Unlike the original version, this portion is rushed. The rapid dialogue makes this crucial scene dealing with genuine heroism and fortitude forgettable at best. Though a challenging and well- crafted film, the 2019 version downplays and at times disregards the issue of heroism altogether.
The cinematic versions, with the exception of the 1933 film, substantially dismiss the hero theme that plays an integral role in the book. The echoes, however, are still present albeit not as vital to the plot. The novel is far richer intellectually as it explores quixotic notions of bravery and heroism, especially as it concerned women during and after the Civil War. The film versions, on the other hand, respond to and adapt Little Women to contemporary concerns: 1933, the Great Depression; 1949, post war optimism; 1994, the women’s movement; and, 2019, a revisionist view by what the director/screenwriter deemed as Alcott’s real intent, an attempt to rectify the restraints Roberts Brothers imposed on the author. All these approaches are laudable, considering the directorial response to societal concerns at the time of filming. But the novel imparts the most skillful and dynamic lesson of what determines heroism. Though heroism is recounted in the media and the performing arts, heroic behavior is manifested by the unsung, by the ordinary, and by those who rely on their own spiritual and private courage.
Alcott, Louisa May. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Eds. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy. U of Georgia P, 1997.
---. Little Women; or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Norton Critical Edition. Eds. Anne K. Phillips and Gregory Eiselein. Norton, 2004.
Armstrong, Gillian, dir. Little Women. Perf. Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Kirsten Dunst, Samantha Mathis, Trini Alvarado, and Susan Sarandon. Columbia, 1994.
Cukor, George, dir. Little Women. Perf. Katharine Hepburn, Joan Bennett, Jean Parker, Frances Dee, and Spring Byington. Warner Bros., 1933.
Gerwig, Greta, dir. Little Women. Perf. Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, and Laura Dern. Columbia, 2019.
LeRoy, Mervyn, dir. Little Women. Perf. June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor, Margaret O’Brien, Janet Leigh, and Mary Astor. RKO , 1949.
Dr. Anita M. Vickers, associate professor of English, is the Letters, Arts, and Sciences program coordinator at Penn State Schuylkill. As program coordinator, she is responsible for scheduling all humanities courses at Penn State Schuylkill, which includes English (writing courses and literature), history, foreign languages, comparative literature, philosophy, studio art, art history, music, African American Studies, American Studies, women studies (when appropriate), theatre, communication, and arts and architecture. She is the contact representative for the two-year Letters, Arts, and Sciences program.Dr. Vickers’ research specialties include late eighteenth and nineteenth century American literature, American women writers, women’s history, and popular culture. Her book, The New Nation, surveys American culture during the early nationalist period (1783—1820). This was probably the most dynamic period in American history and its cultural outgrowth indicates that the young republic was one that reflected the values and interests of the people: spirited, adaptable, and extensive. Her series of articles on the 18th century Philadelphian novelist and editor Charles Brockden Brown analyze how, in writing his novels, Brown raised questions on the problems confronting the early republic and developed and formulated his own philosophy and political agenda. She has also published studies on the works of women writers and popular culture.Presently, Dr. Vickers is working on a series of articles which further investigate Civil War nursing narratives, covering the semi-autobiographical work of Louisa May Alcott, and the diaries/journals and letters of 19th nursing activists as Elvira Powers, Hannah Ropes, Harriet Eaton, and Sophronia E. Bucklin. These women often challenged the male-dominated United States Sanitary Commission (USSC) and resisted the misogynistic army doctors and officers who disapproved of female nurses.At Penn State Schuylkill, she teaches classes in women writers, classical mythology, American women’s history, the short story, business writing, and composition.An active member of the campus community, she has served as president of faculty governance at the campus and college levels and as a University Faculty Senator representing the Schuylkill campus. She has also served on numerous committees at all three levels.Dr. Vickers’ community interests include animal welfare issues, participation in sponsored walks to raise money to alleviate world hunger, and choral singing.She shares her home with four fabulous felines and two rescue dogs.