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Jo March from Louisa May Alcotts

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2414 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The past half century saw a critical re-evaluation of Louisa May Alcott’s written works by feminist critics. They saw in her writings elements of subversive and highly emotional feminism contrasting with a strong patriarchal tradition that places emphasis on female submissiveness (Eiselein, “Louisa May Alcott”). Much of the critical attention is devoted to Alcott’s Little Women; first published in September 1968, it remains the most famous of her literary works (The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia).

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A commercial success during its first publication in 1868, the novel has since been released in 50 languages, selling millions of copies and becoming a basis of many other works of art (Rogers). Even after Alcott’s death in 1888, Little Women remained a staple among young girls’ bookshelves. In 1925, the novel topped the list of books the Federal Bureau of Education believe should be read by children before they reach sixteen (Sicherman 245). A 1927 survey also showed the book as the most influential among its high school respondents (Critical Reception, 20th-Century 69)

Its enduring popularity among readers is largely attributed to the novel’s realism in depicting the life and characters of the era, particularly its women, making it highly relatable among middle-class women who saw themselves in the characters (Sicherman 252). The character of Jo March, in particular, is one of the first representations of the female tomboy and reflected the era’s evolving notions of what it means to be a growing woman (Sicherman 255).

By 1869, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was a certified literary hit, and readers wanted more. The second volume, Good Wives, was released April 14 and sold thirteen thousand copies almost immediately (Morrow 1). Set three years after the events of the first volume, Good Wives sees Jo working in New York as a governess while pursuing her writing career, marrying Proffesor Bhaer and establishing a school with him (The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia 179).

Critics and readers alike noticed the shift of Jo March from impulsive adolescent to a more maternal and domestic young woman. Jo seemed tamed and outright conformist in her actions in the second volume, particularly in her decision to marry a much older man. While it can be argued that this is simply a creative direction made for the story to move along, much is known of the autobiographical nature of Alcott’s work. Alcott, whose own traits, beliefs and philosophies often reflected on Jo’s life and actions, never settled for a domestic life with any man.

So why did the character take the course she did? What does Good Wives accomplish with Jo March’s story? Did Jo’s shift retroactively undermine the feminism and other progressive themes of the first book? This paper hopes to answer these questions by providing various critical interprations of the two texts in question, as well as looking into Alcott’s own life and experiences.

Jo March in Little Women

Character Description

Under Alcott’s pen, Jo March is a strong-willed, non-conforming, hot-tempered and independent spirit possessing writerly aspirations. (Jo March 161). She has steely gray eyes and long and bluntly cut hair framing her thin and tall physique (Stern 176). She also loves cats, apples and reading novels in her own room in an attic, and works on her writing skills by enacting plays with her sisters and establishing a newspaper for their Dickens-inspired Pickwick Club (Sands-O’Connor 23).

Jo spent most of the book exploring her writing passions while coping with an absent father and taking on responsibilities to help support her family. Amidst all this, Jo remains a playful, strong-willed and provocative figure, whose actions display a charming boyishness, endearing her to her neighbor young Laurie Laurence (Jo March 161).

Towards the end of the book, readers find Jo rejecting the marriage proposal of a smitten Laurie, only to do a complete turnaround by submitting to an engagement with a much older Professor Bhaer instead. This ending was highly unconventional at the time, especially for young adult literature, where heroines are expected to marry their romantic lead and not an erstwhile side character (Sicherman)

Louisa May Alcott and Jo March Compared

It is a well-documented fact that a significant portion of Jo March’s characterization is based on Louisa May Alcott herself. Just as Jo is the second child in the March household, so is Louisa among the four Alcott sisters (Eiselein). The fictional and the real also shared many of the same beliefs and experiences, and Alcott has a particularly deep well to draw from.

Alcott’s childhood was, by most accounts, unconventional. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was an idealist and intellectual who often struggled in providing for his family. A particular episode happened when Alcott was ten, where the family moved to an experimental settlement called Fruitlands ravaging their already meager resources (Rogers). This led the young Louisa to work jobs as a governess, companion, and later on using her writing talents to support her family. Similarly, Jo March had to deal with a largely absent father and meager resources by working as a companion to her wealthy aunt and selling her stories to different publications and joining literary competitions.

Further, Jo March – and to a lesser extent, her three other sisters – also served to mirror Alcott’s core beliefs, specifically in relation to women’s issues and their standing in society of the time. Alcott, a strident feminist,hoped to portray women as complete individuals, with desires, idiosyncrasies, weaknesses and abilities outside of domestic life (The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia). She developed her ideal model in Jo March, who was as capable of helping her family as she was an independent thinker with strong literary talents.

Encompassing Themes in Little Women

Within the narrative of Little Women and the character of Jo, in particular, Alcott was able to present many of the running themes that occuppied much of her other lesser known works. Her writings often bear prominent marks of her feminism and concerns with gender roles, so it can be argued that her decision to base Jo March on herself was not so much influenced by the write what you know dictum of writing as it is an opportunity to present her views on womanhood.

On the surface, at least, the book is a pleasant, often funny, collection of stories about the four young girls of the March househould, but its structure bears its intention to impart lessons to its readers on how to be little women. Every few chapters focus on how one of the siblings learns an important lesson: Amy learns a lesson a bout selfishness, Beth on her shyness, Meg with her vanity and obsession with society and Jo with her quick temper (The Louisa May Alcott Encyclopedia 179).

This theme of domestic lifeaccented by moral lessons targeted at its younger readers is essentially a convention present in most other children’s literature at the time. What sets Little Women apart from others of its kind is its portrayal of strong women that protect, care and provide for their families (Eiselein 6). Jo March eventually assumes the role of man of the house due to the circumstances of an absent father and difficult finances, which is undoubtedly informed by Alcott’s own experiences as a young breadwinner for a family with an unreliable paternal figure (Sicherman 258).

Jo March in Good Wives

In Good Wives Jo and her sisters inch ever closer to full adulthood and farther away from each other – all four are confronted with their own set of struggles. Beth is slowly wasting away due to a serious illness, Amy goes to Europe to accompany her aunt, while Meg marries Mr. Brooke and leaves the March household. As for Jo, she leaves for New York to try her luck with her writing and work as a governess to earn her keep.

The Transformation of Jo March

For part of the book’s narrative, Alcott explores the possibility of Jo succeeding in New York as a writer (White 35). But Beth’s worsening health soon forced her to return home to take over the care of her ailing sister. This proved to be a turning point for the character, as Beth, being represented essentially as Jo’s conscience, invokes her sister to take her place as their parent’s caretakers when she passes saying “You’ll be happier in doing that than writing splendid books or seeing all the world.”

Jo promised to try, and after Beth’s death, she questions her own ambitions, eventually giving much of it up and instead marrying a decidedly patriarchal figure in Professor Bhaer and establishing a school for boys with him.

Good Wives ends with Jo describing herself ‘thin as a shadow’ and having ‘nothing to complain of.’ She even apologizes to her mother after a slang-y remark saying “living among boys, I can’t help using their expressions now and then.” These statements explicitly suggest a happy and fulfilled Jo March; harried with the rigors of daily domestic life yet supremely confident in the contentment and peace it offers.

Running Themes in Good Wives

Scholars note that Jo’s marriage and assumption of mothering roles in Good Wives mark a fundamental shift in Alcott’s intentions. While Little Women concerned itself with the relationships between mothers, daughters and siblings, Good Women seemed to gradually focus itself on heterosexual pairings and relationships, specifically that of Jo and Professor Bhaer (Watanabe 703).

Particularly, Good Wives seemed to suggest an inherent and important value in self-denial and self-sacrifice, even if it means forsaking long cherished goals and ambitions. Further, that self-denial bears its own rewards.

Critical Interpretation of Little Women and Good Wives

This shift between the two books prompted much discussion and debate among later critics, especially in feminist circles. Martha Saxton, for example, considers Little Women and other young adult stories by Alcott as regressive exercises in pandering to middle-class ideals (Eiselein 8). This interpretation bears some weight, as Alcott herself admits receiving substantial pressure from readers to have Jo marry Laurie by the end of Little Women. Alcott initially rejected the idea, proclaiming that she’ll never let Jo marry anyone, although she eventually did relent through Jo’s engagement and subsequent marriage to Professor Bhaer.

In this, Alcott may have found a suitable compromise between her vision and the not insignificant demands of being a bestselling author. She subverted typical 19th century convention of having the male and female leads marry each other, while still giving her readers the satisfaction of seeing their idolized Jo settling down and becoming a mother.

Sicherman even suggests that this ‘misstep’ is responsible for the books’ longevity and influence. She argues that had Alcott gottern her way and kept Jo a spinster or if she followed her readers’ desire to see Jo and Laurie get married, Little Women and its second part would not have been as successful or memorable (251).

On the other hand, Watanabe also points to how the books’ titles summarized both the stereotypical definitions of being little women and good wives and the feminism-laden narratives within each. This contradiction is what many critics find problematic. Why portray a young Jo March to be a decidedly rebellious force against subservience to gender norms only to have her reinstated to domestic life?

But when taken as two halves of one work, some critics see Little Women and Good Wives considerably richer precisely because of their many contradictions, from rebellion and submission, to gender bending characterizations and complicated dynamics of Alcott’s feminism and the partriarchal tradition (Eiselein 8).


While critics continue to quibble and argue over Alcott’s motivations for Jo March’s metamorphosis, many readers then and since, persist in seeing Jo as that ambitious, belligerent young tomboy with a healthy appetite for mischief. In popular media, most references to the character also point to the Jo March of Little Women.

Perhaps, this holds the key in reconciling the two Jos of Little Women and Good Wives. That Jo the rebel, Jo the writer, and Jo the strong-willed tomboy is the definitive Jo of many generations of readers suggests that there is a common aspiration to be such a character. That readers, women especially, continue to be inspired by Jo in spite of her ‘metamorphosis’ and the many questions it raised about its validity as a positive role model is proof enough that the Jo March of Little Women transcends evolving notions of femalehood towards becoming a near-universal symbol of femininity.

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This is not to say that the Jo March of Good Wives failed to live up to the standards set by the first book. Inarguably, the Jo March of Good Wives delivered a realistic example of the female experience. Then and now, the push and pull between traditional feminine roles and the desire to break free from its perceived clutches is a relevant and important struggle.

Thus, it can then be argued that one Jo does not necessarily undermine or defeat the other. As such, the Jo of the two books represent what is often hoped and what then often happens, what is ideal and what is reality. From the first page of Little Women to the last page of Good Wives, Jo March is the same Jo March, only different.

In conclusion, where Little Women and Good Wives succeed in doing is not in being a successful example of feminism per se, but in becoming a document that relates the all too common and all too human struggle of balancing one’s personal aspirations and the expectations that surround her. The books’ continued popularity and influence among readers and critics only confirm its universality, power and relevance.


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