A Lesson from Jo March: Be Unapologetically You!
It’s a terribly hackneyed endeavor to write about Jo March, I know. Yet, the pull is irresistible. Prior to reading Little Women, I was cognizant that “most readers love [the novel] because they love Jo March” (qtd in Quimby 1). And, really, now that I’m finished with the novel, I kept wondering: how could you not like her?
Jo March is likable because she’s an impassioned and independent writer who chopped off her hair to help her family, she has an (un)intentional flare for the dramatic, and a blasé attitude toward society’s expectations of women. She’s fierce and talented, full of bravado and pride, but she also possesses a deeply compassionate soul. Since finishing the novel a few weeks ago, I can’t seem to wrestle Jo March out of my head. She’s exceptional, the type of character who doesn’t leave you even when you’re finally inclined to place the book back on the shelf; she still demands your attention, a tickle in the back of your mind, whispering, I’m here.
When you consider the hundreds of strong women in books, film, video games, and the real-world, Jo March is really just one of many, a single infinitesimal voice lost in a cacophony of strong female voices. But when one considers the time period in which Alcott penned Little Women, Jo’s voice becomes that much more pronounced and permeating. In her iconic essay, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” Barbara Welter argues that women were governed by “four cardinal virtues— piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity,” which shaped a woman’s behavior and how they viewed themselves and their purpose (152). During Alcott’s time, women were supposed to be more akin to Meg March: married with children, and facilitator of the idyllic, cozy home. In short, they weren’t supposed to be like Jo March, who “represented the possibility of another kind of life” (NPR), which was certainly pious, pure, somewhat domestic, but not submissive.
While Meg cheerily fulfilled her duties as a nineteenth century woman, Jo absconded tradition and feminine duty, which allowed Alcott— who felt this way herself as a woman— to demonstrate that not all women wanted or even could be that “The Angel in the House.” sort of figure–a.k.a: perfect wives and mothers. It is Jo’s inability to comply with society’s expectations— “to be the man of the family, not the little woman” and “to be a soldier, not a seamstress” and “to be like Laurie, not have him” (Quimby 1)— that sticks with me because it was empowering to women readers during the nineteenth century and even today over one-hundred and fifty years later. Jo is a timeless representation of fiery female ambition that reminds us to be more than what society thrusts upon you, to be original, and above all, to be oneself completely and without apology.
While Jo’s character is empowering, I didn’t realize until I lightly dug into some of the criticism on Little Women that her character is also burdened with immense controversy. After a quick dip into the library database, I discovered that the pervasive issue that encircles Jo’s character is her marriage at the end of the novel. Instead of continuing to careen toward independence as a writer, Jo abandons her writing career, gets married to an older man, and opens a boarding house for boys. In her article, “The Story of Jo,” Karin Quimby finds “this conclusion so unsatisfying and incoherent that most readers reject it in favor of the […] middle of Jo’s plot,” where she embraces her independence through writing (4). By forcing Jo to adhere to marriage at the end of the novel, readers feel duped and frustrated because it is such a common end for an uncommon character. Interestingly, it’s not only readers who feel dour and disappointed at this ending: even the author, herself, was chagrinned. In a letter to a friend, Alcott wrote:
“Publishers won’t let authors finish up as they like but insist on having people married off in a wholesale manner which much afflicts me. Jo should have remained a literary spinster but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare refuse and out of perversity went and made a funny match for her” (Quimby 10).
In a few simple sentences, Alcott clearly demonstrates the rage she felt with an unforgiving and sardonic tone at being told how to write her story. She must’ve felt the need to comply because it wasn’t just the publishers, but also her niche market of readers, who seemed to have forced her hand. If you want to be technical about it, Alcott gave everyone the story they wanted— I mean, come on, Jo got married.
And, yet, it wasn’t to the “right” man. Gasp! (Also, #lauriegotfriendzoned).
While the readers called for Laurie, Alcott adeptly delivered a different male character, the professor, which I believe was a clever and precise choice that demonstrates Alcott’s own subversive, fiery, and wily spirit. She complied with the expectations of her readers and the publishers, but at the same time, refused to satiate the exact desires of said patrons by marrying Jo someone other than Laurie as though it were, I swear, out of spite. Who knows? Alcott might’ve been thinking, if I have to marry Jo off, then I’m going to do it on my own terms.
Initially, I wasn’t wildly fond of the end of Little Women. Mere seconds after I finished the novel, I promptly texted one of my best friends— who is an Early Americanist and has done some really fantastic work on Beth’s death— to uncage my rage about Jo abandoning her writing career. After chatting with my friend, who brought up the fact that running a boarding school is still rather empowering for a woman in the nineteenth century, I decided to let my initial reaction percolate. As my thoughts started to evolve and unfurl, my rage actually abated and gave way to the nuanced possibilities in this otherwise perverse ending, although I’m sure that many other readers and critics probably would still disagree with me.
For example, Judith Fetterly is anti-married Jo, and argues, “We do not, of course, view this transformation with unqualified rejoicing. It is difficult not to see it as capitulation and difficult not to respond to with regret” (qted in Quimby 10-11). She seems to assert that Jo doesn’t decide to get married, but actually surrenders to the idea, and as such, loses her sense of self, which is quite disappointing. Of a slightly more optimistic view of Jo’s marriage, Sadie Stein contests that “Bhaer was a better match, but a bit paternalistic for her. Sometimes I’m uncomfortable with the mentor-as-lover thing, other times I think maybe that was that era’s ‘true partner’” (The Paris Review). It’s not necessarily the marriage that is the problem, but the fact that Jo is married to an older man in a position of power over her— albeit, as Stein also admits, the historical context might negate that fact, and Jo might very well have found her equal, despite any contemporary reservations the reader has. Unlike Stein and Fetterly, Madelon Bedell suggests that the unfortunate ending of the novel is an opportunity for the reader who can “identify in the end not so much with the Jo of the book as with ‘some Jo of the future,’ the independent woman she failed to become” (qtd in Quimby, 11-12). While Jo did not succeed in asserting herself as an independent woman, readers do not necessarily have to despair; instead, they can take solace in the fact that there will be another woman somewhere out there like Jo, who will undoubtedly succeed where Jo failed.
The word “failed” feels out of tune, sits uncomfortably in my mind, and tastes sour on my tongue. Does it really have to be all (married) or nothing (unmarried), or can there be some sort of in-between?
Unlike many other critics, I prefer to believe that there’s a lot more to Jo’s marriage than the prevailing, and quite frankly, overly simplistic interpretation: she got married, and thus, has lost all agency. Instead, I think that Jo demonstrates nuanced agency as a married woman through: one, being the executor of her decisions; and two, getting married on her terms.
At the beginning of Little Women, Jo fervently asserts, “I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy,” which seems as though she is frustrated that she is female, rather than male, a line that myriad critics have frequently interpreted quite literally (Alcott 13). While I do think that this particular line is ripe for application of queer theory, I prefer an alternative reading: it’s not so much that Jo literally wants to be a boy; instead, it is that she craves the agency— the ability to act and manipulate the events of her life— boys have that girls do not in the nineteenth century.
However, as the novel progresses, Jo begins to exert her own agency through writing. When Jo resides in New York, her writing career explodes: not only is she inspired by the new scenery around her, but she also earns monetary compensation for her work. The minute the professor enters her life, and gives her feedback on her writing does her career start to suffer. He actually even hinders her process, causing her to falter a bit, but she extricates herself from the situation and returns home. It is only when she is reunited with Beth, her sister, that she regains her ability to write and feel confident in her writing. Jo, in other words, does not magically gain inspiration from the professor, which demonstrates that her confidence and success as a writer is not incumbent upon him. In fact, when Jo enjoys success in her writing after leaving New York, she credits her family, rather than her love interest: “If there is anything good or true in what I write, it isn’t mine; I owe it all to [father], mother, and to Beth” (Alcott 340). Jo doesn’t need a man, nor does she need to be a man, in order to be successful.
It is, then, only under these specific circumstances that Jo can finally be with the professor— you know, much like Jane Eyre can only be with Rochester once she has her own fortune— as an equal. When he visits Jo in her home town, he does not approach her as a mentor, but as a suitor, one who is drawn to her because of her published writing about her family and herself. He says, “I haf a heart full, full for her; shall I not go and say, ‘If this is not too poor a thing to gif for what I shall hope to receive, take it, in Gott’s name’” (Alcott 372). He proposes without entitlement and without appealing to her sense of duty as a woman to get married, which elicits a positive response from Jo, who says, “And so you came to find that it was not too poor, but the one precious thing I needed” (Alcott 372).Jo and the professor both choose to be together because they both know that they are strong and complete people alone, but are better together.
And, eventually, when Jo abandons her writing, it is entirely her decision to recast her role, one that allows her to reconcile the masculine and feminine aspects of her personality and identity— that is, Jo takes care of a group of boys, but she is also able to chase them and whistle as she does it, which is an unconventional maternal role. As the novel comes to a close, it’s clear that Jo does surrender— to an extent— to feminine duty, but I personally take solace in the fact that she also does so on her own terms in a way that makes sense for her.
I hear you Jo, loud and clear. Be bold. Be brave. And, most of all, be unapologetically you.
Quimby, Karin. “The Story of Jo: Literary Tomboys, Little Women, and the Sexual-Textual Politics of Narrative Desire.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2003, pp. 1-22.
Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1966, pp. 151-174.
*Note: all other sources are linked to the webpage within the article.