"Imagine a picture concerned merely with the doings of a healthy-minded family!" wrote New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall in 1933 when George Cukor’s Little Women made its debut. But of course Louisa May Alcott’s oft-adapted story of a family of four daughters living in Civil War-era New England is concerned with more than that.
The Marches are certainly a healthy-minded family, but they’re also a family separated by war, Mr. March being away with the Union army. This of course means that they are a family of women, led by their matriarch, Marmee (Spring Byington).
Nor is there any strong male romantic figure in the story. Three of the four sisters marry, but of the three beaus, one is basically a non-character, one is more a sentimental figure than a romantic one, and the most important of the three is more dramatically significant as a rejected beau than a successful one. And Jo (Katharine Hepburn in one of her best performances), the story’s true protagonist, is defined as a character more by her unusual career aspiration to be a professional writer than by whom she does or doesn’t end up marrying.
Thus, while Little Women is far from hostile to its male characters, it has a positive feminine character and defines its protagonists not by relationships with men but by moral choices, experiences, and relationships with one another, their mother, and their community. Part comedy of manners, part morality tale, it’s more interested in its heroines "conquering themselves" than in a man conquering their hearts.
Over the course of the story, strong-willed Jo, pompous Amy (Joan Bennett), angelic Beth (Jean Parker), and gentle Meg (Frances Dee) face diminished fortunes, neighbors in need, life-threatening illnesses, tragedies, and the usual trials and tribulations of coming of age and facing change.
Allusions to Pilgrim’s Progress and Catholic iconography provide a positive Christian backdrop, and the moral lessons (concern for the needy, thankfulness for blessings, the folly of pride and winsomeness of humility) are as relevant today as they were in the film’s Depression-era context or the story’s Civil-War era setting.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.