Louisa May Alcott’s fictional sisters still captivate contemporary readers.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Little Women, four writers offer thoughtful reflections about the famous March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Journalist Bolick (Becoming a Hairstylist, 2019, etc.) recalls that when she was young, Meg seemed unappealing to her, “the quintessential good girl of morality tales,” defined by her prettiness. Alcott’s message, Bolick decided, “was that pretty is a prison. If, like Meg, you are pretty, you can’t also be a writer, or an artist.” As an adult, though, Bolick came to realize that rather than represent sharply contrasting identities, the sisters need to be taken as a whole “to embody different aspects of the female experience,” inviting the reader “to imagine herself into a variety of personalities.” Poet and fiction writer Zhang (Sour Heart, 2017, etc.) recounts her changing responses to Jo, whom at first she hated for “her boyishness, her impetuousness, her obliviousness” to “feminine preening,” and her lack of interest in romance. Yet as she dedicated herself to writing, perhaps at the cost of marriage and children, Zhang came to understand—and to share—Jo’s ambivalence about her choices. Essayist and fiction writer Machado (Her Body and Other Parties, 2017) considers Lizzie Alcott, Louisa’s sister and the model for modest, undemanding Beth. Lizzie, though, was hardly sweet and docile but instead “snarky and strange and funny and kind and suffered tremendously and died angry at the world.” Transformed into a literary character, she has been effaced. “How do you keep other people from making you a Beth?” Machado wonders. “How do you stay out of other people’s stories?” Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Smiley (Golden Age, 2015, etc.) considers Amy, who, as the youngest, learns to be observant, flexible, and practical. More than her sisters, Amy “goes about shaping her life in a conscious manner”; she becomes, for Smiley, a “modern woman.” Besides focusing on Amy, Smiley offers a sensitive assessment of Marmee’s mothering, which often reveals a surprising lack of empathy.
Fresh readings of a much-loved classic.