If the words Little Women leave a too-sweet taste in your mouth, you’re not alone. Louisa May Alcott’s book has been considered a classic since its publication, but is often criticized for turning its unconventional characters into domestically constrained sticks-in-the-mud. But for Stephanie Foote, there’s a bit of grit beneath that seemingly sugary exterior. She finds plenty of grumpiness in the March family—gender and class resentments that turn the stereotype of the book’s repressiveness on its head.
Foote points out that the book begins with a complaint, as the girls gather to kvetch over how they can’t have Christmas presents. There’s also Amy’s petty destruction of one of Jo’s manuscripts, and plenty of grumbling about other families’ money, and resentment over social niceties.
Foote sees the many negative emotions of the March girls as a way to test out potential reactions to the world outside the home within the friendly bounds of their domestic lives. When the March girls confront people in the outside world, notes Foote, they feel resentful of them, because they either try to put gender restrictions on the March girls or they flaunt their class in a way that makes the girls bitter about their own financial situation. But when the March girls process those negative emotions within the friendly confines of their home, they are able to translate them into personality traits that make them into better women.
At some point before Little Women begins, the March family lost their fortune; thus, they have social status but no money to back it up. That produces all sorts of negative emotions. It also creates a dichotomy between independent Jo and self-conscious Amy. Amy is ultimately rewarded for her pretensions to grandeur by being considered socially acceptable and taken to Europe. On the other hand, Jo, who considers herself above Amy’s worldliness, experiences poverty and social exclusion. Amy turns her frustrations about money into ambition and transcends her financial situation; Jo “becomes a study of resentment and failed aspiration.” Only when Jo returns to the home and creates a home of her own is she delivered from the hell of her own emotions.
For Foote, Little Women illustrates desire for social status, not romance. “…the characters endure a series of mortifying confrontations with their own social inadequacies,” she writes, “and…they therefore experience astonishingly negative emotions.” Home both creates and soothes negative emotions like petty anger, resentment, and envy. But those emotions are expressed, not repressed, she argues—and the March family home gives the characters a chance to turn their negative emotions into positive, socially acceptable ones.
Foote’s analysis flies in the face of the usual critique of Little Women. By focusing in on the characters’ emotions, Foote discovers something more than good little women. She finds surprisingly angry ones—and a novel that delivers much more than you might think.