by Alvin G. Burstein
This 2019 film is the latest version of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, first published in 1868 and reissued countless times in print, as well as formatted for television and the stage. Its many iterations speak for something compelling in the work. There is an important sense in which Alcott strikes the same chord as John Stewart Mill’s 1869 essay, The Subjection of Women. There, Mill argues that women would be the last class of humans to be accorded equal social status.
Like the novel, the movie has an autobiographical element mirroring Alcott’s life. Alcott can be regarded as a pioneering feminist, and the film certainly dramatizes the struggle to achieve the feminist goal of equality.
The second sister, Jo, like Alcott, is a writer. But with Jo as its central character, the movie has a sharper focus. Jo wants to be famous.
At a climactic point she exclaims, “Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for.”
At another point, when she has asked a professor of literature for his opinion of her writing, she responds to his criticism with defensive anger, “If you know so much about it, why don’t you do it yourself?”
He responds, “I’m not a writer. I don’t have the gifts you have.” And Jo goes on, “No, you don’t, and you’ll always be a critic, never an author, and the world will forget that you ever even lived.”
The exchange reflects not just the feminist wish for equality and not just the tension between creative work and critical efforts. It highlights Jo’s thirst, not to be equal, but to be celebrated, to be famous.
Excellent acting and relevance to contemporary socio-political issues justify the film’s popularity. However, the film’s impact suffers from its narrative structure. It has a confusing double flash back, and the potential for confusion is magnified by an interpolated dream sequence. But it also struggles with a nagging short-coming in psychological theory—how feelings and thinking relate. How should we take account of emotion in evaluating the mind?
Freud argued that secondary process, reality testing, logic and rationality, should replace more primitive mental activity. He is often quoted as saying that mental health was the ability to work and love. But what about the wish to be known? And then to further complicate things, the relationship between being known by a loved one and being known to all? Is a quest for fame healthy? Is it socially valuable?
Little Women raises those questions, too. We can’t expect it to answer them, but it should prod us to think about them.