The Jo March Effect: Should Classic Heroines Bow to Convention?

Trini Alvarado, Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes in ‘Little Women’/Image © 1994 Columbia Pictures

To know Little Women is to love Little Women. From its very first line – “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents” – Louisa May Alcott’s landmark 1868 novel about four cash-poor, rich-in-love teenaged sisters has captured generation after generation’s love and devotion. The book has got it all: cozy escapades, romantic triangles, “operatic tragedies,” and delicious descriptions of puddings, velvet gloves, and those infernal pickled limes. Before there was “Sex and the City,” there existed no more iconic quartet of females than the March Sisters. There was pretty, patient and maternal Meg. There was artistic, curly-haired, and vain Amy. There was shy, musical, and long-suffering “Poor Beth.” And there was Jo, a strapping, temperamental tomboy who aspired to be a writer when she grew up. Just like everyone is a Charlotte, Samantha, Carrie, or Miranda today, everyone once was a Meg, Amy, Beth, or Jo; I suspect everyone secretly loved the slapdash Jo most. (There’s a reason Kate Hepburn played her in the film adaptation.)

As an aspiring writer in elementary school, I adored all the sisters and clamored for the “Pilgrims Progress” morals that Alcott, a true daughter of the Transcendentalists, sewed into their scrapes and graces. But the book most came alive when Jo galloped to the forefront. Loyal to a fault, she was indifferent to the domestic arts, gave not a fig for her appearance, and wrote volumes while decked out in the “scribbling suit” that prompted her family to ask, “Does genius burn, Jo?” As her sisters married or passed away, she clung to her dream of becoming a lady author, submitting her work for prizes and publication and even moving to New York City from Massachusetts to make a real go of it.

But as many times as I pored over the book, I usually stopped rereading before the very end. It wasn’t because prissy Amy won Laurie’s love and baubles after Jo spurned his affections. It wasn’t because of Beth’s sorry decline. It was because Jo married Mr. Bhaer, the German scholar who was dismissive of her writing. Although the events of the first half of Little Women (the good part, I always thought) comprises a book Jo composes in the second half, she lays aside her writing to become his wife and the mother of two boys.

This killed me, and I don’t think I’m the only one who felt that way. I was hungry for bildungsromans about budding female writers, and the taming of Jo March dashed my dreams. It seemed so odd that her fate was portrayed as a happy ending. I viewed Beth’s death as less grim.

Though I’ve come to call these literary betrayals as “the Jo March Effect,” this domestication didn’t just happen to her. In 1908’s Anne of Green Gables, Anne Shirley was identified by her pluckiness, her red hair, her imagination, and her dreams of becoming a writer. In later books, she published a story here and there while attending university and working as a schoolteacher to help out her adopted guardian Marilla. But once her longtime beau, Gilbert, made her an “honest woman,” she never wrote again. By the last few installments in L.M. Montgomery’s series, good mommy Anne is eclipsed by her many kids. I hated those books – chirpy and status quo-enforcing – as much as I loved the first few in the series.

In the irony of all ironies, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote eight books about her youth in unsettled 1800s America – Little House on the Prairie – without ever acknowledging that the “Laura” character might wish to be a writer. Even the time and space-defying Wrinkle in Time series betrays its brainy female protagonist. True, misfit Meg Murry did not aspire to become a writer. But she’s described as being a math and physics genius – of possessing a gift never tapped once she becomes the wife of childhood sweetheart Calvin and the mother of seven. This, despite the fact that Meg’s mother is a nationally ranked scientist and author Madeleine L’Engle herself was a working parent. (It’s rumored she was working on a book about adult Meg but to date it’s unpublished.) To be fair, the titular tomboy and aspiring writer of 1964’s Harriet the Spy never conformed to any traditional gender roles though we never met her as an adult. (It’s doubtful author Louise Fitzhugh would have made Harriet a carpool mom but since she died suddenly we’ll never know.) Of classic young adult fictional heroines, only Betsy Ray of Maud Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series (written in the 1940s and ‘50s) stands out as a girl who realizes her childhood dreams of becoming an author as well as a wife. Sadly, these books, though equally engrossing and endearing, are not as widely recognized these days.

In sooth, all these YA classics are great time capsules and even greater allies for female readers of any age (all readers, really). But it’s interesting, even disturbing that such ambitious lady authors couldn’t, with the exception of Lovelace, grant their literary stand-ins the sort of success they themselves achieved. Doing so would have meant so much for the young girls dreaming of following in their footsteps. Alcott, pretty much a real-life Jo, supported her parents on her literary earnings while never marrying herself, and famously declared, “I’d rather be a free spinster and row my own boat.” Wife and mother Montgomery published books her entire adult life and once wrote to a friend, “I am frankly in literature to make a living out of it.” So why couldn’t these women writers leave some fictional breadcrumbs to encourage ambitious young girls? Were they afraid they’d lose audiences if their characters flouted convention? Did they fear they’d be endorsing cultural unrest? Or perhaps they preferred their status as what Adrienne Rich describes in Of Woman Born as “exceptional women” – that is, a cut above the rest.

Many aspects of modern life are banal at best, deplorable at worst. Ethics, etiquette, the environment: Standards have plummeted in all these areas since Alcott and Montgomery were alive. But it’s hard to imagine a contemporary young adult series that would sell its bad-ass, creatively enterprising female protagonists down the “good girl” river the way these authors did. Say what you will, but if Katniss Everdeen excelled at writing rather than archery, you can bet your bottom dollar that she’d “write the book that made the great war,” as Lincoln once said of Harriet Beecher Stowe.