Jenny Zhang on Reading Little Women and Wanting to Be Like Jo March
Looking to Louisa May Alcott's Heroine for Inspiration
From the moment I learned English—my second language—I decided I was destined for genius and it would be discovered through my writing—my brilliant, brilliant writing. Until then, I had to undergo training, the way a world-class athlete might prepare for the Olympics; so I did what any budding literary marvel desperate to get to the glory and praise stage of her career would do—I read and read and read and then imitated my idols in hope that my talents would one day catch up to my tastes.
At age ten, I gave up picture books and took the leap into chapter books, but continued to seek out the girly subjects that alone interested me. Any story involving an abandoned young girl, left to survive this harsh, bitter world on her own, was catnip to my writerly ambitions. Like the literary characters I loved, the protagonists in my own early efforts at writing were plucky, determined, unconventional girls, which was how I saw myself. They often acted impetuously, were prone to bouts of sulking and extreme mood swings, sweet one minute and sour the next.
I always gave my heroines happy endings—they were all wunderkinds who were wildly successful in their artistic pursuits and, on top of it, found true, lasting love with a perfect man. I was a girl on the cusp of adolescence, but I had already fully bought into the fantasy that women should and could have it all.
On one of my family’s weekly trips to Costco, I found a gorgeous illustrated copy of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, a book I had seen and written off every time I went to the library, repelled by the word women. Unlike the girl heroines I loved, a woman was something I dreaded becoming, a figure bound up in expectations of sacrifice and responsibility. A woman had to face reality and give up her foolish childish dreams. And what was reality for a woman but the life my mother—the best woman I knew—had? And what did she have but a mountain of responsibilities—to me, to my father, to my younger brother, to her parents, to my father’s parents, to her friends, to my father’s friends, to their friends’ parents, to her bosses, to her coworkers, and so on?
Her accomplishments were bound up in other people, and her work was literally emotional, as she was expected to be completely attuned to everyone else’s feelings. She worked service jobs where she was required to absorb the anger of complaining customers and never betray any frustration of her own. Her livelihood depended on being giving and kind all of the time, suppressing her less sunny emotions into a perpetually soaked rag that she sometimes wrung out on my father and me.
My mother had apparently wanted to be a writer when she was a young girl too. She loved reading novels and writing stories, but she continually repeated to me the same proselytizing refrain: everyone has to grow up and be responsible for others. And one day you will too, she forecasted; or, maybe she was trying to hex me. She wanted me to stop thinking of myself as some great exception. She believed the numbers didn’t lie—if something was popular, then that thing must be really good. That was her credo in life; if it applied to restaurants, it certainly applied to marriage and family. One had to do the expected thing, or else one was fucked.
The odds were much higher that a young girl might one day find a husband and start a family of her own than become a famous writer. My mother believed no matter how miserable marriage and kids might be, it was guaranteed to be better than the misery of being childless and unpartnered. Better to be normal than to try to be extraordinary, she told me again and again.
Her and my father’s vision of womanhood was a nightmare to me. According to them, the best possible outcome was that I become a dentist. A dentist! Someone whose entire job was to look inside other people’s mouths. Whose line of work inspired fear, dread, and procrastination. I wanted to inspire action, write poems that transported the reader into the realm of magic, be the embodiment of Rilke’s you must change your life, and nothing less. When I nixed my parents’ ambition that I become a dentist, they suggested an alternative—law— quick to add they didn’t mean the lawyers on TV who went to trial and made impassioned arguments against the ills of racism and corporate greed, but the ones who sat around in the office all day completing paperwork.
That was the dream of the good life my parents had for me: a safe job where I didn’t have to overexert myself. Passion was bad. Routine, clerical tasks, low-risk paper-pushing that could be reliably repeated over and over again until I retired and lived out the rest of my life through careful budgeting of my retirement savings, was good. And of course, I was to find a man with the same values, marry, and procreate with him before my eggs dried up and I was nothing but a shriveled hag.
Why not just end life right here and now? I thought every time my parents brought it up. Better to die tragically young having experienced some shit than to make it to old age bored out of your mind. Perhaps there was someone who wanted the life my parents advocated for, could imagine being happy in it, could even take pleasure from achieving such milestones, but it wasn’t me. The picture my parents painted of my eventual ascension into womanhood was a prison. I wanted to stay a girl for as long as I could—it was the last stop before I had to annihilate all my dreams and get real.
When I finally read Little Women, it was out of boredom. My parents left me in the Costco book aisle for the better part of an hour, during which I devoured more than half the book. It was a paperback edition but the pages felt like heavy, quality card stock. The cover showed the March sisters in wide-brimmed hats trimmed with ribbon, delicately brandishing walking sticks. Meg was depicted in a Peter Pan–collared lavender dress with vertical white stripes, Jo in an unadorned navy dress with a priestlike white collar, Beth in a faded yellow pinstriped dress, and little Amy in a skyblue sailor dress.
Jo was the decidedly plain one, the one who clearly took no joy in having a beauty regimen. Under the bright warehouse lights, to my surprise, I was immediately enamored with the story of sisterhood and genteel struggle, enticed by the exoticism of a tale set against the backdrop of the Civil War—a period of time I could not fathom outside of history books—with its strange touchstones like only having enough money for lobster salad, scheming to possess a large quantity of pickled limes and secretly sucking them at school, and lunches composed of cold tongue. Though I had no sisters of my own, the story of four sisters raised by their self-sacrificing mother to be just as self-sacrificing despite repeated dips into the dramatic, self-involved throes of adolescence and puberty was incredibly familiar to me.
I should have identified with Jo, who possesses her creator’s best traits in spades (individuality, fearlessness, resourcefulness, and creativity), while the more trying aspects of Louisa May Alcott’s personality (the volatile temper and mood swings that would most likely be diagnosed as some kind of mood or personality disorder today) were mitigated by the author’s pen. After all, Jo March has always been the fan favorite, the little woman everyone thinks herself to be, the clear front man of the four-piece band, the one who hogged all the charisma and daring, the only one of the sisters whose vision of what a woman’s life should and could entail doesn’t seem so miserably dated today, the one character who has been cited by a roll call of prominent women writers as inspirational and as essential to their own artistic and feminist development, not to mention all the women whose names and lives were not famous enough to be recorded for posterity but who nonetheless were altered by Jo March.
In the context of literature written for young girls, Jo stands out. She is the rare fictional teenage girl who prefers the dirtiness of adventure to the cleanliness of order, who sees no romance in being tethered to a man, who rolls her eyes at the material inheritances promised by marriage, who would rather work her ass off to support her family through her writing than be saved by a man with money, who spends the majority of the book bucking the patriarchal fetish that women eternally sacrifice their own pleasure and efface their own desires in the service of men.
She is the character that most young girls who read Little Women are proud to identify with—and there I was, 12 years old, a self-professed “rebel” and “writing prodigy” who decided by the end of the first page that there was nobody I detested more than Jo March. Her boyishness, her impetuousness, her obliviousness, her agility at all types of masculine movement and her clumsiness at feminine preening, her utter lack of interest in the romantic attentions of men—in particular, her best friend and boy-next-door Laurie, who was a dreamboat to me, feminine in his name, teen girly in his adoration and unrequited love for Jo and even more so in his reaction to being rejected (not so vaguely threatening suicide, flinging his body around in despair, wailing dramatically, “I can’t love any one else; and I’ll never forget you, Jo, never! never!”)—her ideals, her stubbornness, her independence, her utter lack of giving a fuck when it came to adhering to gender norms, everything about Jo repulsed me.Did other people see me the way I saw Jo—annoying, delusional, unwilling to grow up, stubbornly clinging to her childish dreams?
I should have identified with Jo, the only one of the sisters who not only wants to be a genius but by the end of the book is still in the running to be one. When playing a cheeky game of truth, Laurie asks Jo, “What do you most wish for?” to which Jo replies disingenuously, “A pair of boot-lacings.” Laurie calls her on her bluff, “Not a true answer; you must say what you really do want most,” and Jo fires back, “‘Genius; don’t you wish you could give it to me, Laurie?’ and she shyly smiled in his disappointed face,” reminding the reader that she’s the only one of the four March sisters who desires something that no man can give her.
What she desires is to burn with creativity, awaken the genius lying dormant in her soul. Later when Laurie confesses his love for her, Jo is baffled, makes it clear she does not reciprocate, and even goes so far as to say she doubts she’ll ever marry and give it all up for some guy. Laurie doesn’t buy it. No woman can be happy on her own; they all end up finding a man they are willing “to live and die for,” so why, why, why not him?
Rather than applaud Jo and her wherewithal to choose herself over the love of a good (and hot) (and wealthy) man at a time when women were structurally denied power and resources and had few options outside of marriage, I was horrified. How selfish, I thought, my criticism mirroring my mother’s jabs at me whenever I announced my intentions to be a writer, not someone’s mother. She’s never going to do better than Laurie! I fumed. What does he even see in her? I wondered. What made her think she could be free like a boy? What made a poor girl like her think she could act like a person with money?
Was my reaction because I saw parts of myself in Jo and didn’t like what I saw? Did other people see me the way I saw her—annoying, delusional, unwilling to grow up, stubbornly clinging to her childish dreams? It was through Jo that I finally tapped into the mindset of the very people I had been rebelling against: my parents. And in some sneaky way, it was Jo’s journey in Little Women that gave me insight into why my parents were so hell-bent on conforming. They had lived longer and survived more than I had and knew much more than I did about how much this world punishes those who don’t fall in line.
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