Why Little Women Still Matters, More Than 150 Years Later

Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen in Greta Gerwig's Little Women (2019).
Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen in Greta Gerwig's Little Women (2019). / Wilson Webb / © 2019 CTMG, Inc.

In 1868, Louisa May Alcott published the first part of Little Women, which would become her most famous novel (though it took her less than two months to write it). Today, more than 150 years later, Oscar-nominated director Greta Gerwig is already generating awards buzz for her new adaptation of Alcott's novel, which stars Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, and Timothée Chalamet.

The film, of course, comes less than a year after the BBC adapted the story into a miniseries (for the fourth time), which ran as part of PBS's Masterpiece series in the spring of 2018. These two projects are just the latest celebrations of the beloved novel, which has been adapted more than two dozens times—not only for film and television, but as stage plays, musicals, an opera, a radio drama, and even a Japanese anime series. All of which begs the question: Why, after all this time, do we continue to return to a coming-of-age story based on four sisters who grew up in the 19th century?

One reason is because the book is written with such natural dialogue that, even today, it remains realistic in its portrayal of womanhood (not just girlhood). Women in the World posits that Alcott’s real life—she and her family lived in poverty; she and her family moved 30 times in 22 years; she was a writer when women weren’t encouraged to write; she was sexually harassed—translated into universally relatable content that has managed to transcend the decades. Especially as it's written with what many deem to be an undeniable feminist bent.

In real life, Alcott never married, but as a writer she was ultimately forced to marry all the March sisters off. In Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, author Anne Boyd Rioux suggests that one of the reasons Little Women has endured is because the book isn't just a sentimental and sweet novel, but also a book about female rage.

In discussing Rioux's book in The New Republic, Sarah Blackwood wrote:

"Bronson Alcott’s strict adherence to his 'ideals'—vegetarianism, selflessness, and political commitments to use no cotton, wool, sugar, molasses, or rice—meant that his children were often improperly clothed and malnourished. He once left his wife Abigail alone with two small children so that he could focus on his studies for a year, during which Abigail weathered the first of many miscarriages on her own. Lizzie Alcott (the inspiration for the saintly Beth March) appears to have starved herself to death; her mother and sisters attended her during a protracted, painful, and utterly irredeemable death. Alcott was always keenly aware of how much she had to temper and redirect her own ambitions simply because she was a woman."

The article goes on to suggest that "Little Women has endured because of the power of its ‘lessons’ about balancing family and career, individualism and selflessness, and the value of (truly) companionate marriage." Yet it doesn't shy away from how these values can often create contradictions in one's life.

“The homes [Alcott] depicts are both cozy and claustrophobic, the marriages companionate and perverse, and the March girls’ dreams both fulfilled and depressingly renounced," Blackwood wrote. Yet, 150 years later, Alcott’s experiences in deciding whether or not to marry, and how to navigate what was clearly a man's world as a woman remain painfully relatable to today's artists and audiences.

For Gerwig, who became the first female filmmaker to earn a Best Director Oscar nomination for her debut feature with 2017's semi-autobiographical Lady Bird, her upcoming Little Women adaptation may be even more personal. "This feels like autobiography,” Gerwig told Vanity Fair. "When you live through a book, it almost becomes the landscape of your inner life ... It becomes part of you, in a profound way."

Millions of the book's fans would agree.