Dismembering the Horror of Little Women

The author, in Little Women, uses subtext and a surface narrative to unveil an extended vision of the feminine conflict. The story challenges the assumptions about American women in the 19th century. The story appears to be a sentimental and conventional tale of the innocent trials of girlhood. After carefully examining the feminine novel of domestic education, we realize it is a violent sensation story. Alcott is forced to wage war against the main character, Jo, to present the clash between appropriate feminine behavior and the human desire for fulfillment and assertiveness.

On the surface, Alcott’s story is about the journey to adulthood from childhood for the four March girls. ‘Little women’ is centered on the conflict between two instances in a young female’s life. The first instance is one in which she places herself or desires, and the other is placed on her by her family/society. The novel shows how domestic duties and family reduce when women attend to their personal growth. For example, for both Amy and Jo, being dutiful women and professional artists creates conflict and disrupt the boundaries set by American society in the 19th century.

The young confident, fiery and angry Jo is a representation of what adult Jo cannot become. Therefore for Jo to transform into adulthood, the young her must be destroyed (Estes & Lant, 1989). As the surface narrative concludes with a moderately normal future for Jo, we also realize on the low that the novel is trying to show that the future for an independent and self-determined Jo is not possible. Because of the conflict between feminine expectations by society and personal desires, Jo is forced to change. She did value her writing above everything else and never aspired to get married. But she did get married eventually and discard the writing that she cherished. To add on, she took on a type of writing that her husband and family deemed fitting for her.

Alcott has set Jo as an experimental heroine that she can use to explore the pressure women had in the 19th century. The author had to murder the spiritual Jo for her to be maintained within the narrative’s framework. Alcott could not allow Jo to marry for love considering her devotion to owning her power and independence. Presumably, this was why she declined Laurie’s marriage proposal (Alcott, 2000). Meg wedded Brooke out of love, and that reduced her to submission. The reluctance of Alcott to sacrifice Jo to the convention through marriage results in the author’s violence against the character. The secret violence at the center of the novel is Alcott killing Jo. As the story begins, Jo is rebellious and refuses to be a typical young lady. Her behavior is utterly inappropriate for a proper young female. Although Jo loves the female community that she shares with her sisters, she acts more like a gentleman.

The independent Jo could not follow the same life cycle as her sisters- getting married, settling down, and starting a family. It was because of this that she could not be with Laurie. Alcott uses this character (Jo) and wages a war against her to show readers conflict between a desire for fulfillment and the set feminine behavior. She had to be submissive to her husband and discard the career path of her choice.


Alcott, L. M. (2000). Little Women.

Estes, A. M., & Lant, K. M. (1989). Dismembering the Text: The Horror of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Children’s Literature, 17(1), 98-123. doi:10.1353/chl.0.0430

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