An Exploration of Autonomy and Production Through Little Women

Safreen Afsal Channaneth

HUM208: Literature and Politics

Word Count: 3454


A work that continues to enchant readers long after it has been written, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott has been adapted numerous times since its original publication, with each adaptation taking the core of the story and reworking it to create something a little different every time. This paper dives into the creation and evolution of Little Women, using the concepts of autonomy and cultural production to understand how the fluid nature of the socio-cultural sphere affected the production of the original work as well as two of its most popular film adaptations. It looks at how the amount of power endowed upon the creator changes across time, and how these changes affect one another and create a rippling effect on the production of art. This paper thus concludes that the realization of the creator’s true vision for her work is in itself a product of a process of production that she set in motion herself. 
            Little Women, first published in 1868, is a novel by the 19th-century American writer Louisa May Alcott. The novel follows the lives of the March family, documenting the journey from adolescence to adulthood through the lens of four sisters who grow up during the American Civil War. Despite its setting, Little Women retains its popularity, and as Anne Boyd Rioux puts it, continues to evoke deep feelings of identification, especially in female readers (2019, p. 7). This essay explores Little Women, through the lens of the novel’s evolving relationship to the author, the audience, culture, and society across time.

            Louisa May Alcott’s yearning to write literature that would do something important in the world was always at war with her desire to make money from it. Her father made barely any money, and the circumstances of her life made it impossible for her writing to be a purely artistic affair. Her first novel, Moods, was a book about a young woman who marries and later regrets it, and it was full of doubts about the institution of marriage, which is what reviewers at the time found “too free”, resulting in Alcott abandoning any desire to include those ideas in future works. There are other examples of Alcott’s works not being particularly well received because of her ideals, one of the more well-known events being the rejection of her stories by the Atlantic, presumably because of the inclusion of anti-slavery themes (Rioux, 2019, p.20).  As a result, Alcott wrote lurid thrillers and sensation stories for cultural periodicals under a pseudonym, both before and after her career took off.

             Little Women was born out of a request from the publisher Thomas Niles, asking Alcott to write a “girls’ book”, an idea she was not particularly wild about. In fact, she only changed her mind about the novel once she read the first proof and decided that the book was “simple and true”, and that was what was needed for young girls (Rioux, 2019, pp. 11-23). The book was soon published and became extremely popular, with readers writing dozens of letters to Alcott, with demands to know what would happen to the March girls, and to Alcott’s annoyance, who they would marry. Alcott desperately wanted the heroine, Jo, to transcend the norms set for women in society, but she had not considered the immense power an audience can hold, and while remaining adamant that Jo would not marry Laurie, the handsome boy next door, she was compelled by her publishers to marry all the girls off (Rioux, 2019, p.24). Alcott herself wrote in a letter to Alfred Whitman that the “sequel would make you laugh, especially the pairing off part”, indicating an almost smug amusement at her own decision to make Jo marry a forty-year-old German professor (as cited in Campbell, p.124).

Little Women and Cultural Production

            According to Bourdieu, “the ideology of creation directs the gaze towards the ‘apparent producer’ of work and prevents the audience from asking questions about who created the creator and gave them this power of creation in the first place” (as cited in Hesmondhalgh, 2006, p.212). Bourdieu’s theory of cultural production does not just involve going beyond the individual creator to the wider network involved, nor does it mean reducing art to its social context; as David Hesmondhalgh puts it “Bourdieu offers instead a theory of cultural production based on his own characteristic theoretical vocabulary of habitus, capital, and field” (2006, p.212). Bourdieu defines a field as “a separate social universe having its own laws of functioning independent of those of politics and the economy” (1993, p.162), while habitus is any socio-cultural behaviour that is field-specific. The “fields” are organized around or by specific forms of capital. By identifying the key fields with respect to specific social spaces, one can study the interconnections between these different areas, and also look at the level of autonomy they have with respect to one another. Fields are constituted by struggles over positions within them, which usually take place between established producers and institutions, and disruptive newcomers (Hesmondhalgh, 2006, pp.215-216).

            Applying Bourdieu’s theory to Little Women adds a new layer to the way the book is interpreted and looked at today. It is evident from Alcott’s personal correspondence as well as the book itself that not all the decisions made were products of the singular creator, but the product of interactions between different fields of production. The individual publisher may not reflect the demands of the entire industry, but their decisions about what is worth publishing do reflect what is in demand within the literary field. The publisher’s demands are informed by what is in vogue within the literary field, and the latter is shaped by the collective demands of different publishers. Little Women’s conception is thus not just the result of an individual choice to create, but one initiated by demands of the literary field and society. Little Women was a culturally produced work of art before it ever came into being.

            Alcott’s power as a creator was endowed upon her as a result of interactions within the different fields of literature. This is best evidenced by the marriage of the daring and ambitious heroine, Jo March. Everyone was desperate for Jo to marry Laurie, her (incidentally rich) childhood best friend, that is, everyone except Alcott. Despite the failure of her first novel, Moods, Alcott still held to her views about marriage and would have liked to have seen Jo end up a literary spinster, much like herself, largely because in the 1860s it was near impossible for a woman to marry and continue creating art (Rioux, 2019, p.187). However, demands of the industry and societal norms dictated what she was and was not allowed to write, and to have her heroine end up a spinster would have spelt certain death for the book. The result was the character of Friedrich Bhaer, a kindly professor in his late thirties to early forties who was arguably almost the polar opposite of Laurie. The build up to Baer’s proposal to Jo is nothing like that of the events leading to her sister Meg’s marriage, or any of the other proposals in the book. It is decidedly not romantic, at least not in the vein of iconic literary proposals like that of Mr. Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813).

            One may conclude that this is a result of Alcott being forced to marry off her characters, resulting in a section of the book that does not feel as real as the rest, but I would argue that this part of the novel is deliberately crafted as such. As can be seen from her letters, Alcott had this sense of smug amusement at her own writing decisions, especially the way that she pairs Jo off with a man. She writes,

Jo should have remained a literary spinster, but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn't dare to refuse and out of perversity went & made a funny match for her. I expect vials of wrath to be poured out upon my head, but rather enjoy the prospect. (as cited in Campbell, 1994, p.124)

            The lack of ‘real’ romantic build up is Alcott expressing her autonomy as an author because she wields the power conferred upon her in a way that conveys the meaning she originally wanted through the subtext. Although she never directly criticizes marriage, she does challenge its romanticization. Alcott rewrites the form of the sentimental novel, by keeping its promise of marriage but omitting any and all sexual or romantic appeal in the pairing, subverting the conventions of the form (Campbell, 1994, pp.125-126). Through her refusal to ‘justify’ Jo ending up with Bhaer she manages to draw one’s attention to the ridiculousness of the institution while also adhering to the boundaries set on her by the publishing industry.

            What makes Little Women a text that has lasted, is the fact that the question of what the book is about is still hotly debated. Is it the story of a rebellious young woman whose ambition leads her to go beyond the norms and restrictions set by society, or is it the story of her slow assimilation to the status quo? (Rioux, 2019, p.164). Alcott exposes the boundaries set on her by existing power structures by engaging her audience but leaving them frustrated at the end. As Campbell writes, she calls attention to the genre’s limitations through her technical fulfilment of them while simultaneously resisting  closure and in doing so, sets her own work apart from the rest (1994, p. 126). The tension between visions of feminism and the proponents of traditional family values are a product of the power structures that have shaped the book. However, it is not just a product of cultural production but has also shaped not just women’s literature, but also many individual writers and artists. Ursula K. Le Guin describes Jo March as “the original image of women writing” (Rioux, 2019, p.150), and says that Jo was a source of validation for her own ambitions. Susan Cheever, acclaimed memoirist, and Louise Rennison, author of the bestselling series The Confessions of Georgia Nicholson, have written introductions to the novel, detailing the enormous influence it had on young girls including themselves (Rioux, 2019, p.153).

            As a book that celebrated the seemingly ordinary events of the everyday lives of women, the novel set in motion a new set of interactions within the literary field. It was revolutionary to have a narrator who spoke directly to an audience that primarily consisted of young  girls who read the book, without correcting or preaching to them (Rioux, 2019, p.66).  As Susan Cheever and many others have written, Alcott opened up a new way to write about women, making literature accessible and giving a voice to a previously silent section of the population (as cited in Rioux, 2019, p.153). Whether she intended to do so or not, her work became a blueprint for works like Susan Coolidge’s (the pen name for Sarah Woolsey) What Katy Did (1872) and L.M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908) and paved a way for coming-of-age novels written about girls growing up in an ordinary world (Rioux, 2019, pp. 157-245). While Alcott’s work was not necessarily revolutionary, it was disruptive in that it offered a new way to tell stories about women. Alcott’s work also inspired numerous adaptations with more than four films based on the book, multiple miniseries, and even operas and an anime series. Each adaptation brings something new to the text, a new layer added by new habitus within the fields they are products of.

Adaptations and the Shifting Form of Little Women

            Two of the most popular adaptations of Little Women are the films directed by Gillian Armstrong and Greta Gerwig, released in 1994 and 2019, respectively. Despite the shared form and content of these adaptations, they could not be more different from each other in how they recreate the text. One could even argue that they do not truly share form, at least not in terms of genre, because both films do not fit into the same category. Armstrong’s film was marketed as a family-oriented, nostalgic Christmas film. Although Gerwig’s film was also a Christmas release, it was never meant to be a purely nostalgic film. Amy Pascal, a producer on the film describes Gerwig’s original pitch:

The ambition and dreams you have as a girl get stomped out of you as you grow up. It was about the kinds of conversations that we all have about commerce and art and what we have to do to make things commercial. (Pascal, as quoted in Sandberg, 2019).

            Armstrong’s film carries a tone of nostalgia, of idealized domesticity, of joint homes and families in a world where “broken homes” were becoming the norm. In the words of journalist Marshall Fine, she created a film that “manages to be traditional without being conservative” (Rioux, 2019, p. 130). Armstrong, as well as the screenwriter, Robin Swicord, were also wary about linking the film to feminism, which in the former’s words had received “irreparable amounts of bad press” (as cited in Rioux, 2019, p.131). The film included new and original dialogue, which served to make overt certain progressive ideas from the subtext, but in this process, the film loses a part of what made Alcott’s work emotionally compelling in the first place.

            In Alcott’s novel, Marmee (the mother) is a stabilizing influence on the girls, but rather than being relegated to the role of the preacher, she is a fully fleshed out character who feels anger and despair and speaks to her children from her own experiences. The Marmee of the 1994 film, however, is the all-wise preacher who talks at, rather than converses with her children. This creative decision changed the tone of the film and made it come across as preachy, shifting it further away from the original work. The movie also does not show the audience as much of Jo’s struggles, and her resistance to the gender norms of the era, including the famous line where she declares that she wishes she had been born a boy, is absent. (Rioux, 2019, p. 134). One of the most powerful scenes in the book, where Jo and Marmee discuss her struggles to control her anger is entirely omitted. Although both Jo and Marmee have sections of the film’s proto-feminist dialogue, the films fails to take from Alcott’s text what was truly original and progressive —her criticism of marriage, the way children are educated into their gender, the challenges to the sentimentalization of motherhood — are all virtually non-existent.

            These decisions seem odd at first, considering that the period it was made in was more progressive than the 1860s. However, when you look at the economic, political, and social fields, some of Armstrong’s decisions can be given more context. As Rioux writes, the 1990s were characterized by “culture-wars” in which “traditionalists and progressives argued over everything from science to the economy to art and women’s roles” (2019, p.130). Women felt uncomfortable calling themselves feminists, and conservatives argued for a return to “family values”. Armstrong was especially eager to convince men that there was something for them in the film too, and her aim was to appeal to all sections of the audience (Rioux, 2019, p.131). To include the criticism of marriage and gender norms from Alcott’s work would likely alienate a section of her audience, and the result is a work of art that is more of a family Christmas movie rather than a coming-of-age film.

            Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Little Women may share its source material with the 1994 film but the similarities end at that. Where Swicord’s writing dulls and omits some of Alcott’s powerful scenes, Gerwig adds to the intensity of the original, resulting in a film that captures what the novel could only say between the lines. The 2019 film tells the story through multiple timelines, shifting between the ‘present’ where the girls are grown, and the ‘past’, where the girls are still children. The timelines are differentiated by their colour - the past characterised by its warm-toned nostalgia, and the present consisting of colder, more bluish tones.        

            Laura Dern’s Marmee is full of life from her first scene, exuding motherly warmth, but also the chaos of someone who has flaws, of someone who is real. When Jo talks to her mother about her struggles to control her anger, Laura Dern’s Marmee and Alcott’s Marmee become one as she says to her daughter, “I am angry nearly every day of my life” and explains her own struggles to be patient when life encourages anything but.

            Judith Fetterly, a literary scholar, wrote about what she felt were the darker undercurrents of Alcott’s children’s novel. She argues that while the overt message of the novel favours self-sacrifice on part of the women, the novel contains more subtle messages about the lack of real alternatives to marriage, especially for women (as cited in Rioux, p.180). Gerwig’s film embraces Alcott’s progressive portrayal of marriage, drawing from her other works to add layers to the original text. In a particularly poignant moment, Jo regrets turning down Laurie’s proposal, and Gerwig’s dialogue flows with emotional intensity, as Saoirse Ronan’s Jo exclaims,

I care more to be loved; I want to be loved. I just feel, like women, they have minds and souls as well as hearts, ambition and talent as well as beauty, and I’m so sick of being told that love is all a woman is fit for. But… I’m so lonely! (2019, 1:42:25)

            Gerwig’s work highlights the darker undertones that Fetterly talks about, by rewriting Alcott’s original dialogue to express the same kind of loneliness people experience even today. To be unmarried (and single) while more accepted and not at odds with being able to love, is still a lonely thing. Just as Jo watches her sisters find love and family, as one’s immediate circle moves on to that phase of their lives, one can feel the same kind of loneliness that Jo does in the 1860s.

            Armstrong and Swicord’s film ends with Professor Bhaer proposing to Jo in the rain, followed by a kiss that echoes the classic romantic ending. Bhaer is also instrumental in the publishing of Jo’s own book, unlike the original text. Gerwig on the other hand takes Alcott’s frustrating ending and turns it on its head. Towards the end of the movie, it seems like Jo is about to marry Bhaer, chasing after him in the rain. However, at the pivotal moment, the film cuts to Jo sitting in a publisher’s office, negotiating an offer for her novel. Echoing Alcott’s life, she is pushed to marry her heroine off, but she retains the copyright to her novel. Following this is a parallel set of scenes. One echoing the novel, where a presumably married Jo runs a boys school with Bhaer, and the second being Gerwig’s own addition, a scene where Jo watches her book being printed and bound. The film switches between the two, with the former concluding with the entire family gathered to celebrate Marmee’s birthday, a scene coloured with the same warm nostalgia of the past. The film then switches to the colder tones of the present, with Jo holding her novel in her arms, quietly smiling before the screen cuts to black. Gerwig’s Bhaer is not instrumental in the publishing of Jo’s book, and her clever use of form suggests that Jo ended up unmarried, just as Alcott originally wanted.

            Gerwig takes a culturally produced piece of work and integrates the habitus of the social and cultural fields of today, and continues the process of production, adding new meaning to the work through the power she has been endowed with, creating new boundaries that go beyond what Alcott had to work within.


            The fields of production and the interactions within and between these fields evolve across time, and with that so do the boundaries of power endowed to different actors. Alcott was the heretical newcomer, and while her work was not particularly revolutionary, it was disruptive in that it offered a new way to tell stories about women. The autonomy of art and literature is not a transcendent and universal condition, and as Bourdieu writes, mass production is subject to heteronomy, but it is never entirely robbed of its autonomy either (Hesmondhalgh, 2006, p. 214). The more ‘radical’ views expressed in the subtext of Little Women are the product of the little autonomy that was left to the creator. Every adaptation of Little Women is a result of the evolving nature of artistic production, and the shifting levels of  power and independence that creators are endowed with. Gerwig’s power as a creator was far beyond what Alcott ever had, and it is a product not just of a change within the artistic field, but within political and economic fields as well, a key one being the relatively higher degree of freedom and independence that women like Gerwig have in the 21st century. The process of cultural production evolved such that the author herself contributed to and helped set in motion the changes that allowed Gerwig to bring to life what I consider to be Alcott’s true vision for Little Women.