The Best Part of “Little Women” Is That It Contains No Bad Men
Alcott gives us a simple and revolutionary utopia: a world in which women aren't threatened or abused
I love reading novels about bad men. At least I thought I did.
A few weeks ago, I watched Greta Gerwig’s Little Women with a close friend. When I left the theater, eyes pink and puffy from crying—if you watch Little Women and you don’t cry, were you even watching?—I felt overwhelmed with an unidentifiable emotion. Returning to the real world after watching the film felt like stepping out of a hot bath and into a cold room. As I opened the passenger door to my friend’s car, something about the film struck me: all of the male characters were shockingly good. Nowhere in the story was a woman ever fearful for her life or safety at the hands of a man. I realized that by the time the credits rolled, I’d already started to feel homesick for a world I’ll never know—one that Alcott created and Gerwig expanded upon—in which women are universally safe from the threat of violent misogyny.
After watching Gerwig’s adaptation, I decided to reread the novel. Was it possible that there wasn’t a single bad man in its entire 132,000 words? If so, would the novel bore me?? Nearly two decades had passed since I’d last read it and in the interim I’d consumed a steady diet of fiction about terrible men. From classics like Lolita to more recent titles like Jami Attenberg’s All This Could be Yours, I can’t seem to get enough of the bad guys.
Over the past decade or so, researchers around the world have been conducting experiments on how reading fiction correlates with various traits in readers. Many of the studies suggest that people who read fiction exhibit higher levels of empathy. As an avid fiction reader, I’d like to think that I’ve cultivated a high level of empathy for the stories’ heroes and victims. But after a recent examination of my Goodreads history, I began to wonder: am I reading fiction to empathize with the good guys, or to understand the bad guys?
If I’m not consciously reading these books to empathize with the villains, then maybe I’ve been reading them to assuage my fears that reality is worse than fiction. (Though I can’t say that I’ve ever read a novel about a reality TV star slash con artist slash accused rapist who winds up president and threatens to undermine the basic tenets of democracy. But wouldn’t that be nuts?!) Whenever I feel like a real world villain wins—Donald Trump elected, Bret Kavanaugh confirmed, another man from the Shitty Media Men list getting away with more Shitty Media Men shit—I turn to books. If only I can find something more sinister on the page, maybe I’ll feel better about the real world. But is this the best coping mechanism?
Enter: Little Women, a novel that doesn’t present bad guys for the hero to fight and overcome, but instead presents only good guys (and gals) fighting their inner demons, learning to deal with grief, and facing a bloody war that threatens their country and family. Without its reliance on a traditional male villain, the novel becomes a character study on goodness. As a film, I’d watched rapt, but would the book have the same emotional impact on me? After all these years of binge-reading Lolita and co., I wondered if I’d warped my literary preferences the same way that, say, eating too many Flamin’ Hot Cheetos can dull your taste buds. I decided that there was only one way to find out.
Tucked under a fleecy blanket, I began to re-read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women—and once I started, I had a difficult time putting it down. In the novel, I found that all of the primary male characters are forces for good, just like they are in the film. They’re not perfect—Mr. March, Laurie, Mr. Laurence, John Brooke, and Professor Bhaer are all complex characters—but none of their flaws include violence. (The only instance of violence occurs when Amy’s teacher, Mr. Davis, catches her with forbidden pickled limes, strikes her hand with “several tingling blows on her little palm,” and humiliates her in front of her classmates.)
Alcott occasionally slips into a sort of narrative intrusion, abandoning the novel’s close third person point of view and in this way she (or the narrator) states the novel’s thesis about how men can and should be morally upright citizens. In a scene in which Laurie tries to move on after being rejected by Jo, Alcott interrupts and states:
Very likely some Mrs. Grundy will observe, “I don’t believe it; boys will be boys, young men must sow their wild oats, and women must not expect miracles.” I dare say you don’t, Mrs. Grudy, but it’s true nevertheless. Women work a good many miracles, and I have a persuasion that they may perform even that of raising the standard of manhood by refusing to echo such sayings. Let the boys be boys,—the longer the better,—and let the young men sow their wild oats if they must,—but mothers, sisters, and friends may help to make the crop a small one, and keep many tares from spoiling the harvest, by believing,—and showing that they believe,—in the possibility of loyalty to the virtues which make men manliest in good women’s eyes.
Alcott’s refusal to accept the idea that “boys will be boys” in the late 1860s strikes me as quite radical, for the “boys will be boys” sentiment was one I heard throughout my childhood in the 1990s. In Little Women, Alcott hasn’t created a utopia of perfect men, but rather a society in which all people hold each other accountable for being good. Never have I ever loved a narrative intrusion this much.
In her recent opinion piece “I Don’t Want to Be the Strong Female Lead” published in The New York Times, filmmaker Brit Marling explains that there’s a shortage of stories—in both film and literature—about strong women who are praised for their feminine force. She notes that the Strong Female Lead is often presented as a better alternative to many traditional female character archetypes, but that it still exists within the confines of the patriarchy. She writes:
It would be hard to deny that there is nutrition to be drawn from any narrative that gives women agency and voice in a world where they are most often without both. But the more I acted the Strong Female Lead, the more I became aware of the narrow specificity of the characters’ strengths — physical prowess, linear ambition, focused rationality. Masculine modalities of power.
Instead of accepting the Strong Female Lead as the best alternative to roles like “Dave’s wife” or “robot girl,” Marling began to write speculative fiction and populated her worlds with characters whose strength comes from their feminine force.
“Worldbuilding” is a term often used to describe the author’s process of creating setting in fantasy and science fiction. But worldbuilding is a critical part of writing any novel. The author is like a photographer, choosing where to focus and how to frame the story. In Little Women, Alcott chooses to focus on female characters and creates a value system in which being a good person is the highest possible feat.
Marling writes, “It’s difficult for us to imagine femininity itself—empathy, vulnerability, listening—as strong. When I look at the world our stories have helped us envision and then erect, these are the very qualities that have been vanquished in favor of an overwrought masculinity.” In Little Women, as the characters strive to better themselves, the very qualities that Marling describes are presented as strengths.
Though Mr. March is physically absent at the beginning of the novel—serving as a chaplain for the Union army—his presence is felt throughout both the film and the book, beginning on the very first page. And while he’s celebrated for his service, he is primarily celebrated for his devotion to his family, the kind words he sends in letters, and the support he provides to Marmee (Mrs. March), especially in helping her manager her temper.
The reader doesn’t meet the other male characters until they intersect with the March sisters, but that’s because the four sisters are the protagonists—it’s called Little Women, after all. When the reader does meet them, it’s clear that they are similar to the female characters in their attempts to be good. Mr. Laurence is praised for his generosity rather than his wealth. And then there’s John Brooke, Laurie’s tutor who falls in love with Meg. John accompanies Marmee to Washington when Mr. March is ill, a kindness for which the girls dub him “Mr. Greatheart.”
Alcott paints the male and female characters with the same brush, as complex figures who are striving to be good. Alcott writes that Laurie
had temptations enough from without and from within, but he withstood them pretty well,—for as much as he valued liberty he valued good faith and confidence more,—so his promise to his grandfather, and his desire to be able to look honestly into the eyes of the women who loved him, and say, “All’s well,” kept him safe and steady.
He withstood his temptations “pretty well,” which is really all any of us can hope to achieve. Like the men in the novel, the women are flawed—who can forget the moment in which Amy burns Jo’s manuscript (the horror!)—but they’re perpetually trying to better themselves. Jo, like Marmee, strives to manage a fiery temper and Meg learns to feels satisfied without fancy things. After Beth dies, Jo struggles and Alcott writes:
Now, if [Jo] had been the heroine of a moral storybook, she ought at this period of her life to have become quite saintly, renounced the world, and gone about doing good in a mortified bonnet, with tracts in her pocket. But you see Jo wasn’t a heroine; she was only a struggling human girl, like hundreds of others, and she just acted out her nature, being sad, cross, listless or energetic, as the mood suggested.
Alcott reminds the reader that Little Women isn’t a “moral storybook” and that its world isn’t a utopia, but nevertheless, the characters are good because they try to be.
Little Women is not dull for its cast of overwhelmingly good male characters. It doesn’t need a sinister male antagonist because the story contains other antagonistic forces: illness and war. The threat of mortality is ever-present in the pages of the novel. And the book does acknowledge the existence of bad men, but at a remove. Alcott references villains in embedded stories within the story, specifically in a play that Jo writes for the sisters to perform on Christmas, as well as in a storytelling game the sisters and their friends play. Similar to these embedded villains, Alcott includes oblique references to troubled boys in the March sisters’ world, like the King children, “wicked brothers” who do “wicked things” such as gambling, running away, and forging their father’s name. Perhaps these references to external evil are Alcott’s way of reminding the reader that evil exists, but so does safety. Of course there are threats, but it’s threats that make safety all the more sacred.
Revisiting Little Women changed my mind about the necessity of the violent male villain in fiction. Though it isn’t necessarily a believable picture of gender politics, Little Women presents a world without violence against women, an idea that’s both revolutionary and incredibly simple. I’m sure that I’ll always read books—and news stories—about the Humbert Humberts and Harvey Weinsteins of the world, but I no longer think the bad-man-as-antagonist is a necessary element for creating tension.
When I finished rereading Little Women, I felt a similar sensation to what I’d felt after watching the film. I was already missing the safe space I’d found in its pages, but was comforted but the knowledge that I can return to it whenever I need to get away from the reality of today’s world. Maybe I don’t need to exclusively read books about misogynists because there is no making sense of them. No amount of empathy is going to make me understand a rape or a murder, and it’s alright to change the channel every so often. Whether the bad guy “gets away with it” or rots in a jail cell, the crime has already been committed. As it turns out, stories can exist (and entertain! and delight!) without such crimes. Instead of escaping the villain, when I read a book like Little Women, I’m escaping the violence of the patriarchy. And I can’t say that I miss it.