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The Lion and the Unicorn 24.1 (2000) 81-96

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The Present Reshaping the Past Reshaping the Present:
Film Versions of Little Women

Robyn McCallum

Elaine Showalter has described Alcott's Little Women as "the American female myth" that has "shaped the lives of women of many times and places who read [it], never forgot it, and had the freedom to make different choices" (64). There have been numerous film, television, and stage adaptations of the novel, including three major film adaptations in 1933, 1949, and 1994. Each successive film version has reshaped Alcott's story of female maturation according to changing ideological forces that shape women's lives, but, at the same time, the text from the past interrogates the presuppositions of the cultures that retell it. Shifting cultural paradigms, especially in the last thirty years, have had the effect of modifying ideologies of masculinity as well as femininity, and changing images of femininity in literature and film are in concert with changing images of masculinity. This observation has particular pertinence to a study of film adaptations of Little Women, a novel in which constructions of masculinity are implicitly questioned in conjunction with Alcott's explicit concerns with social constraints on femininity and female maturation. As many critics have noted, Jo March, the central character of Alcott's novel, is shaped in relation to the two primary male characters, Laurie and Frederick Bhaer: Her "masculinity" is counterpointed by their "femininity" (see Keyser and Reardon). As successive film versions of the novel rethink Jo's gender, her male counterparts are also regendered accordingly. Each film reflects the kinds of choices and freedoms preferred by the culture that produces it and in doing so, gives voice to ideologies that determine dominant images of femininity and masculinity, and female and male maturation. My paper examines the impact of changing ideologies on reshapings of Little Women into film, focusing especially on filmic representations of Jo, Laurie, and Professor Bhaer. [End Page 81]

Little Women is a generically hybridized novel: It combines the genres of domestic realism, romance, and the female bildungsroman. These genres blend and clash, producing ideological tensions. The novel presents particular problems for contemporary feminist criticism and has generated a range of disparate and often contradictory readings. 1 It has been seen as a subversive text that undermines traditional gender paradigms through its use of the female bildungsroman genre; its central character Jo, Alcott's wild, assertive, and independent heroine who vows never to marry and aims to become a successful writer and use her writing to gain financial independence; its vision of a self-sustaining female community (Auerbach; see also Langland); and, to a lesser extent, its construction of "feminized" male characters, Laurie and Professor Bhaer (see Keyser and Reardon). On the other hand, an emphasis on generic conventions characteristic of domestic realism and romance, especially the "marriage plot," generates readings that see it as a capitulation "to middle-class ideals of female self-sacrifice," passivity, submission, self-effacement, and self-abnegation (Showalter 1991:57; see also Clark; Estes and Lant; Gaard). Both readings are difficult to sustain: A positive assessment of Alcott's "feminism" and social subversion must reconcile the values it espouses with the close of the novel, in which Jo marries and ceases to write and Laurie gives up his ("feminine") musical aspirations. Negative criticisms frequently ignore the social context in which Alcott's "feminist" concerns were shaped, "demanding from Alcott's nineteenth century female bildungsroman a twentieth century feminist ending of separation and autonomy" (Showalter 1991:57). A third approach sees an "ambivalence" lying at the heart of the novel (Langland 112; see also Bassil, Estes and Lant, Murphy, Bernstein, Keyser). In general, this ambivalence is seen as arising out of a tension between the surface narrative that "asserts that marriage is women's fulfilment" (Langland 118) and "prescribes a model of self-sacrificing femininity" (119) and of active empowered masculinity, and a subtext that expresses either "a vision of female fulfilment in a community of women," as in Langland...


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