Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel “Little Women” has enjoyed enduring popularity since it was published in 1868, both in book form and in various film adaptations. The most recent of these, directed by Greta Gerwig, will be released Dec. 25.The novel tells the story of the March sisters — Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy — who grow up during the 1860s in New England. The novel was hugely successful upon its release and, as one of the first novels for and about girls, it was a new experience for its original readers, said Marlowe Daly-Galeano, an associate professor of English at Lewis-Clark State College and secretary of the Louisa May Alcott Society, an international organization that primarily attracts Alcott scholars.
“It shook up a lot of people in 1868,” Daly-Galeano said.
For many girls, it was the first time they’d read a story in which they might see themselves. For male readers, it was a newly opened window into the female experience.
The novel also stood apart in that it wasn’t moralistic like most children’s literature of the day. There were no “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts;” if anything, the novel portrayed people who were pushing against what society expected of them.
Originally published as two parts, “Little Women” sold out almost immediately upon its release, and printers struggled to keep up with demand. The second half was published less than a year later.
Alcott preferred to write sensational fiction that sometimes portrayed drug use or deviations from sexual norms. When her publisher asked her to write the children’s novel, she agreed out of financial necessity, Daly-Galeano said, not because it was what she wanted to write. Even the story wasn’t exactly as she would’ve wanted because the publisher required that each of the sisters marry as adults.
“Alcott herself wasn’t married and felt it should be an option for women,” Daly-Galeano said. “So in the novel, the girls end up married, but she doesn’t match them up in the way that people expect.”
That decision may contribute to the novel’s popularity. By characters marrying the “wrong” person, it keeps things interesting, Daly-Galeano said. She credits the novel’s lack of specificity as another factor contributing to its ongoing success. The novel takes place in a historical context — part way through the Civil War — but it lacks excessive detail and doesn’t take on themes specific to that era. The story is ever relevant to the “current moment,” making it easily adaptable into movie form.
“Every generation has its own film version,” Daly-Galeano said.
Silent versions of the film were released in 1917 and 1918, and a 1933 version starred Katherine Hepburn. Widely-popular versions were released in 1954 and 1994, with each responding to issues of the time — particularly around the role of women in society.
Each adaptation portrays the sisters somewhat differently. Jo is who the audience most identifies with, Daly-Galeano said, so she varies the most, reflecting the current cultural perceptions of what it is to be a strong female in each version.
Members of the Louisa May Alcott Society have anticipated the release of the film for some time, Daly-Galeano said. Beyond occasional casting criticisms or speculations over what favorite scenes might not appear, people in the group are generally optimistic about the adaptation.
aly-Galeano’s own first encounter with the book didn’t sweep her off her feet. She read the novel for the first time when she was in the third or fourth grade and didn’t like it. “I thought it was kind of boring,” she said.
She came back to the novel during graduate school after reading some of Alcott’s other work, including “Hospital Sketches.” With some maturity and a wider literary perspective, she came to a deep appreciation for the work. It’s a great story, she said, but because it’s long and episodic, most people will need some time with it, rather than breezing through it before seeing the film.