Stacy Schiff's editorial Our Little Women Problem from Saturday's New York Times asks whether or not we fans of Little Women made too much a feminist hero of Jo.
We probably did as young readers, but only because we were young readers. The point of view of the narrator seems to hold more sway over a younger reader. We were told to admire Jo's spunky, intelligent personality and we did. Adult readers know from experience not to trust the narrator. There are just too many tricksters amongst the classics.
I do remember being troubled by one central scene of Little Women, even as a child. I was and am still disturbed by Jo's decision to stop writing "sensational" stories solely because of Professor Bhaer's "intellectual" disapproval. He had no money and she had no money. Her "silly" stories supported her. I never could understand what was wrong with that.
(In reading this passage over again now I am also struck by the fact that Professor Bhaer first finds Jo attractive when she is holding a child on her lap.)
I always have to remind myself that Little Women was written in the nineteenth century and the fact that the book still speaks to girls and tells them it is okay to be bold and intellectually curious is a good thing. Jo's compromises were characteristic of her era and remind me of how my students react year after year to the epilogue in War and Peace in which we are told by a god-like narrator that our favorite tough, bright, beautiful Natasha is now a chubby matron who likes nothing more than to mother her children.
As one of my favorite profs always said, "Whad'ya want? For her to become a lawyer in St. Petersburg?"
Well yes and no.