The March Sisters: A Family of Little Women

NOV / DEC 2014: BY RACHEL SEXTON

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Everyone has a family, and whether we spend a lot of our lives with them or not, they leave some sort of impact on us. A lot of literature and writing for the screen explores this topic—both the good and bad. As the holidays approach, this is the time of year that family comes to the fore. A wonderful film adaptation of a classic story with a family focus happens to have a significant portion of scenes with holiday settings and is an entertaining movie to boot. Little Women demonstrates the unity of family by detailing the bond between the March sisters despite their differing personalities.

The novel was written by Louisa May Alcott and published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. It was such a success that sequels Little Men and Jo’s Boys followed. It chronicled the coming of age journeys of the March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—as they become women under the guidance of their mother Marmee. A lot of this occurs during the absence of their father as he is away serving as a chaplain in the Civil War; their neighbor Theodore Laurence (whom they call Laurie) comes to play a major part in their lives as well. Their experiences, interactions with each other, and love for each other do the most to shape all four March sisters. A film directed by Gillian Armstrong released in 1994 represents this adeptly.

Josephine March, called Jo by everyone, is the central character. She is the second of the four girls and the most tomboyish of the group. She’s willful, stubborn, and has a temper that she tries to control. Jo is the writer of the family as well, regularly giving herself over to a storytelling trance as tales of sensationalism pour out onto the page. She also writes Little Women itself toward the end of novel. This character is believed to stand in for author Alcott herself (with the other three being based on her real-life sisters, giving the whole novel an autobiographical tone). The second half shifts more toward romantic lives for the sisters. For Jo, this means refusing Laurie’s proposal of marriage and eventually meeting and falling in love with an older German professor, Friederich Bhaer. She also inherits a large home called Plumfield from a wealthy great aunt and turns it into a school. Jo tends to have the most volatile relationships with her sisters. She disagrees with Meg about her choice of a spouse and, in a particularly memorable scene, fights fiercely with Amy when she burns one of Jo’s manuscripts during a childish temper tantrum. Their feud only ends when Amy almost drowns by falling through the ice of a frozen pond.

Meg is the oldest, and has a conservative temperament guided by propriety. She has the most memory of the time when the March family, which is now genteel in their poverty, actually had money and consequence, and she longs for those days again. An incident at a friend’s debut ball shows this. Meg allows the girls there to dress her up and she attains a false air of flirtation but soon realizes that real substance lays elsewhere. She marries Laurie’s serious and solid tutor, John Brooke, and has twins Daisy and Demi before the end of the story. Another incident from the novel which is not included in the 1994 film shows Meg’s adjustment to domestic duties after her marriage. This is indicative of her character, which is very geared toward being dutiful and traditional.

The third sister in the March family is Beth, who is defined by pure goodness perhaps more than any other character. She is above all things kind, gentle, sweet, and shy. Beth is quiet and very centered on home life, never conceiving far away ambitions like the other girls. The charitable work that forms a large part of the March family life manifests mostly through Beth. She is visiting the poor and sick Hummel family when she contracts scarlet fever from them. She recovers but is never the same and passes away at far too young an age. Beth is beloved to all her sisters; she acts as a peacemaker and is closest to Jo. Her death is a devastating blow to the entire family. She never gets a chance to enter the realm of romance like her sisters but Beth’s spirit is a positive presence throughout the entire story.

Though she is the youngest, Amy receives just as much of a full personality as her sisters. Though petted as a child, she eventually grows less vain and self-centered. Like Jo, Amy has a creative outlet, though hers is painting and not writing. Amy is the most romantic and dreamy of the March sisters. Her attachment to material things is stronger than any of her sisters, as evidenced when she desperately wants limes to trade at school but ends up being punished because they are forbidden. Her moral foundation, gleaned from her parents and sisters, is strong enough to stop her from marrying for wealth and she instead marries Laurie for love.

In the 1994 film, the characters are played by Winona Ryder (Jo), Trini Alvarado (Meg), Claire Danes (Beth), and Kirsten Dunst as a child and Samantha Mathis as an adult (Amy). They are all talented actresses who create an atmosphere of familial warmth and love. Ryder was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as well. And the on-screen bar for performance is already set high by Susan Sarandon, who plays Marmee. You will want to rush out to serve at a soup kitchen immediately and then come home to sing Christmas carols after viewing this adaptation.

Little Women is a classic piece of literature and has a strong message of family unity as the vastly different personalities of the March sisters bond into a cohesive and loving force. Though there are references to this novel elsewhere in popular culture (the episode of Friends where Joey reads Little Women comes to mind), the original work, and by extension the 1994 film adaptation, must be enjoyed to understand the strength of family at the heart of the story, particularly at this time of year. ♥

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Rachel Sexton is from Ohio and has a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Arts. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. But what you really need to know is that she has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life and her favorite fandoms are Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jane Austen, and Once Upon a Time. Plus, she is most described as quiet and her biggest vice is cupcakes. Oh, and her main hobby is editing fan videos.

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