Spring in Concord has sprung, not only with budding trees and flowers, but with a plethora of activities celebrating the centennial of one of the oldest home museums in the country, Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.
Little Women discussion panel
On Thursday, March 22 I had the joy of attending the first of three presentations on Little Women, held at the First Parish Church in the center of town. This presentation featured a discussion called “Why I Wanted to Be Jo March.” moderated by a panel of noted Concord residents plus the executive director of Orchard House, Jan Turnquist.
A room full of fans
While communicating with all of you through this blog is a great pleasure, it was wonderful to be with people in person discussing our passion for Louisa. Most of the audience were senior citizens and they were a well-read group! Although I haven’t read as much as they had, still, I felt right at home.
During the evening we discussed Jo March’s significance in the lives of women. Many of the women had read Little Women before the advent of women’s liberation and found Jo’s voice to be unique and strong.
Little Women has been translated into over fifty languages and has impacted women around the world. Jan Turnquist mentioned how many female political leaders from around the world have been influenced by Jo.
One woman’s story
Jan also shared an anecdote of a Korean woman who, after landing at Logan Airport, drove straight to Orchard House because she “had to see it.” Jo March had empowered her life. She had felt like nothing in her society where all the emphasis was on the men. Yet partly due to the reading of Little Women, she grew up to be a professor. As an adult, she went through difficulties with her husband and felt deep shame. She turned back to Little Women for solace and was empowered again, this time by Marmee.
The panel discussed the universal appeal of Little Women and why, after over 150 years, the book is still so popular. Jan touched on the morality of the story as appealing to the core values in each of us. In an age where such core values are constantly being questioned, Little Women acts as a port in the storm, reminding us and comforting us.
Jo, as an example, was a deeply moral girl who was flawed. She was ornery, impatient and outspoken to the point of being rude. She had a violent temper that got her into trouble as evidenced by Chapter 8, “Jo Meets Apollyon.” The authenticity of her humanity rang true with readers as opposed to the “perfect” children depicted in other stories of the time. Jan mentioned an actual book called Goody Two-Shoes as an example.
The nature of sisterhood and the unique bond of sisters was also suggested as a reason for Little Women‘s enduring popularity. Several of us shared stories of our relationships with our sisters and how Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy mirrored those relationships.
Another reason for the appeal of Jo March is the fact that she didn’t fit in with women of her time; she felt “odd,” “queer.” Yet there was a vigorous spark in Jo that empowered her, enabling her to strike out on her own, writing books and choosing to marry for love.
This point resonated with the women in the room, and with me as well. I have often felt “odd” (and having a daughter who is very mainstream, reinforces that feeling daily! :-)). Yet that “oddness” is also a source of pride and often empowers me to make my mark in the world.
The strength of family was also mentioned as a reason for Little Women‘s appeal. Much is made of Louisa’s dedication to her family and her role as chief caretaker and breadwinner. She displayed mixed feelings in her journal writings of this vocation, chaffing to be free yet compelled to take care of them.
Give and take
Jan reminded us, however, that it was not a one-way street. She pointed out that Louisa’s family was always there for her and knew exactly how to take care of her when she needed them most. Whether it was nursing her back to health after her stint as a Civil War nurse, or respecting her moods and needs to be alone to write (as evidenced by Louisa’s use of the “mood pillow”), Louisa received as much as she gave.
Learning to appreciate the power of Little Women
I walked into that discussion eager to fellowship with Louisa enthusiasts and walked away with a much deeper understanding of why Little Women is such an important book.
A world full of Jo Marches
Having read Little Women as an adult back in 2010, I couldn’t truly appreciate the significance of the book nor its heroine, Jo March. I had chiefly immersed myself in Louisa’s life which blunted Jo’s power for me. And today, the world is full of Jo Marches, thanks to great strides in women’s rights. Jo has perhaps, lost some of that uniqueness.
Most of the women in this group, however, met Jo March before women’s liberation took off in the 1960s. There were few role models for women as unique and empowering as Jo and listening to their stories helped me understand better Jo’s influence.
Is Jo losing her significance?
It made me wonder if Jo will continue to be such a powerful influence. Perhaps in America, she won’t be. But Little Women is still read around the world and judging by the reaction of that Korean woman, there are still many women who will benefit from Jo’s example.
Perhaps not …
It made me think how Little Women could even be considered subversive in cultures where women are still so oppressed. Here again is another example of Louisa May Alcott’s genius in mixing provocative ideas into a sugary mix. No one would ever suspect the power that lies in this simple moral story of four sisters growing up in 19th century New England.
If you’re in the area and interested in attending the other two presentations in the series, visit the Events page on this blog for more information.
Has Jo influenced your life? How?
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