Those who treasure Little Women often praise the rebel at its center or its theme of sisterhood. Louisa May Alcott helped build domestic realism with a novel set largely around a Massachusetts hearth during the Civil War, but she also might be credited with having the audacity to write a book in which young women provide the main action. Sisters mending dresses, cheering up neighbors, writing their own newspaper, and examining their moral lives are all shown to be as worthy of fiction as, say, paddling a raft down a river or hunting a white whale. Little Women not only provided an alternative to novels by Mark Twain and Herman Melville at the time but also paved the way for twenty-first-century sister-centric stories as otherwise different from it as Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and the Disney movie Frozen.
Sisterly love shapes these works, just as it formed the core of a nineteenth-century bestseller. Little Women begins in a parlor, but there’s talk of the greater world among the four sisters (who were loosely based on the real-life Alcott siblings Anna, Louisa, Elizabeth, and May). The oldest March sister, Meg, is fairly conventional for the time in her aspiration for a life with a husband and children. Beth is the quiet one whose nurturing personality reflects traditional mores. On the other hand, the youngest March sister, Amy, dreams of romance, money, and success as an artist. And Louisa May Alcott, who was called Lu by her sisters, gave to her most autobiographical character, Jo, another two-letter name that blurs gender. The two most ambitious sisters often clash. Amy, in a jealous pique, burns Jo’s only copy of a manuscript. Jo retaliates when, while skating on the Concord River, she chooses not to warn Amy about the thin ice.
Amy’s close escape from tragedy, though, makes Jo resolve to watch her temper. While some readers love Jo’s anger more than her efforts to tame it, the novel is shaped both by Jo’s desire to claim the world as her limitless own and by her efforts to learn from her meekest sister, Beth, to accept life’s limits. Beth never asks for much more than music, cats, and sisterly affection. Illness leaves her in an increasingly small world, and when her sewing needle feels too heavy, rather than rail against the injustice of it all, she puts down her work. Jo had always been inspired by Beth to do good in the world, and the loss of her sister heightens this resolve.
Hunger Games protagonist Katniss Everdeen is as smart, sharp-tongued, strong-legged, and gray-eyed as Jo March. Like Jo, Katniss feels at odds with society and lives in poverty (which, in both cases, is synonymous with goodness). With absent fathers, both teenagers are forced to grow up fast and take on more traditionally male roles.
Jo tries to control her anger. Katniss means to use hers. But like Jo, her edges are softened by her tenderness toward a younger, shyer sister. The first sentence of The Hunger Games (“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold”) sets Prim’s absence as a chill where there was once warmth. The sisters’ relationship comes first. And at the beginning of the second chapter, Katniss puts her life on the line to save her sister by volunteering for the Games. It’s a heroic gesture that Jo might have wished she could have made instead of powerlessly watching her own beloved sister waste away. Through her actions in the Games, Katniss is striving to save her district, but it’s her devotion to her sister that drives that quest. And then in the arena, Rue becomes a sister-stand-in — though Katniss can’t save her.
Jo takes the death of her sister Beth as inspiration to be a better person. For Katniss, the death of Rue renews her resolve to survive. She’d promised Prim that she’d try to make it through the games, but vows to Rue that she will win. The same anger that Jo March tries to hide fuels the grand deeds of Katniss.
And then there’s Elsa from Disney’s 2013 blockbuster animated movie, Frozen. Her emotions — including anger — are what trigger her magical powers, powers that can destroy and which Elsa cannot control. In order to protect her younger sister, Anna, she shuts Anna out of her life, but with the good intention of saving, not hurting, her.
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Little Women was first published in two parts. After the first sold briskly, the editor received letters from fans anxious for the March sisters to find marital matches. Next-door neighbor Laurie, with a name as androgynous as Jo’s, was likely not created by Alcott with romance in mind. Rather, his presence was one of contrast: he could suggest what wealth could and couldn’t provide in a novel about overcoming various forms of vanity and timidity, as well as tendencies to conform to society’s expectations.
When Alcott’s editor told the unmarried and independent author that even a Bildungsroman needs weddings, she resisted, complained…and eventually acquiesced. But instead of having Jo marry the rich and handsome boy next door, Alcott shows her as finding some happiness with a poor and untidy professor who often carried oranges in his pockets and children on his shoulders. The class wars of The Hunger Games echo this ideal, more so than the castle-centric Frozen; but even in that movie, the honorable man is the humble ice-cutter, not the prince.
Alcott made Jo follow heterosexual norms so her novel would be a commercial success. While the heroine of The Hunger Games is pressured to preen and swoon in order to stay alive, romance is depicted as a means of survival more than an end in itself. And in Frozen, romance seems there for the taking with Anna, but Hans is revealed to be a dishonorable Prince Charming, while a husband is the last thing on Elsa’s mind.
In Frozen, instead of one powerful sister, we have two, each of whom strives to save the other. After a song or two, the sisters are shown as teenagers who are no longer close, but bonded by childhood memories (and their love of chocolate). The older sister who will inherit the throne is mature and composed, if restrained. Elsa’s ability to create ice and snow is both beautiful and dangerous, a power she learns to fear and hide. As in Little Women and The Hunger Games, anger about life’s givens is a theme. Elsa tries to keep her sister and the kingdom safe by staying away.
Elsa, who gets the better clothes and the throne, may be the character more fans want to be (judging by how many of them belt out “Let It Go” compared to, say, “For the First Time in Forever”), while her younger sister, Anna, may be more like the girls most viewers are. Warmhearted Anna strides or sleighs through brutal winter weather in an attempt to find her sister, but she can be awkward, and she makes mistakes. Her biggest blunder is choosing a handsome prince rather than the guy with the friendly reindeer whom she can count on. The latter, Kristoff, is someone Anna can be herself with, as Jo once could be with Laurie and Katniss felt growing up with Gale. Kristoff helps Anna even as she pursues a spectacularly devious prince.
But things turn out well, as Anna puts her life at risk and learns that an act of true love can save sisters and the world. Frozen’s ending gives a satisfying twist on romantic tropes, though some find it to be corny or predictable. Maybe a bit, but I was happy to get beyond “Reader, I married him.” From the animation giant that built a fortune on the life-changing kisses of bland princes, we get true love in the form of sisters saving sisters.
The film ends with the princesses and townspeople skating around the courtyard. In this fairy tale, we’re never going to find out if the sisters will ever talk about the giant snow monster Elsa set after Anna — that time she almost died — or whether Anna will ever stop making excuses for Elsa by saying, “She didn’t mean it.” Frozen has wildly popular songs and a cheerful snowman and trolls, but Little Women doesn’t glide over the jealousy and revenge shown when Jo March turns her back while her manuscript-burning sister skates on thin ice. Little Women acknowledges that sisterhood is imperfect. Sisters can get in each other’s way, but also forgive, learn from each other, and eventually cheer for each other’s success.
The novel may seem sentimental to today’s readers, but it’s also subversive, which is likely what has kept it in print for 148 years. In its various incarnations, Little Women has become a myth that subverts Cinderella’s sniping stepsisters, who may come to mind when we hear gendered judgments against women who struggle to rise, or words like bossy instead of confident aimed at competent women. Little Women led the way, but I’m grateful for every work that shows sisters who go forth with pen and paper, bow and arrows, or boots and cape to battle injustice, not each other.
From the November/December 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.