In the first episode of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women the eponymous heroines’ mother, Marmee, entreats her daughters to give up their Christmas breakfast to the Hummels, a poor German family with whom she is charitably involved. The girls, begrudging at first, do as their mother wishes and are rewarded for their sacrifice with the appearance on their own table of a veritable feast. In Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film adaptation this repast is rendered in technicolor splendor, a garish array of croquembouche towers, ham and mussels arranged to look like a giant pineapple, and half a dozen powdered-sugar-topped cakes that far surpasses the humble but hearty food they gave up.
In both the film and the novel, the girls guess first that it is the work of “fairies” or “Santa Claus,” but Gerwig’s film has the elderly servant Hannah explain that it had, in fact, been donated by their old neighbor Mr. Laurence, who was moved by their sacrifice. The scene permits a tidy moral lesson: those who give will receive in return. But what it obscures is the labor behind all that charity. The breakfast the girls give to the Hummels was made not by them but by Hannah, and while their replacement feast may have been ordered by Mr. Laurence, it was no doubt cooked by his servants. The invisibility of this labor to the March girls (and to the reader or viewer) reflects the larger class politics of both novel and film.
Arguments in support of Alcott’s book and Gerwig’s adaptation are premised on the desire to identify wholeheartedly with the characters they portray. But the femininity Alcott describes is decidedly white and upper middle class and its limited perspective often derides the lower classes. The life Marmee wishes for her girls in the novel – to be “beautiful, accomplished, and good. To be admired, loved, and respected. To have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful, pleasant lives” – will be realized when they grow to be women, but is decidedly not available to those girls and women in their employ. For just as gentility will seek its own level, so too are the poor depicted as occupying their proper place in the social order.
The encomia about Little Women — occasioned most recently by Gerwig’s film — frequently identify it as an early text celebrating women’s empowerment. But the supposition that its story is a masterpiece of proto-feminist thought does not bear out when one examines its class politics. Gerwig’s adaptation takes many liberties with its source material, but one of its most marked departures is its pervasive anxiety about the girls’ future prospects. In the book, the family’s belief in providence assures them that they will not ultimately suffer poverty, despite the loss of fortune to which they were born. And indeed, the society around them seems to conspire to preserve their former class status. The Christmas breakfast they receive from Mr. Laurence not only rewards their charity, for example; it also restores the gentility that the March girls once had. In other words, in both the book and the film, everyone – from the poor Hummels to the only temporarily embarrassed Marches – is left with the type of food appropriate for their class position.
It is true that the girls work, and that their roles as companion to Aunt March (Jo, and later Amy) or as governess to the King family (Meg) are central to their maturation. But if these are some of the “precious few” ways that, as Jo tells Aunt March in the film, a girl might make a living, it is notable that they are also roles only available to accomplished young women. What isn’t discussed is the work done by those women occupying lower social strata. For the working class characters cooking the food, for example, work is not so readily associated with feminist liberation or even personal improvement. Gerwig’s film centers the nobility of work, the importance of the life of the mind — writing, painting, teaching — as a pursuit that can free her characters from the stifling confines of nineteenth century femininity. But to apply a critique of Amy that Jo levels in Gerwig’s film, the girls all ultimately “get away with missing the hard parts of life” when it comes to labor. Like Thoreau’s idyllic solitude at Walden Pond, which was punctuated by the arrival of fresh laundry and meals from his mother, the life of the mind the sisters pursue is supported by a whole class of labor being done to support them.
We might consider, for example, Hannah Mullen, who occupies the place of nursemaid, cook, and housekeeper for the March family and who has been in their employ for the entirety of all the girls’ lives. Although Jo insists in the film that Hannah is “more family than wicked old Aunt March” she nevertheless is made to do the heavy lifting in keeping the house clean and the food cooked. Gerwig’s film obscures this labor, exchanging scenes of the older woman cleaning up the girls’ messes, nursing them, and cooking all of their food, for a picture of the older woman as something like a poor relation who lives as a full member of the household. While the Hannah of the film does fetch ice for an injured Meg and occasionally carry a dish to the table, most of her scenes involve group hugs, sitting at the table with the family or relaxing in the parlor — indulgences her nineteenth century class position would not have afforded. As the novel details, she must also support the whims of the girls’ social lives (for whom she serves as chaperone) which means she stays up late and goes out in the rain (the former of which gives her “the grumps,” the latter of which she hates as much as “a cat”).
In the film, Jo decries the tragedy of women not being valued for more than their hearts and their beauty, saying to Marmee that she wants more out of life than just marriage. But while Hannah is someone who is both unmarried and working for a living, she is not, for Gerwig or Jo, a figure of liberatory womanhood. “I know you don’t care what I think” remarks Hannah at one point in the film, and despite the girls’ protestations, she’s right. While they claim to love her, and know they cannot get along without her, the March family nevertheless maintains their superiority over a servant who will always only live to serve.
As part of its didacticism on the confines and pitfalls of marriage, the film plays up the consequences of an economically ill-advised love-match through Meg’s marriage to Mr. Brooke. It is a story of humbling one’s expectations, as Meg moves from exclaiming her desire for “heaps of money and plenty of servants so I’d never have to work again” to resolutely determining that she’d be glad to struggle and work so long as it is with John by her side. But this struggle turns out to be more than she’d bargained for, the film suggests. Cutting from the purchase of unaffordable silk into which she was goaded by rich Sallie Moffatt, to Meg wiping her hands clean on a worn apron inside her tiny house, Gerwig underscores the severity of her newfound penury. Within the nineteenth century world Alcott was depicting, though, Meg’s position would have only been a continuation of her previous life — she’s still afforded the luxury of going out shopping with Sallie in the first place, instead of say, laboring over a hot stove — the difference is that she is now in charge of the shoestring budget on which her household is run. A woman of Meg’s position would have still employed servants (she has both a cook and a maid in the novel), and as a tutor, Mr. Brooke would have still been a gentleman — indeed, the novel offers him a suite of professional opportunities in Mr. Laurence’s company when Laurie heads off to college (opportunities he protestantly turns down in favor of working his way up from the position of under-bookkeeper).
In order to sell Meg’s “poverty,” however, the film paints Mr. Brooke as of a lower class than the rest of the film’s characters. His employment is described as precarious (“I cannot afford to lose this position,” he pleads to Laurie when the latter refuses to study) and he expresses obsequious gratitude at being invited to dine at the table with the Laurences (a much more acceptable nineteenth century convention than someone of Hannah’s position doing so). Gerwig couples this lower status with a doofiness of character, making his awkward besottedness a punchline in the film. The combination of precarity and lack of refinement paints him as a member of a social class below the Marches and Laurences and reinforces the punched-up drama of Meg’s situation. While in the book Alcott makes clear that Brooke is a worthy gentleman and his shortcomings are more a matter of timing rather than of class, Gerwig’s revision of his character does capture the way Alcott’s text paints its poorer folk as less than their social superiors.
In this way, Brooke becomes an approximation for the novel’s Lotty Hummel, the eldest daughter of the poor immigrant family from their Christmas charity, who later goes on to work as Meg’s maid. When Alcott describes how Meg embarks on a disastrous attempt at jam-making, “Lotty, with Teutonic phlegm, was calmly eating bread and currant wine.” Aside from its not-so-subtle phrenology, this description reveals Lotty as someone unfazed by disorder; doubtless a better servant would have helped to get the situation in hand. Alcott is even less generous with the rest of the Hummels, who are occasionally treated to the remnants of Meg’s “cooking mania”: “Sometimes,” Alcott relates, “[Meg’s] family were invited in to help eat up a too bounteous feast of successes” but other times, “Lotty would be privately dispatched with a batch of failures, which were to be concealed from all eyes in the convenient stomachs of the little Hummels.” Yet again, what is seen as befitting the refined palates of the upper class is very different from what can be disposed of into the “convenient stomachs” of their charity cases. The humanity of the poor is so negligible as to exclude the family from the universality of the “all eyes” from which Meg’s failure must be hidden. In the film, John is similarly incapable of proper social decorum, which releases his social betters to judge him freely. Recall, for instance, when his ill-timed recommendation of the Laurence mansion’s conservatory is met only with a stunned, stony silence. It is this lack of social grace that allows the film’s viewers to sympathize with Jo’s feeling of his unworthiness, and that underscores an anxiety about his ability to rise above his current position. Meg’s love, we might interpret, is as much a form of charity as the sacrifice of her dress for his coat.
In a speech unique to the film, Amy describes the plight of women with respect to marriage, pointing out the impossibilities of supporting a genteel family through work, with special attention to the plight of rich women whose property will become their husband’s upon the signing of the marriage documents. She is far from a radical, though, and when met with the security of her family’s future through her marriage to Laurie (whom she conveniently also loves), she rests easy knowing things have turned out the way they should. Laurie, we learn from the novel, is all too willing to devote their fortune to helping those of their own social class as he proclaims that “out-and-out beggars get taken care of, but poor gentle folks fare badly” and resolves that he would prefer “to serve a decayed gentleman better than a blarnerying beggar.” It is easy to poke holes in Laurie’s supposition about the fate of the indigent poor — one might imagine that if “out-and-out beggars” were truly “taken care of” there wouldn’t be beggars at all — but his position reflects this world’s overall vision of class as a necessary order to be protected.
For all of Jo’s misgivings about the older woman, the Jo of the film ultimately ends up in a position akin to Aunt March, accompanied by a similar breed of conservativism. She intends “to make my own way in the world.” Yet it’s only thanks to Amy’s marriage (and the financial security it brings) that she is finally able to write a novel that, unlike the penny dreadful stories she’s previously sold, matches the refinement of her breeding. Aunt March tells Jo that yes, the only way to be an unmarried woman is to be rich, and so it comes to pass that once Jo inherits Plumfield from her Aunt (soon to be supplemented with the 6.6% royalties for her bestselling novel) that she is able to realize that fact. She replicates Aunt March’s form of charity too: the film’s description of a school “for [Meg’s daughter] Daisy” and son Demi and those like them (with additional underwriting by the Laurences) recreates the dynamic of a rich spinster Aunt offering limited support to her shabby-genteel relations and those like them. In this way, we see a renewed commitment to entrenching the divisions of social order. That she accompanies her semi-charitable work of running the school with the work of writing novels about nice young gentlewomen solidifies her position in a postwar professional-managerial class with the additional backing of old money and an old name. She works, yes, but only in a way that befits her station, and the liberation her work brings is thanks to, not despite, her class position.
It is perhaps Alcott’s greatest strength that she could create characters who might be vividly remembered when so fully divorced from the context in which they exist in the book. Nevertheless, it is irresponsible to weaponize one’s nostalgia to demand this text be appreciated by those it holds in condescension. To see this novel and its current film adaptation as a “future is female” paean to girl power is to ignore its support of a caste structure that allows the success of some at the expense of others.