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The 1994 adaptation of Little Women—the one starring Winona Ryder as the indomitable Jo March*–will always be my favorite Little Women. Watching it while we prepare our Thanksgiving dinner every year is an important family tradition of ours, and that’s just one of many reasons it’ll always have a special place in my heart.
That said, I won’t be comparing and contrasting that Little Women with Greta Gerwig’s beautiful 2019 adaptation* in this particular post! That would be like comparing apples and oranges. Besides, the new movie–with Saorise Ronan playing an incredible Jo–more adequately highlights the topic of this final installment of my “Women of Substance” series: the unique capaciousness of womanhood.
Pretty much everyone is familiar with the story of Little Women: “Four young sisters with their own distinct personalities and ambitions persevere through the trials and tribulations of life during the American Civil War.” For author Louisa May Alcott, the story was semi-autobiographical. For readers (and moviegoers), it remains a timeless tale where you’ll almost certainly relate to at least one of the heroines.
This most recent retelling of the story*, however, focuses on Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy’s dreams, and how the obstacles and character flaws they face will affect the outcome of those dreams. They live in a world where feminine value lies in marital status, and each of the sisters must deal with that harsh reality in her own way. Yet as difficult as it often is, they’re more than capable of making the most of their situations…and their desires.
Meg wants to be a homemaker. Jo wants to do great things with her stories. Beth is content to stay at home with her parents. Amy is, perhaps, the most ambitious of them all, hoping to become a great artist and marry well enough to support her mother and sisters one day.
Some might look at these girls and say, “Well, Meg’s dream is clearly superior–she wants to be a wife and a mother.” Others consider Jo’s idealism and assume, “Well, she wants to change the world with her art–she is the best of them all.” Others prefer Beth’s peaceful, almost monastic lifestyle, and still others get on the more pragmatic Amy train.
But here’s the thing. Each sister’s dreams are all valid. None of them are more worthy or superior to the other. “Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant,” Meg tells Jo on the morning of her wedding. What a wonderful world it would be if more people took those words to heart!
Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as ‘just’ hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as ‘just’ beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is ‘just’ all a woman is fit for!
Yet even as the girls chase their dreams and the desires of their hearts–with a few stumbles along the way–they’re always reminded of one thing: their dreams are not for themselves alone. None of them will ever reach their full potential in self-absorbed isolation.
Meg does get her happily-ever-after with her husband and two babies…but her happiness (and that of her home) sometimes requires cheerful self-sacrifice. Beth does remain safe and snug within the comforts of home…yet even in her tiny sphere she gives back to those around her. Amy finds both the financial security and artistic fulfillment she craves…but she also gives Laurie the love and the home he so desperately needs and wants.
And as for Jo, the central heroine of Little Women*, she does end up writing all those great, impactful words…but only because she takes Beth’s words to heart: “Do what Marmee taught us to do. Do it for someone else.“
The word Capacious means, “having a lot of space inside”–but its Latin roots offer a more interesting take: it comes from the term “capax,” which means capable. When I speak of the “capaciousness” of womanhood, I’m talking about our God-given complexity and strength. As the March Girls prove so compellingly, women are capable of so much…because God made us capable. We are nurturers, cultivators, and civilizers, and we take those powers (for powers they most certainly are!) into whatever arena or sphere God has given each of us. Some of us, like Meg and Amy, are destined for marriage and motherhood, and those will always be beautiful callings. But those of us who walk roads less traveled are no less capable of nurturing, cultivating, and civilizing…and we’re no less beautiful, either.
“A woman of substance can make a life for herself anywhere.”
I hope that these past few articles examining the stories of Circe, Ophelia, and the March Sisters have encouraged all my readers–not just the ladies!–to make good use of your minds, your souls, and your hearts. May we all live fully and bravely within the spaces God has given us!