150 Years in Print, Little Women Still Inspires

Oct 4, 2018

It’s been 150 years since Little Women went on sale, and while the publisher of Louisa May Alcott’s classic didn’t think it would sell well, the novel has been in print ever since.  It’s been translated into dozens of languages, turned into wven films, a musical, an opera and several plays.  This year one Virginia school celebrated the story – finding themes still resonate in the 21st century.

Students at the Village School in Charlottesville perform a scene from Little Women.
Credit Eliza O'Connell

You might not expect a 19th century novel to hold much appeal for a group of middle school girls today, but Little Women sparked lively conversation during a break at the Village School in Charlottesville.  Students were assigned to read the civil-war era story over the summer, to discover what society expected of females back then and what gender inequality remain. We spoke with 10-year-old Shreya, Dahlia, Elizabeth, Cate and Abby, who offered these remarks.

“They sort of thought women should do the housework."

"Women could not vote, and they were expected to be dependent on men, and I think there’s still some injustice in the world for women and girls."

"There’s still some unequality between women and men, and I think Little Women inspires women to feel like they can be free and do whatever they want."

“It was inspiring to me and my dad read it with me."

"All of the girls were independent. They were themselves, and they didn’t listen to what other people said about them, and they did what they wanted and not what other people wanted them to do."

The Village School celebrate 150 years of Little Women with a range of activities.
Credit Liza O'Connell

" It encouraged me to speak out and be myself.  Maybe I could try writing plays, because Jo’s creativity and imagination are just really cool, and I want to develop that sort of imagination.  I would like to write seriously.”

And they marveled at how difficult and different life once was in this country.

"There were sicknesses that didn’t have cures yet."

"They could live off the land and they didn’t have to depend on technology and if they didn’t know something, they’d look it up in a book or ask someone else.  They wouldn’t look it up on Google or on a computer." 

Village School co-founder Proal Hartwell teaches English to the 77 girls who attend.  He sees Little Women as a turning point for females in modern literature. 

“It’s an important book, because it’s really the first novel that shows a woman earning her living – the first American novel maybe, and supporting the family.”

And despite the fast pace of modern society, he finds girls today are drawn into the quiet, slow-moving story.

“They are often surprised that a book that doesn’t have a lot of external action can be so absorbing to them and engaging.”

One reason, he adds – students can identify with Alcott’s characters.  They told us:

“My favorite character was Jo, because I have long hair and I love to read and write, and so does she."

" I really loved Meg." 

"I liked Beth, because I just felt like she represented a really good, sweet-hearted person."

" I liked Jo.  She was the most independent.  She spoke out against what she thought was wrong.”

The head of Village School, Eliza O’Connell says Little Women is a challenging read with cultural references like Pilgrim’s Progress that is unfamiliar to kids today.

“It in some ways forces parents to get involved with the reading," she says, "so it allows for a lot of great discussion between the parent and the daughter who’s reading it.”

Students celebrated the book by seeing one of the films based on Alcott’s story, by parading along the downtown mall in period costumes, making silhouettes, handkerchief dolls and other crafts of the era and by watching scenes from the book performed by classmates.

But perhaps the thing students, faculty members and parents like best about Little Women is its message.  The Village School was founded 24 years ago when books like Reviving Ophelia and Failing at Fairness suggested girls in middle school felt pressure to hide their intelligence, creativity, individuality and ambition.  For Jo, Meg, Beth, Amy and students here, that’s not happening.