A Little Woman’s Utopia

A Little Woman's Utopia: illustration by Flora Smith showing the gathering in of the harvest at Fruitlands

Astrid R. Abildgaard is a teacher and recent MA graduate in English and History from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. In this article, she argues for using utopia not as a blueprint, but as a method for finding productive desires for a more just world, even in the most unexpected places.

A Little Woman's Utopia: illustration by Flora Smith showing the gathering in of the harvest at Fruitlands
Gathering in the harvest at Fruitlands. Illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard.

When we think about the concept utopia, we usually imagine an island or a planet full of uncorrupted nature where people (or aliens!) have established a progressive social order. It is a fully physical space, even if it is imaginary. That is the type of utopia described by Thomas More when he first coined the term in 1516 by conflating the Greek eutopia (meaning good place) with outopia (meaning no place). In other words, More’s utopia is an ideal place that does not or cannot exist.

However, as the utopian theorist Ruth Levitas has pointed out in The Concept of Utopia (1990), utopia can also simply be a desire for a better way of living, which can become a catalyst for real change in some place. That type of utopia is one that can spring up in unexpected places – even in the seemingly traditional domestic novel of one of your favourite authors.

Utopian desire in… Little Women?

Ever since Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women in 1868-69, it has been a staple of children’s literature all over the world. It is a universal yet traditional girls’ story about growing up, as we follow the four March sisters’ trials and tribulations on their way to womanhood and (one might say “of course”) marriage.

The story has also maintained its popularity among adults because of its multiple screen adaptations, most recently in the form of Greta Gerwig’s 2019 box office hit.

Little Women film poster

Gerwig’s adaptation is especially interesting because it recognizes what many readers had already picked up on: that the rebellious sister Jo is really a fictional version of Alcott herself – a fact that Alcott confirmed in her journals. Jo is an aspiring writer, who proudly vows to never marry and let a man stand in the way of her career. Accordingly, the traditional ending – in which Jo marries a much older professor – has confounded readers ever since the novel’s publication.

But Gerwig changes this much contested part of the story by blurring the lines between Jo and Alcott and having Jo bypass marriage to pursue literary success like her author (who, in fact, complained in her letter that her publishers made her marry off Jo “in a very stupid style”). In this way, Gerwig highlights not only the autobiographical connection between Alcott and her protagonist, but also the independence and feminism of both. By acknowledging this autobiographical connection, we can uncover another progressive note in the novel: one of utopian desire.

Alcott’s life at Fruitlands: a fruitless utopia

To do this, we need the context of Alcott’s life and writing. Few people know that as a child in the 1840s, Alcott participated in (or rather: was the victim of) her father’s experimental utopian society called Fruitlands. This community sought to transcend society’s evils like private property, trade, animal labor and self-indulgence through a focus on philosophical self-improvement. However, it lasted only seven months before it was brought to an end by the coming of winter and the men seemingly having forgotten to do the farming necessary to feed the community.

This childhood experience stuck with Alcott, and she wrote about it in her journals from the time as well as later in a less-known satirical short story called “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873). In this story, Alcott ridicules her father’s unrelenting focus on philosophy and resulting disregard for the practical measures needed to sustain the utopian plan, which all resulted in an overburdening of the women in the community: Alcott herself, her mother and her three sisters.

The women save the community, first, by bringing in the harvest in the absence of the men, who have gone on a philosophical pilgrimage, and then by forcing the family to leave the doomed experiment and taking the practical measures to secure the family a more stable home. Alcott’s message in the satire is clear: lack of appreciation for women’s practical work is what undid Fruitlands, and women’s work for the community is what saved the family from impending dystopia.

Leaving utopia: illustration showing the removal from Fruitlands, January 1844
Removing from Fruitlands Jan. 1844. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Principles and practicality (and matriarchy)

When read in this context, Little Women displays a similar criticism of impractical utopianism. In the novel, Alcott reiterates Fruitlands’ ideals of self-improvement and self-sacrifice as guiding principles for the March family, but it is the reign of the mother, Mrs. March, that secures their practical implementation and prevents them from getting out of control. In the 11th chapter, “Experiments,” she lets her daughters skirt their chores – as an allegory to Fruitlands – letting them realize the necessity of practical work for the community on their own. Mr. March is notably absent throughout most of the story, and the happy, well-functioning home consists only of a community of women.

Alcott does not, however, let this childhood utopia stand unchallenged for long. Realistically, she depicts that the little women must grow up and eventually marry for money or love or both (or die like the sister Beth). Although Alcott idealizes the community of women throughout the novel, she seemingly does not want to get rid of men altogether; rather, she seeks to redefine their role in the household.

The three sisters that marry (Meg, Jo, and Amy) all take control of their marriages and teach their husbands how to help them with domestic chores and childcare while letting the women have their own agency and independence. Thus, Jo proclaims to her husband that their marriage will be one of equal responsibility and that she is intent on earning money herself. Alcott seems to argue that a happy marriage requires men and women to have equal responsibilities for domestic duties and equal amounts of independence in the family community. If that had been the case at Fruitlands, maybe they would have been fed, and the utopia would have had a chance.

A feminist yet practical utopian desire for gender equality

Alcott makes her desire for an altered relationship between men and women clear at the end of the story, when she depicts a functioning alternative to Fruitlands. The family celebrates Mrs. March’s birthday at Plumfield, the school Jo has established with her husband. Unlike Fruitlands, Plumfield allows for equal influence from the female and male elements (!), and Jo takes on the role of the matriarch of the community. The second half of Little Women, then, does not show a lack of utopian desire, but rather Alcott’s awareness of the limitations for women at the time.

Alcott criticizes her father’s unrealistic attempt at utopia in More’s sense while presenting an alternative in the form of feminist yet practical utopian desire for gender equality – even as she submits to the traditional ending in marriage. Thus, we can reconcile the conflict over the ending of Little Women without changing it to fit the independent feminism Alcott expressed elsewhere.

The example of Little Women reminds us not only of the feminist possibilities (and limitations) of 19th Century women’s fiction; it also shows us how we can use utopia not only as a blueprint for an ideal that is inherently impossible, but as a tool for discovering productive patterns of thought about a more just world, even in the most unexpected places.

Vintage book cover for the utopia 'Little Women'

Much of this article is based on Abildgaard, A. R. (2022). A New Biographical Interpretation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women: A Practicable Feminist Utopia? [Master’s thesis, University of Copenhagen]

Explore other guest posts on the Just Utopias blog here.