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The Role of Mothers and Mother-Daughter Relationships in Little Women

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Margaret “Meg” March Brook, the oldest March sister in Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women, is demure yet fierce in her loyalty. Although she cares too much about other’s opinions, she learns to focus on kindness rather than charm and propriety, and value hard work over wealth. Known to be motherly, Meg loves and encourages her friends and younger sisters. She embodies warmth and compassion in her family throughout the book, first when she is living at home with her mother and sisters, and later when she is married. Meg is loyal, compassionate, and gentle

She uses her loving nature to encourage those around her- from the time the story opens, and she is encouraging her sisters to purchase gifts for their hard working mother for Christmas rather than for themselves, to when she is married to John Brook and described as a “most devoted little wife”.

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The mother-daughter relationship in Little Women has the element of a deep-founded understanding between the two (staff.wwcc.edu, n. pag.)

The novel revolves around four sisters, and their mother, Marmee, who live against all odds and struggle through their individual lives, all the while helping each other, to live up to their dreams. Jo looks up to her mother, who manages the whole March household single-handedly in the absence of her husband, and through her, learns to be independent just like her, and to hold her head high despite all deprivations and calamities of life, always aware that her mother would always be there for her in times of need. The novel was written in 1868, a period when marriage and family were the only options available to a woman (Elbert, 1). Despite that, Marmee tells her daughter that she "would rather see you poor men's wife, if you were happy, beloved, contented than queens of the thrones, without self-respect and peace." (Little Women 84) That is just one example of the bond the mother and the daughter share; that mutual respect, understanding, and support, not to mention love. Marmee's daughters grow up to be self-reliant and confident because they knew that their mother will always support them and will always be there to comfort them in the symphony of life. Unlike the relationship between Jo and Marmee, that of Francie and her mother Katie is a complex one. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has the element of a daughter's desire to be connected to her mother (staff.wwcc.edu, n. pag.). She wants to get closer to her mother, know her, form a bond, and learn from her the methods of dealing with life. The mother and the daughter in Smith's novel have their differences, because while Katie tries hard to push them toward a better life and away from the ugliness of poverty by trying to make them work hard, Francie, a free-spirited dreamer, dwells in her own world which she has forged out of her fantasies. Treating her daughter as an adult, Katie respects her decisions and values her opinions. There are several incidences in the novel that bolster this observation, for instance, when Katie seeks Francie's approval before deciding to marry McShane. Her practice of taking her daughter around with her sisters as a part of "Rommely women" (Little Women) for family emergencies is another example. Due to such adult treatment, she grows up fast and soon begins to see herself as equal to her mother. Unfortunately, Katie's secret preference of her son over her daughter, and her greater inclination toward her son than her daughter deprives Francie of that motherly love, bond, and guidance that would prevent a young girl from making a lot of mistakes associated with coming-of-age. Despite this distance between them, and Katie's unequal treatment of her children, Francie knows that in her heart, her mother holds the best for her, and so she loves her back dearly, albeit reservedly. The distance between them, unfortunately, is always there. And this, too, is depicted in the novel on several occasions, for instance, Francie's decision to fend for herself after losing her job in New York and not to even share her dilemma with her mother. Despite their differences in fashion, the mother-daughter relationships in Little Women and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn are distinctly American through their promotion of American values, such as independence, fairness, farsightedness, and equality. And by doing so, literature has once again managed to use the said kinship to analyze society and promote social change. The social and political environments in which the two novels are set to portray the mother-daughter relationship as an element of change. In Little Women, Marmee's connection with her daughters enables them to establish their own identities outside the bounds of society. How Katie brings up Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn drives the latter to strive to lift her family and herself out of poverty. Hence, it would be fair to say that Alcott and Smith's goal in their respective novels was to impart the message that the path to the realization of one's dreams begins at home.

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While Alcott did highlight the rejection of gender roles through Jo, she demonstrated perfect examples of nineteenth-century women through her sisters. Meg, for example, views Jo’s behavior as shockingly improper. She begins her domestic life by marrying the man she loves and starts having children – just as society expects her. She is married, has children, and becomes a housewife without questioning the predetermined gender role of nineteenth-century women. Meg’s only fault is her obsession with wealth and her greediness, which results in jealousy towards her friends with nice dresses and houses. The second sentence of the book reads, “‘It’s so dreadful to be poor!’ sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress” (1)

Meg wants nothing more than to return to the wealthy state the family was in before the war. Contrary to Jo, Meg desires wealth so she can purchase feminine items such as fancy dresses and an elegant mansion. However, she accepts the situation and attempts to deal with it in as womanly of a way as possible. In Little Women, Meg is an example of how many women of the time accepted their role in society as a mother and wife with few complaints or objections. To some extent, Alcott wrote Little Women as a representation of her own life, casting Jo as herself. Many of the unruly characteristics present in Jo were also seen in Alcott growing up. In her article “The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott,” Karen Halttunen writes, “In contrast to her docile sister Anna, whose temperament was much like her father’s, Louisa was demanding, noisy, and even violent [. . .]” (235). Louisa and Jo were both unladylike, outspoken, and temperamental. “Despite her father’s best efforts, Louisa May Alcott continued to display the faults that he cataloged on her tenth birthday as ‘anger, discontent, impatience, evil appetites, greedy wants, complainings, ill-speakings, idlenesses, heedlessness, rude behavior’” (Halttunen 237). Alcott, just like Jo, refused to conform to the gender expectations that society dictated. When she wrote Little Women, she created a character similar to herself to challenge these gender expectations. To many women in the nineteenth-century, Jo was more than likely a relatable character, although many of them did not have the audacity to announce their disagreements as openly. Jo’s spunky behavior in contrast to her sisters’ feminine personalities represented life in the Alcott household. Her three sisters were womanly and fit into their “father’s utopian domestic ideal,” similar to the three sisters in Little Women (Halttunen 233). In Little Women, Alcott recreated her own family in a fictional family to show the gender expectations of the time and how she refused to follow them. Little Women examines the strict societal gender roles of women in the nineteenth-century. By creating sisters with differences, Alcott showed readers examples of well-behaved women and an example of one who refused to follow the rules, modeled after herself. From tomboyish, outspoken Jo to sweet and motherly Meg, Alcott painted a realistic portrait of the different types of women from the time period. Little Women is a classic novel that shows how gender roles can be widely accepted, but can also change when rejected and challenged by a few stubborn individuals.

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Given these points, the definition of true womanhood has changed dram atically since the nineteenth century, and had Alcott written her novel one hundred years later, perhaps her characters would have had different lives. The March women might have gone on to become artists—or rem ained wives—or m aybe they would have become both. The fact remains that for the era they lived in, these little women meet their desired end: marriage and m otherhood. Achieving this goal has raised their status in society, though they still have little influence over their male counterparts. But the reason these characters endure, and the reason Alcott’s novel remains popular even today, is because Little Women offers little girls the chance to make the most of their littleness—to make their restricted lives expand, so that their daughters' lives will expand

And keep expanding still.

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Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. New York: Signet Classic, 2004. Print.

Haltunnen, Karen. “The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott.” Feminist Studies. 10.2 (1984): 233-254. JSTOR. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.

Parille, Ken. “’Wake up, and be a man’: Little Women, Laurie, and the Ethic of Submission.” Children’s Literature. 29 (2001): 34. Project Muse. Web. 9 Nov. 2014.

“Women in Antebellum America.” Questia. Questia, 2014. Web. 9 Nov. 2014.

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