Reading classic literature through feminist eyes

Having recently decided to re-read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women series (the last time being when I was around 10 years old), I’ve noticed there are many aspects to the story that I’m struggling to come to terms with. What started off as a desire to expand my knowledge of the Classics, has turned into an analysis of the rampant sexist stereotypes within the books.

‘Tomboy’ Jo is one of the best examples. In the beginning of the novel, Jo exerts examples of ‘boyish’ behaviour which are slowly stamped out of her by the end of the series. Despite claiming she will never marry, she does indeed marry and have children, becoming the very matronly figure she used to be so adamantly against. Everyone in the novel considers this a great improvement.

As I’ve been reading these books, I’ve thought of other problematic authors and books I have read; Jane Austen novels being yet another prime example of seemingly independent women who end up succumbing to marriage and children in the end. In Jane Eyre, despite Mr Rochester’s treatment of Bertha, despite his treatment of Jane herself, Jane ends up married to Rochester.

I am, by no means, against marriage and children. What I don’t like about these books is the implication that it is essential for a woman to marry, that a woman who does not want marriage is wrong and that these women have bettered themselves by marrying.

It has led me to thinking, how do I, as a feminist, come to terms with what I’m reading without it destroying my enjoyment of the text. To defend the texts, they were written in an age when no one knew any better. Had the authors presented the idea that it was ok for a woman to not marry or to not want children, this would have been considered highly radical and may have meant the books would never have been published at all.

Even so, this does not mean the ideas presented within the text are right. While I read Little Women as a young girl, I didn’t remember anything odd about it and this worries me. If I have children, I want them to be well read, but I also don’t want to put damaging ideas about gender into their heads from a young age. I can read these novels for fun while recognising the damaging stereotypes within, but someone less educated, someone younger, may not be able to do this. It wouldn’t be wrong for a child to read a piece of Classic literature, but I’ve realised that it’s important to have healthy representations of gender alongside these from more modern authors.

Join the Conversation

  • Jacqueline Hentzen

    Maybe you could encourage people (read: Not just girls, but boys, too) to read the classics much later in life. You probably ought to, anyway — I remember trying to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy in fifth grade and so much of it went totally over my head because of the writing style. By the time someone’s grown into their adulthood and has learned to be more open about women’s lifestyles and choices, they’ll probably be ready for the classics.

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    I don’t have kids, but I guess if you’re talking to a kid or teen who’s reading any of these, maybe talk to them about how things are different now than they were in the days these books were written, and ask them what they think of what they’re reading, what messages they’re getting out of the book, etc.

  • Emily Jane

    Thanks for your comments :)

    Jacqueline: My dad read LOTR to me when I was young, maybe 11 at the most? I’m eager to see how it compares when I read it myself when I finally get round to it. Although Little Women is a children’s book, I don’t think I’d let a very young girl read it. Luckily, any lessons about what it means to be a girl in there seemed to have passed me by, but in a different family and upbringing, that could be very different.

    Jenny: I don’t have kids either. I guess what prompted me to write about children is my younger sister saying she wants to read some of the books I’m reading. She’s old enough I think, I just worry about how impressionable she is. If she does get round to reading anything I find a little problematic, I’d definitely talk to her about it.

    • Jacqueline Hentzen

      Fair enough. Though, in terms of being impressionable, age doesn’t necessarily mean anything — some kids are incredibly impressionable, no matter what age they are, and other kids can be pummeled with messages left and right and grow up to say ‘Screw what I learned as a child, I’ll make my own decisions’. Again, I speak from personal experience — I grew up in a very conservative, right-wing family, constantly preached at about values from every person in my family as soon as I learned to talk, as well as from a lot of the same types of books. And what happens? I’m now a liberal, left-wing, radical feminist lesbian. My kid sister, on the other hand, laps up images and messages about body images and beauty from all the usual suspects, and nothing I push her to read or watch or think about even gets through.

      But for your own sister — make it an interactive experience, and you might be pleasantly surprised by the type of person she is.