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