Gender Roles and Feminism in Louisa May Alcott’s "Little Women" (1868/69) and Anna Todd’s "The Spring Girls" (2018)

Bachelor Thesis, 2019

40 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. A Modern-Day Retelling of Little Women: The Spring Girls

3. Gender Roles and Feminism
3.1. Beth: The Ideal Woman
3.1.1. In Little Women
3.1.2. In The Spring Girls
3.2. Amy: Class, Gender and the Importance of Social Acceptance
3.2.1 In Little Women
3.2.2 The Spring Girls
3.3. Meg: Marriage, Relationships and Sexuality
3.3.1 In Little Women
3.3.2 The Spring Girls
3.4. Jo: The Arrival of the Educated and Independent Woman?
3.4.1 In Little Women
3.4.2 The Spring Girls

4. Conclusion

5. Works Cited

1. Introduction

Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel Little Women was published in two parts during the Victorian Age, in 1868/1869, and is considered as one of the most successful novels of its time (cf. Kirkham and Warren 81). It was praised by many critiques in several magazines and papers during the first years of its publication. To illustrate, Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine wrote in December 1868 “ This is decidedly the best Christmas story which we have seen for a long time.“ (375). The novel tells the story of the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy who live with their mother Mrs. March in New England while their father serves for the Army during the American Civil War. The reader follows the girls growing up, falling in love, solving their issues, following their dreams and finding their path in life.

Even though the novel was published 150 years ago its presence is still enduring in the form of several adaptations (cf. Kirkham and Warren 81ff.). Jill P. May said: „ I believe that Little Women is a piece of women’s history or, perhaps more important, a piece of women’s autobiography that depicts female aspirations, family life, and women’s career choices.“ (May 20). Thus, Little Women tells the history of gender roles and is therefore, an interesting narrative for literary research in the field of feminist literature.

One of the newest adaptations is the retelling, called The Spring Girls, by the best-selling author Anna Todd, which was published in 2018. Similarly to the original novel, it tells the story of the four Spring sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy who live on the New Orleans military base with their mother, Meredith, while their father is in Iraq. All of the four girls have different aims and expectations of life and are faced with different problems which they try to solve in their own way.

The so called modern-day retelling by Anna Todd attracted a lot of negative critique, which can be found on different websites online, by Little Women fans. The negative critique is the result of the changes by the author which are not plausible for the fans of the original novel. However, if one looks at the differences form a scientific point of view, more specifically an adaptation theoretical view, the changes in Anna Todd’s retelling are reasonable. The author seems to simply have adjusted the the story to a different age and audience. It shows a shift from the importance of the welfare of the community to one’s self. Problems caused by the society as class segregation and social acceptance are still present but they take on other dimensions.

Therefore, the paper aims to look at Anna Todd’s retelling by portraying the change and development of the role of women and feminism in a period of 150 years. So, the main question will be: What changes and new issues in the role of women in America can be found in the retelling, The Spring Girls, which was published 150 years after Little Women and how does the author, Anna Todd, deal with Louisa May Alcott’s legacy? In order to answer the question above, the paper will start off by building a theoretical frame on the history of feminism and adaptation theory. Latter will firstly, define the term adaptation and then, focus on the general changes and their effects in The Spring Girls. Next, the paper will continue with the main part which will depict more specific changes in the new novel, changes in the role of women and the perception of feminism. This part contains four subchapters in which four different topics will be linked with one of the sisters from both of the novels. Each of the topics covers a field to analyze the development of the role of women and feminism. Such as, the home sphere, class and social acceptance, relationships and sexuality, and last but not least the new woman. This is aimed to be achieved by analyzing and comparing Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Anna Todd’s retelling The Spring Girls. The analysis of the stories of all of the four sisters instead of only one, as found in most research papers, aims to offer a new feminist reading of the novel. Finally, the findings will be concluded into an overall result. The paper will also give a detailed overview on the cited works at the end.

2. A Modern-Day Retelling of Little Women: The Spring Girls

As this paper will deal with an adaptation it is essential to familiarize one’s self with the term adaptation. Adaptation is generally defined as the transition of one medium, the source, into another one but also as the depiction of a piece within the same medium (cf. Elliott 3). Interestingly, there is a wide selection of terms existent for the field of adaptation (cf. Sanders 18). But, as this paper aims to cover the representation of a source within the same medium, namely literature, the term which will be used here will be mostly retelling rather than adaptation.

The representation of work in another medium is a common practice especially in the Western culture (cf. Hutcheon 108). But why are texts or other mediums being adapted in the first place? An answer to this question could be given by Julie Sanders: “Yet adaption can also constitute a simpler attempt to make texts ‘relevant‘ or easily comprehensible to new audiences and readerships via the processes of proximation and updating.“ (19). So, this would mean that a source is being adapted into a new age or for a new reader in order to make it suitable to that time or that reader. In addition, the proximation and updating of work would mean, that even though the source is recognizable, the adaptation would bring changes with it (cf. Bortoletti and Hutcheon 447). This means that some features of the source could be reshaped or modified in the new medium (cf. Corrigan 23). The changes in the new medium interrelate with the changes of the environment in a new age or a culture (cf. Bortoletti and Hutcheon 449) and especially in this context the opportunity to portray a narrative differently can be motivating or inspiring as it provides the chance to not only update and maybe make the content easier for a new audience, but also to draw parallels between two different ages and criticize or respect ideas (cf. Hutcheon 109f).

Which of these changes can be then found in Anna Todd’s retelling The Spring Girls ? Anna Todd seems to have kept many points in the plot, such as the first acquaintance of Jo and Laurie, Amy trading food at school, Meg and Amy being close, Amy destroying Jo’s writing and many other points. Nevertheless, there are formal and textual changes. Starting off with the formal aspects, the titles of both novels differ. While the original novel is called Little Women, the retelling is called The Spring Girls. The word ‘Spring’ is a reference to the original novel as the sisters‘ last name is March, but still one might not recognize the retelling as an adaptation immediately. The reason for a different title might lay in the author’s endeavor to present her work not only in relation to the source she refers to but also as an unattached work which stands for itself. This leads to the last names; while the little women in Alcott’s novel are called March, the ones in Todd’s novel are called Spring. So, again Todd changed an important component, but is still referring to the original with a synonym. Moving over to some other formal aspects, Todd’s novel contains of forty-four chapters. The first part of Little Women contained of twenty-three chapters. Even though one might say that when counting the chapters of both parts together from Little Women, forty-seven chapters, the number cannot be equated. This is due to the fact that the time frame and the pace of both novels differ as well. However, one is again confronted with the fact that Little Women contains of two parts, while The Spring Girls has only one. Both novels, Little Women part one and The Spring Girls, start during Christmas time and cover approximately a year. The second part of Alcott’s novel has a quicker pace and covers roughly about fifteen years. So, in case Anna Todd does not plan to publish a second part this would count as another difference.

A major difference which can be observed while reading and comparing both novels, is the narrative situation. The narrative situation will be analyzed according to Franz K. Stanzel’s model which describes three narrative situations, the first-person narrative situation, the authorial narrative situation and the figural narrative situation (cf. Graz 185f.). The narrator in Little Women is an authorial one. This kind of narrator has the position of an outsider but possesses the knowledge about every event, the feelings and thoughts of the characters (cf. Neumann/ Nünning 84). The knowledge of the narrator can tend to be omniscient (cf. Graz 186) and the narrator can also make comments or moral judgements (Neumann/ Nünning 84). This is the exact case in Little Women, a good example in support of that is the following passage from the first chapter of the novel:

As young readers like to know ‘how people look,’ we will take this moment to give them a little sketch of the four sisters (…) Margaret the eldest of the four, was sixteen, and very pretty, being plump and fair, with large eyes, plenty of soft brown hair, a sweet mouth, and white hands, of which she was rather vain. Fifteen-year old Jo was very tall, thin and brown and refined one of a colt; for she never seemed to know what to do with her mouth, (…). (Alcott 4).

Unlike the narrative situation in Little Women, the reader is opposed to a first- person narrative situation in The Spring Girls. The first person narrator is engaged in the actions and events of the plot as a protagonist (cf. Neumann/ Nünning 83). But, there is a distance between the narration and the narrated time (cf. Graz 186). This is due to the narrators aim to show experiences or incidents that shaped his or her personality or life (cf. Neumann/ Nanning 83). To give an example in evidence for the stated narrative situation, a passage from Todd’s novel will be quoted in the following: “After Frank became an officer, I was no longer accepted by my lower-ranking group, but I didn’t fit in with the officers’ wives circle, either. Being and officer’s wife came with more social responsibility that I simply didn’t want.“ (Todd 16). Here, the first-person narrator, Meredith, explains her thoughts and feelings about being an officer’s wife and how her standing in the society is. Another thought provoking fact about the narrative situation in The Spring Girls is that there is more than one narrator. With almost each chapter the narrator changes as well. The reader gets to read the story from the perspective of the girls’ mother Meredith, Meg, Jo and Beth. So, the only exception is Amy. The first-person narrative situation offers the reader more insight on the inner world and also on the reasons for their actions and behaviors. Moreover, the different narrative perspectives offer a more diverse perspective on the plot.

In addition to the formal aspects, there are also many differences in regards to the content. In contrast to Alcott’s novel in which the four girls are aged twelve to sixteen, in Todd’s novel the sisters are aged twelve to nineteen. The changes in the ages of the girls might have a literary purpose as the social issues which are demonstrated are very different to the ones in the original. These shall be discussed in the course of the paper. In addition to these textual changes, the reader is also faced with changes in the family itself. Hannah, who is the family’s servant in Little Women, is the girls’ aunt, who appears in the plot occasionally in The Spring Girls. In addition, the Spring family seems to rather live more apart from each other than the March family. To exemplify this, Alcott’s March family sits often together in the evenings to talk to each other about the ongoing events in their lives and other things: “(…) when the lamps are lighted, it’s like looking at a picture to see the fire, and you all around the table with your mother; (…)“ (Alcott 50). Such scenes cannot be found in Todd’s novel. A similar scene is mentioned in The Spring Girls: „“And when I look through the window, I always see you guys crowded around each other at the table or on the couch.“ (Todd 119). However, the reader encounters the characters more in their own world of ideas rather than together sharing their inner thoughts. The last difference that will be discussed is that the mother of the four girls, who is called Meredith in The Spring Girls, has a drinking problem (cf. ibid. 390). This change might be due to the reason that religiousness and the faith in God for everything in life appears to be not as present in the western world as it used to be in the nineteenth-century. So, instead of being patient and trusting God, Meredith tries to solve her problems through alcohol.

More specific textual differences will be analyzed and discussed in the next chapter and its subchapters which will deal with different aspects of gender roles and feminism.

3. Gender Roles and Feminism

After defining the term adaptation and discussing the general differences and their effects in the Spring Girls, the paper will now move on to focus on gender history and feminism which is another important element of the theoretical part of this paper. Before moving onto the comparison and the analysis of the characters in both novels, the terms gender roles and feminism will be defined and reviewed. The main emphasis will be on gender history and feminism in the United States of America.

To begin with a general definition, feminism can be defined as the idea of equality of female individuals in every sphere of their lives, public and private, (cf. Gerhard 6). Women in the western world used to be attributed to the private sphere, the house and the family, and thus, men were attributed to the public sphere, everything outside the home (cf. Opitz-Belakhal 106-109). It can be observed that in the first half of the nineteenth-century, some changes in the life of women started. School education started becoming more important, religion was replaced by their own peace of mind and marriages happened out of love rather than economic reasons (cf. Collins 85). There were even more changes in public and private life for women in the USA with the rise of the Civil War.

The Civil War, during which the first part of Little Women plays as well, started after the presidential election in 1861, which can be described as an election between the North and the South. The main issue was the question on the future of slavery. While the South insisted on its economical importance for their cotton plantations, the North was for its abolition. The elections resulted in Abraham Lincoln, a politician of an anti slavery party, being chosen the sixteenth president of the United States of America. As a result, many states in the south decided to associate themselves with independent confederations, independent community of states. All this led to the Civil War which ended 1865 with the capitulation of the South. From then on people of color were free, but still not equal to white persons. (cf. Dippel 41-57)

Logically, now the question arises why the Civil War is important in context of gender roles and feminism in the USA. The Civil War took place during the nineteenth-century. This time period marks the first stage of feminism which was also the most problematic one (cf. Morris 66). As most men in North and South served as soldiers during the Civil War, women who had to stay behind had to take on new roles which also offered them the ability to take a bigger part in public life than before (cf. Collins 188). This was more problematic for women from lower classes than it was for women from higher classes; they felt useless and some of them even wished they were men (cf. ibid 189). While it was possible for wealthy men to stay out of the war, lower class women had to face the fact that their so called income producer was away (cf. ibid. 192). Even though waged work for women was connoted negatively, lower class women could not afford to remain in the private sphere, their home, and had to step out to provide for their family (cf. Dawson 114).

As Little Women shows, American women in the nineteenth-century had the options to develop themselves artistically into writers, artists, critics of society and teachers as well (cf. May 23). Teaching was considered as an appropriate career for an unmarried girl or a woman (cf. Collins 87). Even though women could evolve into writers, most women writers in the early phase of feminism imitated male ones and published their works either under a pseudonym, mostly a male name, or indicated their marital status in order to be accepted as writers (cf. Morris 66). Another profession women could take from the age of 30 during the rise of the Civil War was nursing (cf. Collins 197f.). Nursing plays an essential part in the novel which will be analyzed as well and will be discussed in detail subsequently.

Many of the described characteristics of the role of women were changed through the different phases of feminism in which women’s rights activists fought against different issues. A short overview on the different waves and the issues will be given in the following:

One important issue which was brought up by feminists during the first wave of feminism is the right for women to become full citizens (Powell 9). Another issue which was drawn attention to was the limited possibilities for women to get a proper education, for example going to college (cf. Dicker 21). Women in the nineteenth-century seem to have had a certain role they had to fulfill instead: the role of mothers and daughters. This is linked to the idea of the ‘true woman’. The ideal woman of the nineteenth-century is described by Barbara Welter as a woman who possesses four specific characteristics which she calls the four virtues of women: piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity (cf. Welter 44). These virtues will be explained and analyzed in reference to the character Beth in the upcoming subchapter. But, the names of the virtues already suggest that women led a quiet, domestic and an inferior life to men. This started to change through the effort and resistance of women activists who formed different associations with different aims to fight for the rights of women (cf. Dicker 25). In the year 1920 women gained the right to vote and with that the first wave of feminism ended.

The second wave of feminism marks a phase in which women started questioning present conditions and situations and began to realize a more liberated identity as women for themselves (cf. Morris 66). During this phase issues in the family life and marriage or other problems like domestic violence and the salary differences between men and women were highlighted (cf. Dicker 57f.). Other subjects such as reproduction, in the sense of contraception and abortion, and sexuality, as in the sexualization of women and a women’s sexual interest (cf. ibid. 86, 94). Sexuality started becoming more than only a matter of reproduction, but also about ones personal identity and pleasure (cf. Tuck 87). The second wave of feminism began in the year nineteen-sixty and lasted two decades (cf. Gerhard 101ff).

This leads to the last wave; the third wave of feminism. The third wave of feminism began in the nineteen-nineties with the aim to amend society and to reshape their foundations (cf. Dicker 103f.). Presently, women in America and in other countries in the western world have a more equal status to men than in the nineteenth-century, back when the fight for equality started. The perspective that men and women belong to different spheres or cultures is not present anymore (cf. Tuck 87). But, there are still issues which need to be solved. That is why todays feminists in the western world work on the abolishment of stereotypes, the resistance against inequality in the job market, economy and politics, and fight against sexual violence (cf. Gerhard 122). The Internet Age makes it much easier to develop and spread ideas from and between individuals and communities. In fact, the internet offers the opportunity to build and create a global network through the use of social media (cf. ibid. 122).

The following subchapters will portray the development of the role of women and feminism in a time period of 150 years by analyzing and comparing sequences from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Anna Todd’s retelling The Spring Girls. In the original novel the characters, Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth, work out issues which are related to their gender (cf. May 21). Firstly, those issues will be pointed out and secondly, some specific differences and similarities between Alcott’s novel and Todd’s novel will be analyzed in order to discuss the reasons and strategies behind the retelling.


Excerpt out of 40 pages


Gender Roles and Feminism in Louisa May Alcott’s "Little Women" (1868/69) and Anna Todd’s "The Spring Girls" (2018)
University of Wuppertal
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Little Women, Feminism, Louisa May Alcott, Anna Todd, The Spring Girls, Feminist iterature, Women, Gender, Gender Roles, Victorian Age, J
Quote paper
Özlem Arslan (Author), 2019, Gender Roles and Feminism in Louisa May Alcott’s "Little Women" (1868/69) and Anna Todd’s "The Spring Girls" (2018), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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