Saturday, August 8, 2015

Gritty Little Women

There’s a new adaptation of Little Women being made, a movie series described—gleefully, ruefully—as “gritty” and “dystopian.”  The four March girls, now half-sisters living in Philadelphia, apparently will uncover a conspiracy while trying to bump each other off.  Katniss Everdeen meets steampunk, much?

Given the great many things going on in the world today, I haven't the energy to be actually upset by this turn of events; the word is amused, and that not even in a sardonic, bitter way.  This serendipitous happenstance of a commentary on modern culture is too perfect to be anything but funny.  And it’s not like the fate of our country, or the lives of some women and children, are dependent on this.  I doubt, moreover, whether the series will actually ruin the experience of Little Women for anyone.  Those who’ve read the book or seen one of the three previous excellent movie adaptations (I prefer the first, but that’s just my love of Hepburn coming out) will hardly have their experience spoiled by something so dramatically different.  Those who see the series as novices are not likely to be the sort whose potential reading would be made less probable by it.

But I can understand those who feel offended on behalf of their beloved classic.  Parody—and this, however deadly serious its aim, will be a parody—has a way of making the original work look small.  It’s hard to take “Born This Way” seriously after “Perform This Way,” or any political debate after SNL’s provided their version thereof.

And here you thought I wouldn’t touch politics, after Thursday night.

Still, some things and some people are big enough that one can laugh at their mocking, and then return to enjoying the original with impunity.  In such cases, it is generally something peripheral to the work which is being parodied—its fans, its interpretation, perhaps even details of its composition or style which are more dated than the work itself.

Paging Jane Austen and Shakespeare.

I suspect Little Women is in this category.  There are things about the work which are dated, which may (even in the youngest and most innocent of noses) raise a snort.  The scene where Jo swears Laurie to a life of temperance and lemonade is my personal favorite.  But that doesn’t detract—or shouldn’t, for the broad-minded and mature critical reader—from delighting in the overall story, and even in the overall atmosphere of the book.

There are passages of preachiness, to be sure.  Alcott herself seems to have been unhappy with the enterprise, purportedly calling (at least part of the series spawned by) Little Women “moral pap for the young.”  She also wrote, under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard, stories whose mere synopses make Dickens’s most lurid dramas sound comparatively mild.

In case you’d forgotten: those straight-laced 
Victorians were really good at luridity.
I mean, they invented the original of THIS.

Based on these facts, it may be tempting to assume that Alcott would have been all about the new adaptation.  Quite possibly, if Alcott’s hesitant belief in incarnation were true, she would be among the series' greatest fans.  But that is hardly a reason for applauding the adaptation, any more than Alcott’s disapproval would be a reason for shunning it.

There is a long history in literary criticism—

(Well, as long as modern scholastic literary criticism is.  That is to say, about a hundred years.)

—In literary criticism there is a long history of arguing over the author’s intentions, and how much they count towards interpreting a work.  T.S. Eliot and his descendants among the New Critics famously disregarded practically every scrap of historical or autobiographical evidence to hand in favor of close readings of the work itself.  The New Historicists, and notably founder Stephen Greenblatt, inspired in part by Marxist-oriented readings and directives for the composition of fiction, favored bringing in as many historical events, documents, and trends as possible, plausible and otherwise.  Both sides have done decent (as well as indecent) work on Shakespeare.

I know that’s all TMI.   
But this is what happens when you retake up blogging 
while studying for Ph.D. comps.

Both methods have their merits, and any modern critic who disparaged one in favor of the other would run the risk of being a fool.  If, then, one chooses to consider the new Little Women series an “interpretation” of the original, denying the relevance of Alcott’s life, extraneous writings, and attitude toward her work is puerile.  In judging of the “legitimacy” of the series, Alcott’s intention (in a broad sense) carries some weight.

But if we are to speak in terms of intention, there is another one that matters besides Alcott’s: that of her readers.  For the other great literary debate of the twentieth century was between those critics who considered meaning to be a thing attached to a work itself, and those critics who felt that to one degree or another the “meaning” was something created in an interaction between the reader and the work.  Painting with a very broad brush, one might call the first group formalists, or critics with formalist tendencies (and this would include the New Critics mentioned above) and the second group adherents of reader response criticism.  Taken quite broadly this second group, enablers (if not actual practioners) of literary deconstruction, included such luminaries as I.A. Richards, Roland Barthes, Stanley Fish, and … C.S. Lewis?

He didn’t know where Derrida would take this.   
Really, he didn’t.   
Also, the Narnia chronicles are … only half pagan?

There are then three possible ways to read a work: according to the author’s intentions, according to the structure and premises of the work itself, and according to our reaction to the work.  One reason I’m not terribly upset about Little Women being dragged through the mud is that my response to it is so powerful that I doubt whether anything could ruin the image that response has created.

Historical, structural, responsive.  And then, there is one more possibility: the way of reading a work that isn’t really a critical method, because it is at the bottom of all critical methods; the way we usually talk about a book or movie that we’ve seen.  “That wouldn’t happen.”  “It wasn’t believable.”  “I know her character would say that, but I don’t think it’s true.”  Call it realistic criticism, if you will; or common sense, or philosophy.  The realist critic asks: Does this work present reality in a honest way?

Of course, to answer this question, one must have some sort of metaphysical or experiential presuppositions about the way the world is.  Is the world a gritty, dystopian place?  Or a wholesome, moral one?  That question stacks the deck rather unfairly against both sides: neither alternative is (I think) entirely true.  But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t got some more complex theory up my sleeve.


  1. Interesting post. Little Women has had no significant effect on me, so I care less than you about the new series.

    I would comment though on the methods that you mention. It seems to me that different authors/books might call for different 'interpretations' of their meaning.
    Specifically I think that some books are meant for the reader to 'read into' them while others really ought to be read in a particular way if the material is to be done justice.
    For the latter sort, if the reader isn't the right kind of person - that is, hasn't had the right sort of moral/emotional/intellectual development there really isn't much hope for them... (This is why Aristotle said unless a man has had a good moral upbringing he should bother trying to study ethics.)

    It seems on very brief reflection that there are very very few literary works for which the conditions of the author and writing are very important.
    Even for those that fall more into this category (Solzhenitsyn or someone writing under peculiar circumstances about social conditions for example) this seems to me more of a historical question or at best useful context rather than essential material. Truth is universal and available to any reader at any time.

  2. Oh, yes regarding different works calling for different approaches. That's one of the major downfalls of most literary theories: they start out semi-reasonable, as applied to the theorists specialty, but then said theorist (or his followers) try to make it work for everything. So yes, I think you're right that some works are designed for the canny, morally adept reader, and others .. aren't.

    To the second point, I think that might depend on how distant you as the reader--and your fellow readers--are from a work. I've seen bad interpretations of Shakespeare come from historical ignorance, and good interpretations improved by historical background--so while the history certainly isn't all, it can sometimes be at least helpful. IMHO.