Wheaton College Professor of English, Beverly Lyon Clark, has recently published The Afterlife of Little Women, a literary critique of the novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.
Written in the late 1860s, Little Women is a coming-of-age story about four sisters and their journey from childhood to womanhood. Professor Clark’s book is a reception study that looks at not just what people have said directly in response to Little Women, but also investigating the various forms that response has taken.
Professor Clark has looked at dramatizations, film reproductions, and illustrations of Little Women, and how those mediums have changed over the years. Novels and spin-offs have emerged in the past few decades along with a new TV special, all of which contribute to the modernization of Little Women.
“One of the kinds of responses that you get now has to do with this rethinking,” said Professor Clark. “I just wanted to share the many ways that response has changed. There’s a strong trend in modern reception study to look at histories of response to works over time, and I’m participating in that.”
Professor Clark said that Alcott’s novel continues to impact modern society because “it’s a novel that can be read in a number of different ways.” Little Women is a warm family story that celebrates family values. It is a novel that incorporates feminist ideas along with relatable and appealing characters. The text still speaks to people because of the many ways it can be interpreted.
According to Professor Clark, the character that most people identify with is the sister Jo, who is also a writer, and who is based on Louisa May Alcott. “Here she is in the 19th century, and she’s pretty independent,” said Professor Clark. “She likes to whistle and use slang, even run sometimes, and for a young lady in her mid-teens, this was not recommended. So she’s got a lot of independence and that’s something that can be really appealing to people nowadays.”
“So you have all these things going on that people” – including feminists and religious individuals – “respond to in a lot of different ways,” continued Clark. She also noted that this is a work of fiction that members of the gay community should read because Jo is so independent and resists marriage at many points.
Professor Clark has previously published a collection of 19th century reviews of Alcott’s work. With the college’s help, Professor Clark was able to read and research this topic thoroughly. Clark was also able to work with students on various aspects of this project throughout its construction.
Professor Clark has resumed work on a previously set aside project commenting, “But as it always happens, it’s a much bigger project than you expect at first.” We congratulate Professor Clark on her achievements thus far and wish her the best of luck.