Opening up “Little Women,” I thought that it would be a multi-protagonist sort of book. I was wrong. Jo is the protagonist.
Jo is the first one to speak, and the last sister to settle down and marry. Jo is the primary love interest of the “hero.” Jo is the best friend of doomed Beth.
It is Jo’s development as a person that makes the strongest narrative thread in the book. Amy and Meg also have arcs, but Jo makes more mistakes, has more adventures, acquires more true friends than either of them.
Jo is a tomboy. It’s the central fact of her character. All through the book, people compliment her on how much more womanly she’s becoming. But at the novel’s end, she is running around in the mud with a load of little boys, living and running a school for boys, mothering two boys herself. She lives in an entirely male world–she has become a woman, but on her own terms.
In a difficult and often painful world, all three of the surviving March sisters hollow out small oases for themselves and their families. But while Meg and John Brooke make a tiny world just for them, and Amy and Laurie make a porous and low-key world, Jo’s allies let her make a huge world for herself. In fact, Jo’s world–the school she’s founded, the family she’s made–is so strong and sprawling that it sucks other people in, makes them part of the family.
Jo is a complicated heroine, a woman at war with herself, at conflict with the very idea of the feminine nature that was held to be morally “good” in her time. It’s often said of heroines like her that “she’s a modern girl born in the wrong time and place,” but the truth is that Jo made her world into the right time and place by sheer force of will, personality, and love.