Why we like to dislike Amy March

By Trix Wilkins

First things first – thank you so much to everyone who took the time to thoughtfully ask questions and give comments on The Courtship of Jo March giveaway 🙂 It has been incredibly interesting to wrestle with your questions. When I started writing answers they got rather long, and so I will be writing multiple posts – I’ll try to get them out quickly and not keep you waiting. Hopefully all out this week!

I’ll start with the question by the winner – congratulations to NovElla and Banannabelle!

QandA Amy PIC
Photo background courtesy of Canva

I might start this reply by answering the question in reverse for one moment – why do many fans like Amy? Is it because we read the likable May Alcott into the character of Amy? Do we sympathize with her and like her because we have something in common? Do we like the fact that she is beautiful and charming?

On the flip side, I think both the reasons you mentioned play into the dislike of Amy, depending on the reader. My guess is that fans who dislike Amy do so for one or more of the following reasons:

The mirror effect: we see in her unlovable aspects we dislike in ourselves

Amy was vain as a child, burned Jo’s book (see below), complained about being sent away to be kept safe from scarlet fever, wanted to scrimp on her mother’s Christmas gift so she could get something for herself (and only changed her mind after comparing her gift to her sisters’), wanted to earn the favour of wealthy friends with a party she couldn’t afford, thought it was acceptable to treat people kindly or coldly based on their wealth or status, thought it was reasonable and respectable to marry for money (for a time), and tried to arouse jealousy and affection in Laurie in Europe even though, as she later lets on, she suspected that Jo loved him, “Why, I was sure she loved you!” (Then why play the coquette to gain his attention and bask in the fact that he filled your dance card with his name?!).

Can any of us honestly say that we have not done anything similar – never been selfish, whiny, disregarding of others? That doesn’t mean we like being reminded of it though…

She burned Jo’s book

This warrants a section of its own because out of all the things readers are annoyed about, this is the one that burns in the heart and mind (pun intended). To think of someone destroying one’s precious life work due to circumstances that were not in their control (Laurie was the one who didn’t invite Amy to the theatre, not Jo), a sister’s life work no less, over not being able to go to the theatre… If Amy had been a model character the rest of the book I suspect there would still be virulent dislike based on this one incident, particularly from book lovers and aspiring authors.

Value clashes: perseverance vs pragmatism

Amy gave up pursuing a career in art after a few years of study and observation abroad, deciding that she didn’t have genius. Well of course she didn’t have it, nobody has genius after two to three years (even five years)! The masters of anything take at least ten, if not multiple decades, to perfect their craft.

How would she have known that she didn’t have genius if she didn’t try for a long, sustained and disciplined period of time? And even if she wasn’t a Michelangelo in the end, so what? If only the Michelangelos of the world produced art, what a dull and lifeless place the world would be!

Then Laurie gives up music, the thing he loves most. Why? We’re told it’s because he follows Amy’s example. He tries his hand at music for a short while – can’t be longer than a year, maybe two – then thinks to himself, she’s right, talent isn’t genius, and since I’m not a genius, it’s not worth trying.

So part of the dislike is that not only did Amy give up too easily, she took someone else down with her – a man who we have been told throughout has not only a passion for music but an unusually brilliant talent for it.

As to whether this sort of perseverance is a modern value, I don’t think it’s exclusive to the modern age. I think that in any age, we respect people who keep trying, keep persevering, who push through disappointment and disillusionment and do not use comparisons to others as an excuse to stop trying. We respect people who keep their eyes and efforts on the thing that’s important to them, that’s stamped on their minds, engraved in their being. For Laurie this was music – and it is hard to move past the part that Amy plays in steering him away from it.

Laurie is said to admire the fact that Amy is able to switch to a new castle in the air when she feels the cherished one out of reach, and this value of pragmatism is as old as it is new. Sometimes it’s good to make a change when something isn’t working, and it isn’t worth sticking at something only for the sake of sticking at it – there’s got to be more in perseverance than mere stubbornness for it to be worthy of esteem.

Still, for readers who tend to admire perseverance over pragmatism, Amy evokes ire.

Support for the underdog: we want triumph against the odds

Amy was beautiful and charming in the sort of way men found alluring. Louisa writes of several instances in which some young man or other is pining for Amy or vying for her attention. She has a winsomeness that arouses jealousy because we just see that sort of person favored in real life all the time. She’s the sort of woman men want to win and women want to be (for who doesn’t want to be thought beautiful and admired?).

What is galling is when such a character shows up, the one guy in the story who claimed he’s not into “fuss and feathers” is in the end drawn by it. Part of the reason readers like the Jo-Laurie combination is the fact that Jo wasn’t beautiful or charming. Her beauty was entirely internal (except for her hair).

What usually happens when a woman like Jo and a woman like Amy stand side by side, the latter takes the cake and we can live with that. But in the world of fiction where we long to see something we don’t see every day, when “the usual” happens it bites. It really, really bites. (So yes, Amy’s being married off to Laurie definitely plays a part in the dislike!)

Narrative conventions: we need an antagonist to dislike

I don’t believe Louisa aimed to portray her sister May true-to-life in Amy (May Alcott was quite dissimilar to Amy, except perhaps in looks and charm). I suspect Amy as a character is more of a literary device than an attempt by Louisa to bring her sister to the fictional page. Little Women needed an antagonist, and Amy certainly fits this role well!

Someone needs to create waves, stir up trouble, and get into conflict with protagonist Jo. They need to be significant to the protagonist in some way. Think of stories such as those of the Marvel series or the Star Wars franchise – the antagonist is compelling precisely because of such a close personal connection. (“I am your father,” etc.)

Beth was Jo’s pet, and so could not be a believable “nemesis.” Meg was the equivalent of gentle Anna Alcott, and played the role of the eldest attempting to gently guide her sisters through life with wisdom. May was the sister most similar to Louisa in talent and ambition – thus Amy was the natural antagonist to Jo. And Little Women being “a book for girls,” somewhere along the way there had to be a boy involved in the tussle.

It isn’t easy to turn one’s sister into the “villain,” and Louisa had to do quite a bit of gymnastics with real history (and character) to have Amy move the story along the way that she did. Amy is extremely instrumental to the sense of conflict and tension in the novel. I only realized in recent years how imperative it was to the story that Amy be characterized as she was.

Out of sympathy for May Alcott, I wrote Amy into The Courtship of Jo March intending for her to be closer in character and temperament to her real-life counterpart, then realized: now who’s going to be the antagonist in this story? There had to be someone – and Aunt March could only do so much (similarly to Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice, she could only cause so much trouble).

I better appreciated the challenge Louisa had in writing Amy as she was, as I attempted to write of Kate Vaughn. As I said, someone has to stir up trouble for Jo…

 

Author and book sale PIC

11 thoughts on “Why we like to dislike Amy March

  1. I’m so excited that I won the giveaway!! Thank you 🙂

    I loved reading your thoughtful answers. I can never think of the burning of Jo’s book without a grimace… that was definitely a low point for Amy. I never really thought about how she needed to fill the role of antagonist for the plot. I can’t wait to see how she and Kate Vaughn play out in The Courtship of Jo March.

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  2. Where to begin? When I was a little girl, Amy was my favorite because I could relate to her. She was the youngest and she had blonde hair, as I did (as a 10-year-old, that was important to me). I did not find her to be such a brat. Jo made fun of her, patronized her, and was dismissive of her. I can understand Amy finding that treatment infuriating. I can even understand her burning Jo’s book. No 12-year-old thinks about someone’s “life’s work.” She thinks about her sister’s having dismissed her as a mere child yet again, and she wants to get back at her. Obviously, she was wrong to do that. However, in the context, I think it was understandable. And she was truly penitent when her mother explained to her the ramifications of what she had done.
    Amy showed interest in Laurie after Jo had rejected him. She didn’t try to steal Laurie away from Jo. When they first met in Europe, she wanted to prove to him that she wasn’t “little Amy” any longer, but I don’t think her behavior was at all questionable. In fact, she told him to go make something of himself and make himself worthy of Jo. She didn’t turn to him until after Beth’s death, when she was lonely and vulnerable and longing for home.
    Obviously, Amy isn’t perfect, but neither is Jo, and no one complains about Jo’s being an overbearing older sister.
    Lest anyone wonder, I like both Jo and Amy. I just think that Amy is getting a bum rap.

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    1. Hmmm, your comment has made me think about a possibility that hadn’t crossed my mind until now – that some readers might consider Amy the protagonist and Jo the antagonist (also makes me question whether my being an older sister plays into my preference for Jo). It’s fascinating to see how the same novel and characters can evoke such different feelings and reactions in people! It reminds me of Margaret Mitchell’s discovery that many readers liked Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. May Alcott didn’t like the way she was portrayed in Amy and asked Louisa to minimize her appearance in subsequent sequels, which I can sympathize with. It would have been difficult for May to have been given the “bum rap,” as you put it, with which Amy had been dealt by many readers.

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      1. I think position in the family has a big impact. I was the younger sister. I was forever trying to curry the favor of my older sister, and I’m sure she found me insufferable. She was dismissive of me and made fun of me, and that’s probably why I was so conscious of Jo’s treatment of Amy.
        I wasn’t thinking about antagonists and protagonists when I was a little girl. I was thinking about family dynamics. I didn’t notice that Amy was spoiled (which she was). I just noticed that Jo showed a great preference for Beth, and that didn’t seem fair. Meg’s preference for Amy did not compare with Jo’s preference for Beth, because everybody treated Beth well. When I became an adult, I was surprised to learn that so many people disliked Amy. I thought she turned into a lovely girl.
        Louisa did put the two girls on an equal plane in the chapter describing Amy’s poor treatment by Mrs. Moffat at the fundraiser for the freedmen. Jo expressed respect for Amy, which she had never done before.
        I think Amy’s big “crime” was getting to go to Europe. Jo resented her for that, even though Jo learned some life lessons in New York that she would never have learned in Europe, as well as finding her Professor Bhaer.
        It’s really impressive that a book that most of us read as children can still elicit such strong emotions!

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        1. I think you may be right about the sibling order! Your observation about younger-older sibling dynamics is really something I have never contemplated and gives good food for thought. I also had an entirely different reading of that chapter on the Chesters’ fair, and thought that Jo actually shone rather than Amy, as she comes to her sister’s rescue and rallies “Teddy’s own” to make sure Amy had a good time at the fair, and that her art got a fair viewing. She expressed respect for Amy’s self control and graciousness in how she behaved in response to being mistreated – I think because Jo knew she would not have been so self controlled and gracious and wishes she would have been. Amy’s behavior at the fair was consistent with her desire to fit and rise in society, and for me this takes the shine off her behavior a bit – as in she would have wanted to maintain relationships with her wealthy friends, and with these wealthy families, and so to have lost her temper, or behaved resentfully or badly, wouldn’t have suited her intention to be well loved and respected within their society. (We’re told that Amy did genuinely put away resentment, which I did like!) If she had behaved as beautifully amongst people who could do nothing for her, who weren’t in the circles she sought, she would’ve definitely increased much more in likability. (She might have, but we don’t really get to see her behave this way in the text, with the possible exception of her talking with Laurie about philanthrophy.)

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  3. Great commentary! The first time I read Little Women I liked Amy best because of the way she evolved (though I have to admit, your commentary re: pursuing her art made me think!) I loved how Louisa described what it truly meant to be a gracious lady and that was by cultivating beauty within. I always think of that scenario with the craft fair and how graciously Amy handled that situation pursuing the high road. I thought that showed a lot of maturity on her part.

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    1. I liked Amy’s self control and ability to hold her temper and her tongue in Good Wives, even when she was provoked. (I loved her tact when she ran into Tudor with that lobster and she artfully said, “Don’t you wish you were to enjoy the salad he’s to make, and the young ladies who will eat him,” or something along those lines! That was hilarious) Regarding the art, I do feel frustration towards Amy about that, but also I feel sorry for her, for I don’t think she would have had anybody abroad to really encourage her in it. I imagine her aunts would have been more encouraging of the “pursue wealthy husband” ambition than her art. I think it would have been interesting for Jo and Amy to both be in Europe together – Jo would have encouraged Amy in her art (or at least provoked her – Amy might have been spurred on even just to prove herself to her sister!). I would’ve liked to have seen Amy be equally gracious with someone who wasn’t her social equal or social superior; not saying that she wouldn’t have been, but we don’t really get to see that in the text.

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  4. I never really thought about her giving up her art because “talent isn’t genius,” and you raise some very interesting points, but I think there is a point where people have to realize that sometimes, a fondness for an art form may not be the same as a calling to create it. For example, some people who love reading may think they’d love writing, and try their hand at it, and maybe even publish a book or two, but they may find that they’d really rather be a book reviewer, an agent, a librarian, a teacher, to where they interact with books still, but don’t necessarily “make” them.

    I think society has so elevated the role of creation that it often downplays the necessary others around the artists, who share the work, discuss the work, and enjoy the work. I know a lot of time we’re told that we can “be anything we want” and that “everyone has a story in them,” and I think it’s true, to a point, but a single story doesn’t make us a writer anymore than a single creation of a song makes us a composer or a single painting makes us a painter, full time. And it’d have been interesting to see Laurie and Amy struggle with their art on a deeper level, figuring out if they just don’t have the spark to create long term. Maybe Laurie was to be a concert pianist, playing others works rather than producing his own, or perhaps his love for art was to be a hobby, a more private thing that is still enjoyed and cultivated, but isn’t necessarily one’s “life work.”

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    1. I really like these points you’ve raised, essentially about the importance of “support roles” to those who “create.” Every time we enjoy a work of art in any genre there are a lot of people involved in its creation who are significant to its being (maybe even more so!) than the person whose name is in lights. Amy and Laurie do go on to create in the later sequels (we just don’t see it Little Women itself, which simply records their conversation about not pursuing art and music), with Amy doing art with her daughter and Laurie writing music for special occasions; I was really happy to read that as it seemed there was such joy for them to be involved in some way in the aspect of creation.

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