Family in Little Women and Huck Finn

Updated on December 22, 2018
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“If Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses, he had best stop writing for them.”[1]

- Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott, after reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, gave it a scathing review and even went so far as to help ban it from the Concord Library (Hart 150). Indeed, she was one of many who believed the book to be wildly immoral, especially for a piece that may be considered a “boy’s book”[2] in many ways. Twain, however, was gleeful upon hearing Alcott’s review, exclaiming, “That will sell 25,000 copies for us sure,” (Hart 150), believing that her contempt for the novel would simply intrigue the general public further. When one turns to Alcott’s own personal works, specifically Little Women, her ideas of morality are not only unsubtle, but they are overtly apparent in almost every chapter, especially through didactic characters such as Marmee.

In comparing these chronologically similar novels, both of which are centered around and at least partially aimed towards children, the moral differences are striking. Although it is impossible to know Alcott’s specific issues with Huckleberry Finn, one of the most notable dissimilarities is how the two authors approach the idea of family. While Alcott’s traditional, loving, nuclear family relies heavily on one another for strength and support, Huck is constantly moving from one broken family to another and he does not settle, or want to settle, throughout the story. This paper will explore the differences between these two presentations of family life in terms of the message that the author is promoting as well as what they reflect about the changing views of family in the mid to late 19th century.

We will first examine the blood relatives that we are given in both novels. To begin with Huckleberry Finn, the only present relative we are given who is directly related to Huck is Pap, his wildly abusive father. For the first portion of the story, Huck is under the care of the Widow Douglas and all he says of Pap is, “Pap he hadn’t been seen for more than a year, and that was comfortable for me; I didn’t want to see him no more. He used to always whale me when he was sober and could get his hands on me…” (Twain 15). When Pap returns, he gains custody of Huck and the two live together in a remote hut where Huck is not allowed to leave and is often locked in the hut alone. This behavior is not simply poor parenting, but it is abusive, both emotionally and physically.

To strongly contrast Huck’s situation, Jo March, the protagonist of Little Women, is surrounded by a loving family consisting of a mother, three sisters, and a largely absent but equally loving father. Jo sums up the family’s impact by exclaiming, “‘I do think that families are the most beautiful things in the world!’” (Alcott 382). The girls spend most every day together, their mother tells them fireside stories, and the girls and mother all cry together as they open loving letters from their father. The Marches seem to exemplify the ideal traditional family.

Clearly the genetic families of the protagonists contrast one another quite strongly when comparing the two books. The effects of these families on the protagonists, however, are both quite complex. Huck, after living under Pap’s rule for quite some time, realizes he needs to escape. Although he enjoys some of the freedoms he is allowed under Pap, such as swearing and being dirty and lazy, Huck writes that “…I couldn’t stand it. I was all over welts. [Pap] got to going away so much too, and locking me in…I was dreadful lonesome,” (Twain 28). Pap is quite literally restraining Huck’s freedom, in all senses of the word. Meanwhile, Huck’s mother is completely gone from the narrative; she is not even mentioned once. Thus, we are presented with a narrator and protagonist who has a broken and abusive family.

Twain, in creating this discordant family, brings up some topics that are often pushed under the carpet, even today. Many people do not have the ideal family that Alcott’s Little Women promotes and are completely unable to achieve that family. It is made quite clear that Pap will never change his ways, no matter how hard the community attempts to help him. Although alcoholism is a mental illness, Pap has no wish or means to overcome it. What, then, is Huck meant to do? The morals shown in Little Women indicate that one should stand by his or her family during both the good and the bad times. Even when Jo becomes infuriated with her sister, or when the father loses all of the family’s money, the March family stays together and loves one another.

Huck, however, runs away from Pap and never looks back. He does not want to see Pap and he shows no sadness when he learns of the death of his father. As readers, we must question whether he should have tried to help his father or whether his escape was just. Indeed, it is clear that Huck’s relationship with his father was only harming Huck and that there was no way for him to escape. Although the two are family by blood, Twain is insinuating that perhaps this should not always be the most important version of family in one’s life. Huck, for his own safety and wellbeing, needs to run away from his father if he wants any chance at freedom and happiness.

Jo’s situation initially seems to strongly contrast that of Huck’s. However, upon closer examination, there are quite a few parallels that can be drawn between the two protagonists and many issues that are largely overlooked in Little Women. We have discussed how Pap’s presence in Huck’s life restricts Huck’s freedom, both physically and mentally. Although Jo’s family appears kind, loving, and affectionate, her freedom is in many ways limited by them. Meg’s older sister constantly reminds Jo that she is “‘old enough to leave off boyish tricks, and to behave better… [she] should remember that [she is] a young lady…’” (Alcott 4).

Jo frequently wishes that she had been born a boy instead of a girl, lamenting “‘I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy,’” (5). As a girl, especially a girl in the March household in the 1800’s, Jo must live up to the expectations of those surrounding her. Her typical feminine sisters embrace womanhood and what comes with it. The entirety of Jo’s family conforms to patriarchal domestic stereotypes and encourages Jo to do the same, although she has no wish to do so. While Jo lives in the March household, she has no opportunity to achieve freedom from the patriarchal society she exists in, just as Huck cannot be free whilst living with his father.

Jo’s last chance at freedom is crushed when she marries Mr. Bhaer and enters into a marriage that is quite standard and largely unlike what one would have expected from the young woman who declared, “‘I don’t believe I shall ever marry. I’m happy as I am, and love my liberty too well to be in a hurry to give it up for any mortal man,’” (289). In the words of Ann Murphy, “It is through Jo that we experience the complicated intersections and overlappings of eroticism, anger, and creativity—and mourn the apparent effacing of all three by the novel’s end,” (Murphy 566).

Jo, after being restricted by her family throughout her entire life, ends up following their teachings and enters into a fairly typical marriage in which she must continue to act as society expects. Alcott, however, presents this in a positive light: Jo has fallen in love and, in creating a school for boys, finds a path in life that suits her. Yet the reader feels dissatisfied: Jo’s wild and enthusiastic spirit should not be contained, but both families that she exists in attempt to contain her. Mr. Bhaer is so critical of Jo’s writing (Alcott 280) that it is not unlikely he strongly influenced her decision to turn away from writing and turn to managing a school. In planning this school, Jo says that Mr. Bhaer can “train and teach” the boys while Jo will “feed and nurse and pet and scold them,” (380). Jo, then, is doing the domestic tasks of running a school rather than the intellectual ones. Jo claims that she hasn’t “given up the hope that [she] may write a good book yet, but [she] can wait,” (385). Thus, at the end of the novel, Jo has almost completely abandoned her intellectual work and goals as well as her seemingly untamable creativity and enthusiasm.

Jo perhaps does not realize the extent of how much she has been held back by her family, as they are simply enforcing the societal rules of the time. Yet, we must ask what could have been had Jo not constantly been reminded by her family to act more femininely and to conform to societal norms. Perhaps Jo would not have felt the need to be married, and she could have become a famous author instead of a boarding school manager. Although it is impossible to say where Jo’s life would have gone, it is clear that her family had an enormous impact on the course of her life and that they greatly restrained many of her goals and desires.

Jo is not the only member of the March family who is at least partially repressed. Meg, the eldest, becomes betrothed and soon after her marriage struggles greatly with acting as a proper housewife should. Imprisoned by patriarchal family values, Meg feels the pressure from herself, her husband, and society to be the caretaker of the house, cleaning and cooking all day. However, she is absolutely terrible at these typical domestic tasks. She feels that she must “beg pardon” (222) when she fails to bring dinner to the table while her husband John is “angry” and “disappointed,” (221-222). Nevertheless, Meg is so deeply entrenched in this view of society and domesticity that all she wishes for is the ability to improve her homely skills, as opposed to the ability to choose a different path in life that makes her happy.

Indeed, once Jo and her sisters have all been married and put into their own traditional families, Mrs. March declares, “‘Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!’” (388). Although all three girls have more or less given up on their dreams, they are married and are starting their own families, and this is what matters to Marmee. In raising the girls, she has taught them that marriage and family directly correlate with happiness. Alternative options were not presented to the girls, and so they all followed what they knew despite this traditional path not necessarily being the best option for them.

Mr. March, despite being largely absent from the adventures of the March girls, affects their lives quite deeply as well, although not in such a didactic way as Marmee. Indeed, we have already discussed Huck’s father at length, yet we have not done the same for Mr. March. Every time that Mr. March is mentioned in the novel, the four sisters practically swoon with love and admiration for this man. He is clearly cherished in the family and the girls wish for his return constantly, as he is away at war for most of the novel. Looking objectively at Mr. March and his actions, however, does not always demonstrate the good and faultless man that the March sisters see him as.

A fact that is largely brushed over in the beginning of the novel is that Mr. March lost the family’s wealth and property by trying to help an “unfortunate friend,” (31). In Huckleberry Finn, Pap is constantly taking Huck’s money and using it for alcohol. Both of these novels reflect on the fact that men at this time were generally in control of the money in family situations. Yet, in both of these stories, the fathers having control of the money only leads to destruction. The March sisters must work, foregoing school in order to make money for the family, while Huck is imprisoned by Pap as Pap tries to find a way to obtain Huck’s fortune. Mr. March, instead of staying at home to help his family, chooses to go away to war – he is too old to be drafted – and supports his family only through reassuring letters.

As readers, we are strongly encouraged to like Mr. March while we are meant to dislike Pap. Yet both fathers are deeply flawed characters who, whether intentionally or not, make their family’s lives more difficult. In the words of Willystine Goodsell, in the first half of the nineteenth century, “Father power had not yet been seriously challenged,” (13). Although Alcott does not question the power of the father, Twain clearly critiques the idea of the authoritative and all-powerful masculine role in the family. Pap is an uncontrollable and abusive father; why should he have control over Huck? Indeed, as both novels are written during the second half of the nineteenth century, a transition period in terms of family standards, we can observe Alcott clinging on to the traditional family while Twain begins to question it.

Twain questions the traditional family through more than just Huck and Pap; he gives us a myriad of examples of the failure of the traditional family. In the beginning of the novel, Huck is suffocated by the rules of the Widow Douglass and Miss Watson and is eventually taken away by his father. Huck later briefly lives with the Grangerfords but runs away when members of the family are killed “on account of the feud” (Twain 121) with another family. In another town, Huck watches a girl “screaming and crying” (161) after seeing her father killed. Huck encounters the Wilks family, which consists of three sisters who have recently lost both their parents and their uncle. Huck also sees slaves owned by the Wilks being sold and torn apart from their own families and “[breaking] their hearts for grief,” (204). Yet again, Huck ends up running away. Throughout the entire narrative, Jim mourns for his own family who he wishes to buy from slavery one day (99). The entire book does not give a single example of a happy, intact family. Instead we see broken, fragmented, and disrupted families who are constantly being torn apart from one another and even killed. Huck is constantly running from one unsafe family environment to another.

Huck’s only constant family-like character that we see in Huckleberry Finn is Jim, and even Jim is constantly being separated and reunited with Huck. The two are generally together on a raft; they are continuously on the go and they never settle into a home. In no way are the two a traditional family, yet Huck feels his happiest and most free when he is rafting down the Mississippi with Jim. Even when Huck is given the opportunity for a more traditional and possibly fulfilling family with the Phelps at the end of the novel, he instead decides to “light out for the Territory” (325) by himself and thus escapes any possibility of family. Huck places his freedom above being a part of a family.

Twain thus confronts and even promotes the idea that the separation of the individual from the family can have a positive outcome. Huck is deeply unhappy in all of the traditional family situations that he encounters, and he runs away from every single one of them. Being forced into a conventional domestic role in society is not for Huck, just as it may not suit many people. Through Huckleberry Finn, Twain criticizes the promotion of traditional family as the sole path in life. In doing this, he reflects much of the changing views of the time and the “sapping [of] the roots of the old unified family life of colonial times,” (Goodsell 13).

Alcott, however, made it quite clear in writing Little Women that she wanted to create a moralistic book for young children. The family she created is quite an idealized one and seems to be Alcott’s example of the model family as “the unit of society” (Goodsell 13). However, upon deeper analysis, we are shown that what may first look to be the most supportive and functioning family is still deeply flawed. This form of nuclear family, even at what seems to be its best, is not the ultimate solution to familial problems and often imposes great restrictions and limits the freedom of those within it. Although Alcott has directly criticized Twain for his immoral literature, hers promotes a standard of family that can be quite harmful and restraining to its members. Twain, on the other hand, explores the possibilities of alternative family settings and reflects many changes that are taking place in terms of family structures in the late nineteenth century.


[1] See The Popular Book: A History of America’s Literary Taste for further reading.

[2] See “Manipulating a Genre: ‘Huckleberry Finn’ as Boy Book.” for further reading on the interpretation of Huckleberry Finn as a boy’s book.

Works Cited

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Gramercy Books, 1987.

Goodsell, Willystine. “The American Family in the Nineteenth Century.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 160, 1932, pp. 13–22. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1018511.

Gribben, Alan. “Manipulating a Genre: ‘Huckleberry Finn’ as Boy Book.” South Central Review, vol. 5, no. 4, 1988, pp. 15–21. JSTOR, JSTOR.

Hart, James David. The Popular Book: A History of America’s Literary Taste. University of California Press, 1950. (https://books.google.com/books?id=ZHrPPt5rlvsC&vq=alcott&source=gbs_navlinks_s)

Murphy, Ann B. “The Borders of Ethical, Erotic, and Artistic Possibilities in ‘Little Women.’” Signs, vol. 15, no. 3, 1990, pp. 562–585. JSTOR, JSTOR.

Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Vintage Classics, 2010.

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