Canons and Classics: Are They Still Relevant?

January, 2021
Lilly Stewart, Blog Correspondent

What is the literary canon? When I hear the word ‘canon,’ two things come to mind. First, I think of the true events in a book or TV show—and not part of a fan fiction—this one is left over from my Tumblr phase. The other definition conjures up an image of High School English classes, where we had to read outdated, boring books written by white men, that were usually racist and misogynistic. However, the canon as we know it has been getting some fresh new titles as time has gone on, as the demand for a more diverse set of voices rises.

The problem is that old classics that have been part of the canon for years aren’t going away. On the one hand, this can show the direction of time and progress as the canon goes from old and traditional to new and progressive. But, what message does it send to keep the same offensive texts as part of the canon, still being taught in grade school and university? Many classic novels are not part of the canon either, which can get confusing. At the same time, not all canon texts are classics, because the only people reading them are scholars who study the subject and reluctant students. The most popular and famous novels are classics, not canons. One such classic, well known and often read, is Little Women. 

In december of 2019, another version of Little Women debuted on the big screen. Based on the 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott, the movie quickly gained widespread praise for its fresh take, directed by Greta Gerwig. The first time this beloved story aired on the silver screen was in 1917, with adaptations over the years, including a 1933 version starring Katherine Hepburn, a 1949 version with Elizabeth Taylor, and of course the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder and Christian Bale. In 2018, a BBC miniseries starring Maya Hawke gave a more realistic touch to the story before the most recent version with Emma Watson and Saoirse Ronan (PBS).  

Everyone knows the story of Little Women or is at least familiar with it. While Little Women is upheld as a story carried by the fiery Jo, who breaks away from strict gender roles and embodies a feminist ideal, Alcott herself wrote in her diary that she “never liked girls or knew many” (Atlantic). This seems odd to hear—especially coming from a woman who created one of the most well-known characters to date. This internalized distaste of women might make Jo’s masculine tendencies more understandable, but it’s pretty disappointing coming from the author of a beloved story about and for women.  

After watching the 2019 film in theaters, I felt nostalgic, and I decided to pick up my own copy, one I had received as a gift from my mom when I was in middle school. I had never gotten around to reading the book all the way through, despite being an avid reader at the time. Now, I decided I should read it and compare the original with the various adaptations. Needless to say, my expectations were high. I wanted to be Jo March growing up—not only because I want to be an author, but because I saw her passion, wit, and smarts, and thought: this is who I want to be.  

But, I got stuck. I couldn’t get past the scene where Jo and Laurie first meet, though arguably, this was the beginning of the action in the novel. It’s not that the writing was bad, or that the characters weren’t engaging. Maybe it was because I already knew what was going to happen—the limes, Beth’s sickness, Amy burning the manuscript, Jo’s rejection of Laurie—or maybe it was a product of its time. Either way, I got bored fast and quit. Little Women was beloved when it came out, and it has endured until now, despite being problematic in some of its content. Like many classics, it’s the characters people remember, and not the plot. When we think of The Great Gatsby, what do we see? We see the elusive Gatsby himself, a dazzling party with women in flapper dresses, Daisy, and the awkward observer of it all, Nick. But the plot must be engaging—after all, it’s what develops the characters. Is it simply that on-screen versions take less effort to follow, and that literary symbolism, theme, and overall aesthetic is an acquired taste? 

Literature is subjective of course, but it’s worth pointing out that until very recently, the canon was decided under the context of colonialism, patriarchy, and systemic racism. For centuries, it was old white men deciding what was ‘literature’ and what wasn’t. There are many classics that to this day, are hotly debated as to whether they belong in the canon. The good news is, the canon itself is expanding to include more works. 

Little Women might be a classic, but it’s not technically part of the literary canon. In fact, it’s rarely if ever assigned in high school curriculum or studies at the university level. And yet, American classics like Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye are front and center. It’s no surprise that a book about women would fall by the wayside, but while Little Women might not be the most intense, hyper-sexual, philosophizing, or depressing tome that defines the literary canon, it contains a host of potential not only for feminist readings, but modern re-readings (and re-adaptations).  

I’ll put it this way—while Little Women isn’t in the ‘canon,’ the books that are don’t get the same kind of widespread attention and obsession. I don’t see anyone making a revamped on-screen version of The Grapes of Wrath every few years.  

Jane Austen’s novels seem to be the exception to this rule, at least for me. Not only have her novels been adapted and re-adapted several times over the years, but her work is taught in many curriculums, and she has secured a spot in the canon. I didn’t have the same difficulty with any of Austen’s novels as I did with Little Women. While Austen doesn’t tend towards the dramatic, her stories certainly aren’t boring. Her sometimes comically flawed characters, awkward situations, and misunderstandings make her books painfully realistic. People still regard Austen’s classics as ‘girly’ though (in part because of the movie adaptations). If you read any of her novels, you’ll find that this is a misfire. Her novels might have romance with a happily married couple at the end, but it’s important to keep in mind how it was basically impossible for a woman to get published in the early 19th century without that type of ending. Austen still manages to give a picture of everyday foibles with a subtle touch of irony and satire. Many of the psychological subtleties that she captures are still relevant today, and most of the time she’s making fun of her protagonists. 

But of course, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and if we are going to read Pride and Prejudice in school, we should read equally great novels of completely different genres, published in separate times and contexts as well. In order to form a better canon, we need variety. 

What makes the 2019 version of Little Women so widely upheld as the best version to date is the honesty with which they approach the time period, and the subsequent lack of opportunities for women. The script elevates the already somewhat rebellious characters to be much more outspoken than they are in the book. Amy March, played by Florence Pugh, gives a monologue where she says, “I’m just a woman, and as a woman there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living, or support my family. And if I did have my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married…so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition because it is.” Jo has a monologue of her own where she says, “Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts, and they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for.”  

So even if Louisa May Alcott didn’t like women, we do. While the modern writing in the 2019 version departs from the book, it reinvigorates the story to become more relevant. Jo, Beth, Meg, and Amy are like foundations we can build upon. I’m sure in the next twenty years there will be yet another retelling. Classic stories get redefined and reconsidered with time and perspective, and that’s a good thing. Along the same vein, just because something isn’t in the canon, doesn’t mean it’s not literature—and if the story is still being consumed (in whatever format) generations later, I think it’s safe to say it’s earned a spot in some sort of canon. Maybe the canon itself, as it stands now, should be scrapped away and replaced entirely. In fact, maybe there shouldn’t be a canon at all, and we can stop pitting books against each other as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘literary’ versus ‘for entertainment.’   

I’ll put it this way—while Little Women isn’t in the ‘canon,’ the books that are don’t get the same kind of widespread attention and obsession. I don’t see anyone making a revamped on-screen version of The Grapes of Wrath every few years.

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