Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A good satire frequently employs a stereotype literally in order to undermine it. In “Little Woman,” Sally Benson dramatizes a stereotyped version of the perfect wife. The protagonist, Penny Loomis, is small and helpless in the world outside her home, but a meticulous housekeeper, excellent cook, and devoted companion to her husband. This apparent recipe for a successful relationship backfires—both for the husband who chose his wife for these very characteristics, and for the wife who continues to pursue all the activities her husband originally admired, even though she realizes that he is losing interest in her company.

The main theme challenges the validity of the standards of attraction that society highlights. “Little Woman” is about two people who base life choices on the importance of appearances but find their happiness diminishing with each year of their relationship. Both Penny and Ralph accept the sexual stereotypes that the male should be physically bigger to be more protective, and the female should be tiny, vulnerable, and subordinate to her husband, and they now find themselves imprisoned behind this facade.

This story is not about a person who is unable to control the way people treat her because of her size. Two characters—Louise Matson and Nellie Merrick—point out that Penny could easily appear taller than her natural height of five feet by wearing high-heeled shoes instead of the flats that she wears. Penny’s resentment of this helpful advice indicates that she is choosing to be regarded as small; she is deliberately making herself conform to the sexual stereotype imposed by society. Although Benson stresses that Penny and Ralph, representing society, are responsible for the unhappiness they have incurred by the use of superficial criteria, she also maintains a balance between satire and sympathy for the protagonist and her consenting spouse.