What is the significance of the rebel figure in children's literature, and specifically in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The rebel characters in children's literature are significant because they serve as inspirations to follow or as examples of behaviors to avoid. In either case they must be relatable enough for others to care about them; if they are too saccharine or too villainous, readers will not respond to them. 

The four primary characters in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott are the March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The story is set in a time when women's roles were quite established and women were not considered to be equal to men; however, from the outset, Mrs. March wants her girls to be independent and make choices which will make them happy rather than just because certain things are expected of them. While two of the girls (Amy and Meg) do conform to their expected roles, they also find happiness. It is Jo who becomes a kind of rebel and stretches the limits of the day.

Jo does not conform to society's view of women. She is bold and brash and boyish. She writes and thinks and chooses the things which a Victorian woman would not have written, thought, or chosen. Jo is not a rebel in the traditional sense, as she is still generally obedient to her parents and other authority figures. Instead Jo is a rebel because she does not conform to the norms for females in her time. In doing so, Jo represents the possibility of something more for all women. Her rebellion is against society, and she becomes an inspiration for other girls.

I hate to think I've got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China aster! It's bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys' games and work and manners! I can't get over my disappointment in not being a boy; and it's worse than ever now, for I'm dying to go and fight with Papa, and I can only stay at home and knit, like a poky old woman! 

Another kind of rebel character in children's literature serves as another kind of example. Edmund Pevensie in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis is a character who rebels simply because he does not want to conform to the rules other people have set. He goes where he should not go, he eats what he should not eat, and he trusts people he should not trust--all for selfish reasons.  

And now we come to one of the nastiest things in this story. Up to that moment Edmund had been feeling sick, and sulky, and annoyed with Lucy for being right, but he hadn't made up his mind what to do. When Peter suddenly asked him the question he decided all at once to do the meanest and most spiteful thing he could think of. He decided to let Lucy down.

The result of his rebellion is costly for everyone around him, innocent victims who have to pay for his sins. Some lose their lives in battle; but most notably Aslan willingly trades himself for Edmund, a picture of atonement for Edmund's sin. Edmund eventually repents, which means this rebel character, too, can serve as an inspiration for readers. 

One other kind of inspiring rebel character is one who bravely stands up to authority when it is a moral necessity. Consider Annemarie in Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. Annemarie, along with the rest of her family, is determined to help the Rosens escape from the Nazis; of course, to do that, she has to rely on some trickery and deceit, certainly more characteristic of a rebel than a model citizen. Her refusal to conform to the society in which she lived makes her a rebel, but it also makes her brave. 

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