Why Jo Has to Marry Professor Bhaer

*Warning: below are thoughts on Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women. Spoilers abound, and, as an old boss of mine once said, I have very strong opinions about things that don’t matter. If you like the film, you do you.*

There are many things that could be said (and some of them have been said) about the latest adaptation of Little Women. One could certainly say this particular adaptation, directed by Greta Gerwig, has taken many liberties with the novel’s story, characters, and even clothing. (Amy wearing Uggs, anyone?) Nevertheless, one of the most egregious departures from the original text concerns Jo’s happy ending with her friend Professor Fritz Bhaer. According to the film, (which, rather bizarrely, flashes back and forth along the timeline and then jumps ahead to a Jo/Louisa May Alcott hybrid attempting to sell Little Women to the editor of the Daily Volcano,) Jo adds a Hollywood-esque happy ending for her fictional self in order to sell her novel. This modern rom-com trope involves Jo prettying herself up and racing off in Amy’s carriage (with Meg and Amy also present for moral support) to catch the Professor before he boards a train that will take him away from Jo forever. According to various critics and opinionated persons, the film ends either ambiguously, (does the Professor-chasing really happen?) or with Jo as a happy, successful, childless businesswoman who owns Plumfield herself and employs her family members.

Regardless of the view one takes on the definiteness or ambiguity of the film’s ending, I intend to argue that such an ending fundamentally alters the purpose and power of the original novel, drastically reducing the story’s potential to impact the reader/viewer–especially a young lady who reads/views Little Women during the crucial period of adolescence, or as a single woman whose life has been impacted by tragedy–in a positive and even grace-filled manner. In short: yes, Ms. Gerwig, Jo DOES have to get married, but not for the reasons you assume.

Firstly, as stated by Gerwig’s Daily Volcano editor, the film assumes that the original novel requires marriage or death of all of its heroines merely for reasons of social propriety. According to the film, the novel’s heroine is expected to be dead or married by the end of the book because that’s what people expect to read, and polite society considers it unthinkable for an unmarried woman to be successful and happy because members of society at large are all under the thumb of repressive social mores. In sum, had Alcott not been brainwashed by the Victorian worldview–and its admittedly incomplete Judeo-Christian values–she would have done things this way.

On the contrary, however, I believe Gerwig and her compatriots possess a deep misunderstanding of Alcott and her novel. Alcott was no prim china aster, raised on governesses and high-buttoned collars. In fact, her parents were heavily involved in the Transcendentalist movement, with her father frequently beginning new idealistic ventures that rarely, if ever, bore fruit. Among these were an integrated school for boys and girls that was forced to close when it began to welcome children of color, and a short-lived vegetarian commune where a young Louisa and her sisters were encouraged to wear short tunics and pants, rather than the customary dresses. As a result, when the famous author was yet a young girl, her family often faced grinding poverty as well as gossip; far from being well-respected, Alcott herself was used to being considered odd. As an adult, she served as a nurse during the American Civil War and published a book about her experience, entitled Hospital Sketches. Short of being able to ask the woman herself, I am unconvinced that Alcott was overly worried about appearing strange to her neighbors or to American society at large. Could societal expectations have had some influence on her decision to give Jo a rather conventional ending? Certainly; conventional endings do sell, and authors want to make money and feed their families. Thus, Alcott’s choice of happily-ever-after may have been nothing more than a smart business decision. In this case, however, what sells books also communicates a deeper Truth.

Far from being repressed or stuck in a conventional box, Jo asserts her independence throughout the novel: she rejects Laurie’s terrible marriage proposal, lives on her own in New York, and even finds some limited success as a writer. Her friendship with Professor Bhaer also brings her great joy and, in short, one may consider Josephine March a “liberated woman”. However, this independence does not make her happy, and she longs for her family and her home. When the tragedy of Beth’s illness and eventual death strikes, she again puts all of her fierce determination into providing for her sister and her family: she becomes Beth’s primary caretaker, and her writing continues to supplement the family’s income. Upon Beth’s death, of course, Jo is devastated. The excruciating pain of losing her sister forces a change in Jo: her grief colors everything in her world, at least temporarily. Of course, this is to be expected; it would be a cruel and bizarre person who remained unaffected at the death of a loved one on whom she had lavished so much love and care. The threat for Jo, however, is that she will abandon her hopes for future joy. That is, there exists a danger of Jo allowing her grief to have too strong a pull over her, closing her off to Grace. As she does not wish to return to New York, remaining single and living at home let Jo stay on her proverbial bed of pain, and threaten to shut out all that God’s Love wishes to do in and for her.

She takes the first step towards healing when she writes the poem “My Beth”, and uses the talents God has given her to channel her pain into something beautiful. Professor Bhaer, though at a great geographic distance, nevertheless recognizes this. Then, when Jo allows the memories, both happy and painful, to wash over her in her writing of the novel about the March girls’ childhood, she faces her grief head-on in a way possible only for a Christian who has the hope of eternal life. Sending such a precious story out into the world to be published, read, and critiqued exemplifies the fact that her grief no longer holds sway over Jo, and how Hope now helps to sustain her.

For the Christian, such Hope is a grace that is never left incomplete. Thus, when Professor Bhaer re-enters Jo’s life and seeks–in his own sweet, shy way–to court her, the last piece of what J.R.R. Tolkien might call Jo’s eucatastrophe falls into place. The concept of eucatastrophe, or divinely-orchestrated happy turning of the tide just after the greatest tragedy, is necessarily modeled on Christ’s death and Resurrection, and is fundamentally necessary to the hopeful worldview of every committed Christian: if we do not keep this happy ending in mind, we easily miss the great gifts God wishes to give us. For Jo, to reject the Professor’s suit would be to reject what becomes a gift of Grace not only for her, but for her children and students at Plumfield School.

In the sequel to Little Women, entitled Jo’s Boys, Jo becomes not only a teacher but also a surrogate mother for the young boys at her school, many of whom have difficult backgrounds or troubled pasts. Such a great role requires deep strength, and can best be filled by a woman like Jo, a former tomboy who has known tragedy and sorrow.

At the time of the Professor’s proposal in Little Women, however, none of this is known. This eucatastrophe is only beginning to unfold, and there seems to be a temptation for Jo to reject Professor Bhaer’s gentle proposal: that is, there can be a distrust of what seems too good to be true. Alcott here gives a beautiful map of the human heart–or at least a segment of it–beginning to arise from grief. There can be a tendency, as the black clouds lift and sunlight begins to return, to seek a kind of equilibrium; as long as nothing too bad happens, I am satisfied, one may think. I will not ask for too much. I shall not rock the boat. However, this can lead one into a kind of sin against hope, for God is not a god of inches and if-thens; He does not make that kind of deal. Rather, He is our Father who desires nothing more than our happiness with Him forever, where all tears will be wiped away. To paraphrase a line from the film Shadowlands, the pain now will be part of the happiness then. Where better can this be seen than in the Cross and Resurrection of Christ? God, then, desires to give us joy far beyond anything we can imagine, beginning even in this life as a limited foretaste of what is to come.

Jo, then, uses what has been a fault–her strong will–to overcome this temptation to “play it safe”: in consenting to marry Professor Bhaer, Jo chooses the unknown over the known, the wild ferocity of faith in God’s goodness over the safe box of a life of spinsterhood. She chooses to let herself become vulnerable again, risking a broken heart for the sake of the man she loves. Indeed, Alcott seems to convey, it is love, and love rooted in Divine Charity, that alone can give us the courage to make such a choice. As we discover in Little Men, life is not easy for “Mrs. Jo” as she becomes, but it is full to bursting with joy and love.

Regardless of whether Alcott was aware of the powerful, joyful message conveyed by her novel, or she was simply being a smart businesswoman, Jo’s happy ending in marriage and children gives proof to the reader that the sun will shine again, joy will return. Thus, by altering the text in such a fashion as to remove the certainty of Jo’s happy marriage, Gerwig’s film removes one of the most powerful and lifelike testimonies to life after active grief. Instead, it substitutes material success and “independence” as cheap consolation prizes. It is not the purpose of this piece to debate whether single women can be fulfilled (of course they can be so), or of the relative shortcomings of a Protestant understanding of a woman’s vocation that denies the possibility of religious life. For the purposes of the text, Little Women‘s Jo finds her purpose in the self-giving love of marriage, children, and teaching; her long journey up the mountain a la Pilgrim’s Progress bears much fruit.

Gathering Up the Fragments

Here begins a new feature (inasmuch as a blog with only four posts can have “features”) I’d like to call “Gathering Up the Fragments”. As homemakers, we have the duty to be frugal–as our individual family situations warrant–and so I’d like to share some successes and failures, specifically in the realm of food.

Firstly, our usual grocery store has recently been marking down a lot of clearance produce. They take random fruits and vegetables, stuff them in plastic bags, and mark those down to $.99. This week’s haul included a jicama; two bags of organic sweet peppers; two bags of organic kale, and a container of organic cilantro. Here’s how we’ve used things so far:

–Jicama was peeled and grated over salad (didn’t use the whole thing…next time, I’ll chop the rest for snacks.)

–Kale went to the chickens (this helps us cut down on our feed bill.)

–Cilantro went into salad, and the rest was added to a pot of black beans, stems and all.

–The peppers were used for our recent party. Those that were nice and crisp got cut up for crudites; any that were starting to soften (but were still good) were halved, stuffed with cream cheese and seasonings, topped with shredded cheddar cheese, and baked at 350* for 10 minutes.

I also found a clearance organic chicken at the supermarket. We are very blessed to have several good local farms, and usually get our meat from them. This price was too good to pass up, however, so I tried to use the chicken for a dinner. Unfortunately, the meat didn’t cook very well, and seemed both rubbery and underdone, despite having cooked to 165*. Whomp whomp. Since I had cooked it in the crockpot, I just left it in there, added water and my vegetable and bone scraps from the freezer, and cooked the thing for almost 24 hours. We got a large amount of broth from it, and the chickens and cat enjoyed a treat.

My husband had gotten a variety pack of beer several months ago, and there was one variety he disliked. I used the remaining two cans in a double batch of beer bread. Since we had family coming to town, it was handy to have some extra bread. I used coconut sugar, half white flour and half sprouted wheat, and half the butter. One loaf was under-baked, but the other came out better. At least, I think so.

Most of the buns for the party had been bought on clearance and frozen previously. We were also able to do a bulk order of hamburgers and hot dogs from our usual meat farmer, which earned us a discount.

That’s all I can think of for now–hopefully I’ll have more successes to report next week!

Because He’s Worthy

I pulled into the garage, parked the car, and nearly collapsed into hysterical laughter. “How was Mass?” My husband asked. Then, seeing me draped over the steering wheel, he said, “well, at least you can laugh about it…”

It was our daughter’s name day, and our nearby parish (we attend two different Catholic churches; one is close, and one farther away) had an evening Mass after dinner time. My husband had to cut the grass, so I thought perhaps the girls and I could spend some time with Jesus.
Ohhhhh boy did that turn out differently than I expected. It started when, instead of being 10 minutes late, we were actually 20 minutes EARLY. No problem, I thought. Daily Mass is usually pretty quick, and we have plenty of books to occupy the toddler.
Well…today books could not hold her attention. We had everything from attempted nakedness (thankfully I stopped her!) to poorly-chosen toys crashing loudly to the floor and BOTH girls screaming simultaneously. The toddler also thought it would be a great idea to redecorate the pews with the tape that was supposed to indicate which seats were closed off for social distancing purposes. “Rosie. STOP.” I hissed over and over again, missing most of the lovely sermon and desperately trying to keep my mind on Jesus. The kicker came when, shortly before the Consecration (the most important part of the whole Mass), she slipped off the kneeler and fell, biting her lip in the process.
You already know what happened next. Great wailing and gnashing of teeth, and my dragging the crying toddler into the vestibule (like the entryway) with the baby on my front in the Ergo carrier. We had to stay out there (though thankfully the doors were open!) through the Consecration until it was time for Communion. What is the POINT?! I thought self-pityingly, looking at Jesus. I can’t pray, I can’t stay focused, when they ARE quiet for all of 30 seconds, my mind starts wandering…Why do this, especially when it’s not a Sunday? Why not just leave right now?
Then I realized that the reason has nothing to do with me and my perception of whether we’re having a “good Mass” or not. Rather, it’s because He’s worthy. As a Catholic Christian, if I believe that God loves me so much that He died on the Cross for me, and that He comes down from Heaven every day under the appearances of bread and wine, if I believe He is closer to me than I am to myself…then the only thing that matters is doing what my loving Father asks of me, because I want to love Him. HE is the reason. Had I packed up and left early, I would have missed receiving Jesus, and also the very kind help of a young lady who spent the whole of Mass after Communion (her first opportunity in months!) walking the now-loopy toddler around the vestibule so I could have some quiet prayer time. What a grace.
Of course, we headed straight home, and everyone went to bed pretty quickly; I don’t pretend it wasn’t stressful, and didn’t feel completely insane. Of course, I won’t be taking both girls to daily Mass every day, especially when I know that they or I need more sleep, or are sick.
Nevertheless, we will keep going when we can, and my husband and I will keep trying to bring up our children to love God.
I remember hearing a story about an elderly Jewish man who belonged to a particular branch of Judaism that denied the immortality of the soul. Despite believing that his soul would cease to exist upon his death, the man was a devout practitioner of his faith, and did his best to keep the Mosaic law. One day, someone asked him “why? Why do this if eternity does not await you?” The devout man replied, “because He’s worthy.”
Indeed, God is worthy. Even when everybody is screaming.

A Storied Recipe

  1. It seems to me that, for those who cook at home, some recipes seem to “grow” stories. That is, for my family at least, some recipes are not just random things pulled from a cookbook or from the Internet. Whenever I make particular dishes for someone new, I must tell the story of this dish: where it originated, memorable times when it was attempted and served, and important events surrounding said dish. “Pamperedchefbraid” is one of those meals.
  2. This particular recipe has been adapted from an original one given to my sister and me when we were girls. Allow me to explain: Around the time we were 10-12, we were part of a library club called Girls with Entrepreneurial Minds and Spirits, or GEMS, (why yes, we were homeschooled–why do you ask? 😉 ) and the goal of this club was to encourage young girls who wanted to start their own businesses. Once a month, a local women who owned her own business would come give a presentation on her particular field, challenges she faced, etc. One month, the guest presenter was a consultant for a kitchenware-based MLM. I remember nothing of that meeting except making and taking home the recipe for a fancy-looking chicken-filled pastry of sorts. Guess who had a short attention span even then…
  3. The dish was actually really tasty, so my mom decided to recreate it at home. Originally, the recipe called for about 27 different kitchen gadgets, along with the ingredients, and was made with prepackaged crescent rolls.
  4. Now, for those of you who know my mother, you know that her food motto (and now mine, too) is “can I make it myself to make it cheaper/healthier?” Thus entered the swap of homemade pizza dough for the crescent rolls. There is also a distinct lack of gadgets (aside from a knife and a pizza cutter) in this adaptation. #largefamilylife #whostolethecheesegrater?
  5. We decided we liked my mom’s simplified version better than the original, and so it went into our meal rotation, known simply as “pamperedchefbraid.” Yes, all one word, because 3 year olds.
  6. Fast forward about 15 years, and I had met Mr. Underhill, the man who is now my husband. At this point in our courtship, we were beginning to talk of the future and, since he is Polish, I realized that the best way to his heart would be through his stomach. Thus, the first time he came to dinner, I made this for him. He didn’t exactly propose to me on the spot, but let’s just say that, 3 years and 2 children into our marriage, I still make this about once a month. It’s tasty, looks impressive, is actually pretty easy, and is good for using up little bits of things in the fridge. Without further ado, here it is.
  7. “Chicken and broccoli braid”:

Ingredients:

1 pizza’s worth of homemade pizza dough, or half a loaf’s worth of bread dough. I like sourdough pizza crust.

1/2 c. Of mayonnaise (I like avocado oil mayo for nourishing fats)

1 c. Of shredded cheddar cheese (or whatever you have on hand)

At least 1/2 c. Of shredded cooked chicken

About 1-2 cups of chopped vegetables, whatever you have. If using peas, they can be frozen.

1-2 cloves of minced garlic, or 1/2-1 tsp garlic powder

Mix together all ingredients except for pizza dough. Roll out dough on GREASED baking sheet or pizza stone. Dough should be in a rectangle about the thickness of thin crust pizza. Short edges should be at top and bottom. Spread filling mixture over middle third of dough, lengthwise. Filling should be spread to each end of dough. It should look like you have a vertical column of filling. Then, using a pizza cutter, cut left and right edges of dough into fringe worthy of Dr. Quinn’s jacket. Starting at one end of the dough, fold one strip from each side to the middle so they overlap. Repeat down the sides of the dough. Pattern will look like a braid. Bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes, or until golden. Let cool for 10 minutes and serve.

Please let me know if the directions make sense! I can always add pictures.

Linking up with Kelly. 🙂

7 Quick Takes–Introduction, Blessings, and What’s Working Now

Hello, everyone! This is a new blog, and it’s been years since I’ve written anything…Hopefully this will go better than did my previous efforts. If you’re interested, bored, curious, or desperate to get five minutes away from your kids while you hide in the bathroom with your phone and the chocolate, read on.

  1. Firstly, an introduction: I’m Rebekah, or Mrs. Underhill to blog readers, and I’m a wife of one and mother of two. I’m a stay-at-home Mom, and my girls are “Rosie” age two, and “Elanor”, six weeks as of this writing. We are practicing Catholics, and a couple of hairy feet away from being straight-up hobbits.
  2. My toddler’s favorite things are, in no particular order, cats; the farm where we buy our milk; and her doll, affectionately named “Why, Cheese?” Just in case you thought we were normal, or something.
  3. Blessings: From time to time on this blog, I would like to share blessings, or, for those who are not religious, simple pleasures or just plain good things. Today, I’d like to report the blessing of a simple garden that’s coming along well, with enough of both rain and sun so far.
  4. We have chickens–specifically laying hens. We currently have six. They are by turns funny, useful, and exasperating. Four are named variants of Frances.
  5. Another focus I’d like this blog to have is on good food and nutrition. When I became pregnant with Rosie, I realized just how terrible my diet was–I was addicted to sugar, days would go by without my eating any vegetables (except maybe baby carrots), and I wasn’t drinking anything close to enough water. Thanks to my wonderful midwife, my husband and I were able to make some changes. A friend told me about the Weston A. Price foundation, and the rest was history. After Rosie was born, I struggled with low milk supply and dove into as much research as my sleep-deprived brain could handle. Once we settled into a routine, with Rosie both breast- and bottle-fed, I began to take baby steps to change our diet, incorporate more exercise, etc. No, I didn’t magically start to make enough milk for Rosie, or start bench pressing cars, or even have any overnight transformations. We have, however, seen good results. It took time, experience, and more than a few missteps; holy cow, real food can be expensive. However, we have been able to keep taking those baby steps, and learned how to stretch the budget in unexpected ways. My hope is to pass on what I’ve learned, and also to learn from others who are kind enough to share their wisdom.
  6. As a first example, here’s how we stretch a chicken:
    Firstly, I cook it breast-side-down in the crock pot. (Many thanks to Brandy at The Prudent Homemaker for this idea. I’ve copied her process somewhat.) I use a meat thermometer with a built-in alarm to tell me when the meat is done, so it doesn’t overcook.
    Once the chicken has cooled, I immediately take off the wings and leg quarters. I add salt, pepper, and seasonings, and broil them for a couple of minutes to get the skin crispy. That’s our meat for dinner that night.
    Next, I pick off and shred as much meat from the carcass as possible. This gets used for sandwiches, chicken soup, chicken pot pie, or what we call “Pamperedcheffbraid” (not trademarked.) The carcass goes back in the crock pot–along with all the bones and veggie scraps I’ve been saving in the freezer–and gets covered with water. Then it cooks on low for about 24 hours, or until I remember it’s still cooking. The broth then gets used for soup or rice and beans, and the tiny bits of meat from the carcass go to the chickens (those cannibals!) or the cat.
  7. I’m thinking of doing a real food budget challenge–I’ve seen plenty of $20 a week (or similar) challenges on YouTube, but many of those plans understandably rely on unhealthy fats (which are very cheap), and don’t seem super balanced to me. There also seems to be a missed opportunity to capitalize on really inexpensive, nutrient-dense foods. For example: liver is dirt cheap. Ground beef is a little more expensive, but still pretty budget-friendly. If they are carefully prepared, and mixed in the right quantities,
    1. You will not taste the liver
    2. You will get a ton of extra nutrition
    3. BOOM. DINNER.

That’s all for today, folks… hopefully I’ll be back soon! Linking up with Kelly–just a little late.