*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.