On Little Women: Jo the Ladybird

This post might have gone any one of several different ways.

Originally I felt compelled to write something about “Little Women” in general. After mentioning the story and characters several times in other recent posts, I realised that me complicated feelings towards Laurie and Amy would make for an interesting examination. As much as I adore the novel and identified with Laurie, something always felt off about his character arc and I never warmed to Amy.

“Let’s wait until the 2019 film adaptation though.”

Then the post could easily have been gushing about the 2019 version, even before viewing it. “Little Women” is probably my favourite novel of all time, and the incomparable Greta Gerwig would be at the helm. In front of the camera would be heavyweights like Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, and Bob Odenkirk. Better still, Saoirse Ronan, Timotheé Chalamet, and Emma Watson would be present.

So, yes, there is considerable bias here. Streep and Dern are incredible. There is an earnestness and innocence about Ronan that I simply love. Chalamet has become one of my favourite actors. Florence Pugh, admittedly not on my radar until “Midsommar”, turned in such a great performance there why not add to the excitement? As I have written several times, I adore Emma Watson. Having already been Hermione and Belle, her inclusion as one of the March sisters only added to her charm.

Definitely, let’s wait until the 2019 film adaptation to discuss “Little Women”.

Why? Because Gerwig and that cast would undoubtedly bring some new perspective to the treasured story. I know Alcott’s novel like the back of my hand, as undoubtedly did Gerwig when she sought to direct. This would not be a simple re-telling. We have the 2017 PBS mini-series, the 1994 classic with Ryder and Bale, and the 1933 Katharine Hepburn version among others.

I watched it and cried. Gerwig not only provided depth and fresh insight into the tale, she presented familiar takes on the story in a glorious light. As someone hoping to make a living, and support a family, writing novels, watching Ronan’s Jo take on that struggle alone was enough to move me to tears and cheer (damn right, you keep that copyright, Jo!).

The movie was beautiful in so many ways I can articulate, yet I also felt attached to something I could not.

Enter Frankie Thomas (@frankie_jay_tho) and a brilliant Twitter thread that I include here, with permission, in its entirety, because it perfectly articulates that missing piece:

Little Women (2019) picks up where Lady Bird left off: the question of how to continue living when you feel like you were only ever meant to exist as a teenage girl.

I’d never seen this problem portrayed anywhere until I saw the end of Lady Bird, but now I realize it’s always been one of the foundational questions of Little Women and Gerwig just brought it out because it’s one of her major preoccupations as an artist

it’s often mistaken for a millennial fear of failing to achieve one’s potential, but that’s not how I read it at all; I see it as a shocked, pained recognition that one’s teen-girl self was the best version of one’s self

that the teen-girl iteration of you was the purest, truest, most authentic expression of your soul, with the deepest capacity for joy and delight in the world and in yourself; you took up space in the world, you sparkled

the shattered look on Saorsie’s face at the end of Lady Bird — that panicked glance around the city, the thousand-yard stare — is (in my interpretation) her realization that the “Lady Bird” version of herself has died and isn’t coming back

and has been replaced by this anxious wallflower of a woman whose main concern is not looking stupid in front of men; and tragically, she KNOWS this, but knowing isn’t enough to make it stop

so this is the question on which Lady Bird ends, and now it’s the central subject of Little Women: how do you make a meaningful life for yourself if you peaked as a teenage girl? (or, in Laurie’s case, if you never even got the chance to BE a teenage girl)

Meg/Emma Watson is obviously the weakest character/cast member, but on my second viewing I thought she embodied this problem really well: in all the flashback scenes she looks RADIANT, and in the present-day scenes she looks so fucking sad, depleted, dead inside

and her life is objectively good! John Brook seems like a wonderful husband, their marriage is a happy one, she loves her kids, she even has her family nearby, she’s very lucky…but her eyes are dead like Saorsie’s at the end of Lady Bird

to some extent it’s a universal problem (we grow up, we put away childish things), but it’s also very much a political problem (when society slots you into the “woman” category, it necessarily kills at least part of your soul)

on my second viewing, I thought the ambiguous ending of Little Women was proposing two possible answers to the question of how to continue living; and surprisingly, I don’t think it had as much to do with the question of marriage, per se, as everyone thinks it does

what struck me on my second viewing is that the “Jo is married” ending is a vision of COMMUNITY, practically a commune: the whole family is together, surrounded by children, everyone pursuing their talents and dreams

I cried to notice that Meg seems to be teaching an acting class, Amy is teaching painting, and Laurie is holding the baby; everyone is together (except Beth), it’s the closest possible approximation of a total return to adolescence

it’s like writer-Jo’s gift to herself and her sisters: a vision of the best of all possible worlds, and a not-entirely-impossible vision at that

but then the other ending, in which Jo is a novelist who writes “Little Women,” is a different sort of happy ending, a more capitalist one: Jo has remained true to herself, but I think she’s also terribly alone, and that’s the trade-off she’s chosen to make in this timeline

neither ending feels entirely right (in one, Jo is unconvincingly married and a thwarted writer; in the other, she’s alone and her once-close family is fragmented), and I think maybe that’s the point — NOTHING will entirely bring back what Jo and her sisters had as girls

that’s why (thanks to @anyamicaela for pointing this out, I missed it on my first viewing) the second-to-last shot is of all four March sisters as little girls, holding toy swords in the air like musketeers — dissolving to the final shot of the film: Jo, alone

Wow – where to begin?!

I suppose with Laurie because as a male reader he represented my window into the story. He is by no means the most important aspect of the story and I can feel some readers pulling away at the notion that anyone would centre Laurie in a discussion about Little Women. As the story is so much about these young women and I am not myself one, my intent is not to centre Laurie but to leverage his natural role in the story so that I might centre the women with an appropriate context.

When I first read the novel I fell in love with the March sisters, just as Laurie does, and while I identified more with Jo’s character I could not help but put myself in Laurie’s shoes – living next door and desperately wanting to be part of that sisterhood. The Laurie from the first half of the novel is one of my favourite male characters. The way he plays with Jo, the conversation he has with Meg at her debut – it felt close to home.

Where I felt things start to fall apart was the indication that he felt something towards Meg. Then he invested himself in courting Jo. When that failed, he eventually courted Amy. It did not matter to him which March sister it was, he wanted to be a part of their family. It rubbed me the wrong way. Laurie was part of the family, and if he did not truly love one specific woman he had no business proposing marriage. I struggled to articulate how I felt about all of this for years.

Then came the Gerwig adaptation and Frankie’s thread. “Or, in Laurie’s case, if you never even got the chance to BE a teenage girl.” Laurie saw something in the March girls he loved and with which he desperately wanted to take part. He was a boy becoming a man with all of the societal expectations that come with that. His experience would never be theirs, desired though it was. This is not to say that Laurie saw their experience as better – clearly the girls’ experience was limited because they were girls – but something about it appealed.

What was that something?

….the teen-girl iteration of you was the purest, truest, most authentic expression of your soul, with the deepest capacity for joy and delight in the world and in yourself; you took up space in the world, you sparkled

The March girls, for all their imperfection, were apex humans. They were alive in a way that was alien to Laurie and he sought it vicariously through them.

Speaking of imperfection, there’s Amy. The youngest and whiniest of the March girls, obsessed with her nose and being popular. As Jo sits in stark contrast with Meg, the eldest who actually seeks a traditional domestic life, Amy seems to sit in stark contrast with the quiet Beth. While Beth hid quietly in corners and sought only to support everyone else, Amy was loud and self-centred.

Being so attuned to Jo’s character, I disliked Amy in most iterations of the story – probably a projection of Jo’s feuding nature with her. She did burn Jo’s manuscript and then steal her trip to Europe, after all. Unlike Jo, who wanted to be a true artist, or Meg, who wanted a true domestic life, Amy seemed to want a Desperate Housewives sort of existence

All credit to Gerwig and Pugh for transforming my opinion there as well. She is still selfish to be sure, but in a charming and relatable way. We see more clearly how much of that stems from always finishing second to Jo, especially when it comes to Laurie’s proposal. However, I think her character is best captured in the last-minute-added speech she gives to Laurie:

Well. I’m not a poet, I’m just a woman. And as a woman I have no way to make money, not enough to earn a living and support my family. Even if I had my own money, which I don’t, it would belong to my husband the minute we were married. If we had children they would belong to him not me. They would be his property. So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you but it most certainly is for me.

It was in this version that I began to see Amy as a reconciliation of Meg and Jo. Whereas Meg put aside her acting for the domestic life and Jo put aside her domestic life for her writing, Amy was the woman “trying to have it all” – the original Liz Lemon. I love the Austen-esque awareness of the nature of marriage for her time. She knew she could not make her way with painting and, painting or not, the necessary marriage would be an economic proposition (mercenary, as Jo describes).

I think this speech by Amy was the lightbulb moment in the story. It set everything else in perspective, much of which Frankie does an excellent job describing in the thread. The ambiguity and juxtaposition of Jo’s endings; Meg’s outlook before and after marriage; the evolution of Laurie’s character to someone who, in this version, does truly love Amy and proposes marriage for a reason other than, ‘Because Jo said no, Meg got married, and Beth is gone’.

Thanks to Gerwig and her company (and Frankie), I see the March sisters at the beginning of the story with the same eyes as before, the same eyes with which Laurie sees them, but now I see their story as less a literal matter of “to marry or not to marry” and more about their struggle against losing that identity (or, in Laurie’s case, of having never had it).

Even in Meg’s wedding, an event she loves to a man she loves and continues to love, she indicates as much to Jo:

Jo March: You will be bored of him in two years and we will be interesting forever.

Meg March: Just because my dreams are not the same as yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. I want a family and a home and I’m not scared of working and struggling, but I want to do it with John.

Jo March: I just hate that you’re leaving me.

Meg March: Oh, Jo, I’m not leaving you. Besides, one day it will be your turn.

Jo March: I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe. I can’t believe childhood is over.

Meg March: It was going to end one way or another. And what a happy end.

Meg states her acceptance of it ending. She does not view her marriage as the continuation of their happy times together. They will be together as sisters, but it will not be the same and never could remain that way. They all know it. We see that in Amy’s speech to Laurie. We see it in the whole of Jo’s character, rebelling against it. We see it even in Marmie’s character and her relationship with Mr. March.

Once seen, I could not help but seeing the theme everywhere in the story.

The discussion about Beth’s health:

Beth March: It’s like the tide going out. It goes out slowly, but it can’t be stopped.

Jo March: I’ll stop it. I’ve stopped it before.

Jo’s general statement about women:

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. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for.

They found the apex of joy in life with one another and knew it must come to an end. This itself is not the tragedy, there is little story in that. The story is in how they struggle to move forward. They are not imperfect creatures fighting towards perfection; they are perfect beings struggling against the inevitable onset of imperfection. Their struggle is, as Mr. March writes:

I know they will be loving children to you, do their duty faithfully, fight their enemies bravely and conquer themselves so beautifully… that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.

That is why the story found its staying power. Yes, there is importance in the matters of young women and domestic life – particularly for a writer in attempting to find ways to convey that importance as Alcott, Jo, and Gerwig all did – but more broadly in this sense of identity and expectation. The story speaks to something basic and visceral and universal in us.

What Gerwig did with the material is brilliant and may go down as the greatest film adaptation of the novel ever.

Certainly worth the Best Film nod and various acting awards (Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh) that it received, and deserving of the Best Director nod that it did not.

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