A Teddy Obsession (A Sort of Gerwig’s Little Women Review)

When I finally got around to reading Little Women in college, it immediately became one of my favourite stories. Jo and Meg charmed me (admittedly, I found Amy annoying on my first read), and I saw a lot of myself in Beth, too. What opened made the story so accessible to me was Laurie though.

In terms of character, I did not see a whole lot of myself in Teddy. I felt like I had more in common with Jo and, like Jo, might have been friends with Teddy and engaged in arguments more often than not. Teddy was the boy though, the strange boy from the house next door. The story is about the March sisters and their world. Teddy is an outside character who desperately wants to be part of that world.

I felt that. With no sisters, cousins too far away and in incompatible age groups, and no neighbours, my childhood wanted for girlish influence.

The boorishness of traditional masculinity annoyed me, and it was adult men who promoted it far more than any classmates. I think it was clear to everyone that there would be no escaping that influence and many boys succumbed to the pressure and engaged in hyper-masculine aggression.

My interests tended towards the traditionally masculine (ice hockey, baseball), but I approached it with a more feminine energy.

My interest in girls was especially curious to me. I did not envy their activities. No part of me wondered what it might be like to wear dresses, play with makeup, or manage an imaginary kitchen – things that I assumed girls to enjoy whether they did or not.

They were interesting though. I liked the way they dressed and played and interacted. It did feel like a secret world (and in many ways it was, a prolific one away from the male-oriented reality). I thirsted to be a part of that world because it seemed pure and brilliant. Within that sphere everyone was the best version of oneself because none of the world’s expectations applied.

I did not want to be a boy in that world, and I did not want to be seen as one of the girls. Either one of those forced attempts to enter the world would contaminate it by inviting expectations. I wanted to enter it naturally, to be myself and to interact with them in a way that allowed them to remain that pure version of themselves.

What made Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women endearing was the way she built on the familiar themes of the story while introducing new depth.

Florence Pugh’s Amy was no longer the annoying younger sister. She took on the world with an unusual clarity that I missed in my early reads of the novel. I saw a little woman more preoccupied with shaping her nose than shaping her character, but Amy saw the mercenary nature of a woman’s life and the economic necessity of tending to her nose. Pugh delivers all of this beautifully in a monologue at one point in the film.

Gerwig also enriched, with no small aid from Meryl Streep, my understanding of Aunt March’s character. I saw her as a bitter old woman leading the March sisters astray with her archaic beliefs about marriage, but Streep brings a typical complexity to her performance and portrays Aunt March in a sympathetic light. She’s not always right, but she’s never wrong. She cares about all of the Marches; her concern is the practicalities of life seen through the eyes of an older woman who has been through the wars.

The March girls are in that period of transition in life, one that Gerwig amplifies by abandoning the linear format of the novel in favour of parallel tellings of two halves of the novel. She juxtaposes the early lives of the March girls with their lives transitioning into adulthood.

Meg loves John and wants to experience all the highs and lows of life with him, regardless of the hardship. We see that alongside her struggle with the practicalities of life – she wants nice things and feels pressure to have them because of her friends. It creates pressure on her marriage because she married for love rather than the practical.

Amy prepares to marry for the economic benefit because, as she expresses in her monologue, any version of marriage is an economic preposition for a woman at that time. Even if she earned her own money, which was unlikely, it would belong to her husband, as would any children they had. And given the progression of events in the story, a proposal from the man she does love, Teddy, is problematic because she’s set up as his consolation prize in the wake of Jo’s rejection.

Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan’s take on Jo is equally brilliant, with Jo displaying her characteristic enterprise and emancipated nature while eschewing the typical tomboyish take on the character (a take that, in retrospect, seems so obviously counter to the point of the story it’s a wonder so many adopted it).

Jo does not want to marry for economic stability or even for love if it inhibits her, but she possesses a palpable loneliness as a result.

Thus, the story becomes about the recognition of the purity and brilliance of their world as little women, and (principally) Jo’s resistance to it coming to an end. It must end, just as the tide must go out, but Jo will not accept that. She cannot accept that. We see it in her heart-to-hearts with Marmie, in her appeal for Meg to run away with her rather than marry John, in her competitions with Amy, and in the juxtaposed attempts to nurse Beth back to health.

As the film draws to a close we see the traditional ending with Jo and Bhaer – one that Jo rejects but agrees to at the insistence of the publisher (Alcott reportedly had Jo wind up with Bhaer at this exact insistence with the original publication). While Jo agrees to this mercenary transaction in exchange for retaining her copyright on the work, the film proceeds to two simultaneous conclusions.

In the first, we see Jo at Aunt March’s house, converted to a school just as she indicated she would. Meg appears to be teaching drama (having given up her ambitions of life on the stage for her domestic life), Amy teaching art (despite having given up her artistic ambitions), Laurie teaching the boys, and Jo presumably teaching English. Everyone is together, but life is different and Jo is tethered to that life.

In the second, Jo lovingly watches as the publisher assembles her novel, binds the pages, and imprints the gold-leaf on the cover. While she watches her ambition come to fruition, we see a wave of loneliness cross her face. She has her novel, but she’s alone in the world.

In the constant struggle between the practical and the passionate, Gerwig seems to suggest that one must choose and one will not find satisfaction wholly in one decision or the other. The perfection of their childhood world juxtaposed with the impossibility, and inevitability, of that decision while transition into adulthood is the whole point.

It’s here that I love, that I adore Little Women. I do not say that lightly. Many literary and cinematic works appeal to me and I can enjoy them over and over, but the feeling I have towards Little Women is love.

It’s a love that transcends into all areas of my life. The fiction of Little Women never crossed into my life because I never had Laurie’s window into this world. Now that I am older that window has closed forever, much as we see if closing for Jo by the end of the story. It contains both tragedy and beauty – as with many things it possesses such a high value precisely because it ends, not in spite of it.

As James Barrie once wrote, “God gave us memory that we might have roses in December.”

The poetry of that window (and ability to revisit it thanks to Alcott and adaptations like Gerwig’s) sustains me as much as it saddens me.

I do not speak of it, but I often imagine deep friendships with somewhat distant people in the perpetual hope that such a world still exists. They must be somewhat distant people because the reality of closer relationships shatters the illusion. By forming a stronger-than-reality sense of friendship with people who I don’t know as well, I can view the friendship through rose-coloured glasses that provide me with a sense of security and hope.

Yes, I understand what I am writing here and I can sense judgement among the readership. I know that it’s unhealthy, but embracing a fiction for a sense of stability, no matter how thin, is hardly an uncommon trait among people. My attitude is that I at least have the benefit of recognising mine as a fiction.

The other reason I keep silent about this fiction is the expectation that ruins it. Just as I could never enter that world because I was a boy (and that had its expectations) and they were girls (and that had its expectations), I could never discuss that world because I never trusted people to hear what I was saying without it first passing through the filter of their expectations.

Going into that world requires a distinct kind of love. I lack the words to describe it. It’s too passionate to be familial, but it’s also too friendly to be sensual. Despite, perhaps, even the presence of mutual sexual attraction, there is nothing particularly sexual about the attraction just as I would not describe it as platonic.

I think of a reminiscing scene in Little Women where Laurie squeezes Jo. She hugs him back with one arm, pressing her cheek against his head while taking his hat and placing it on her head. It’s playful and intimate. There’s an intense energy about it where they cannot be together enough; they cannot be close enough and it cannot be long enough. It’s the purest expression of that world.

That is the feeling I chase in life, I suspect intrinsically and being a bit of a loner because of the disappointment I encounter with most people. I’m an introvert. Most interactions do not result in an abundance of energy, let along for the other person, but in a rapid depletion of energy. I believe that’s because, with most people, I do not see that brilliant inner light.

It’s not that people do not possess such a light. I think my disappointment comes specifically from seeing their inner light deep within them, muffled by a weathered consciousness that long ago accepted the realities of life and suppressed it. They may have someone in life that sees that inner light (though even that seems unlikely), but it’s not me and never will be. It’s beyond trust and respect and passion. It’s beyond the soul’s recognition of the impossibility and inevitability.

It requires an act of pure foolishness, hopefulness, even irony to eschew that recognition. It becomes an act of rebellion to say, “Let’s go to that place even though we cannot stay there, even though we may not even remember that we were there, just to feel it while we can and if only as a middle finger to impossibility and inevitability.”


 

P.S. – Ziggy Stardust

I think this is where one sees the brilliance of David Bowie’s “Heroes”.

I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can beat them, just for one day
We can be Heroes, just for one day

And you, you could be mean
And I, I’ll drink all the time
‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact
Yes we’re lovers, and that is that
Though nothing, will keep us together
We could steal time, just for one day
We can be Heroes, for ever and ever
What’d you say?

I, I wish you could swim
Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim
Though nothing
nothing will keep us together
We can beat them, for ever and ever
Oh we can be Heroes, just for one day

I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can be Heroes, just for one day
We can be us, just for one day

I, I can remember (I remember)
And the guns shot above our heads (over our heads)
And we kissed as though nothing could fall (nothing could fall)
And the shame was on the other side

Oh we can beat them, for ever and ever
Then we could be Heroes, just for one day

We can be Heroes
We can be Heroes
We can be Heroes
Just for one day
We can be Heroes
We’re nothing, and nothing will help us
Maybe we’re lying
then you better not stay
But we could be safer
just for one day
Oh-oh-oh-ohh, oh-oh-oh-ohh
just for one day

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