Director Greta Gerwig’s film “Little Women” ends as Louisa May Alcott’s novel does, with a family-centered fall festival at Plumfield. Perhaps unintentionally, Ms. Gerwig captures the spirit of Alcott’s beautiful ending to her novel. Not only has she married off the heroine, but she has shown marriage to be far more than an economic arrangement.
Greta Gerwig’s big-screen adaptation of Little Women offers an emphasis on women’s economic independence that has precipitated some protest from purists, who correctly point out that such moments as Amy’s “marriage is an economic arrangement” speech are not in Louisa May Alcott’s novel. What such criticism misses, however, is the reminder Ms. Gerwig’s script provides of just how central the story of Little Women is to the American literary landscape. Since the novel’s publication in 1868, the four March sisters and their neighbor Laurie have lived in the imaginations of generations of Americans and readers across the globe, inspiring plays, musicals, movies, television series, and even Japanese anime. Each adaptation maintains the broad strokes of the story but alters the details to emphasize, and sometimes completely reimagine, the moral of the story. Ms. Gerwig’s retelling of Little Women maintains the major aspects of Alcott’s beloved novel, but rearranges them to serve as a commentary on the very real lack of economic opportunities available to middle- and upper-class women (really, the genteel poor) in nineteenth-century America.
Jo’s experiences in the world of publication frame the story, which consists of a series of flashbacks that are fairly chronological. These are confusing to those unfamiliar with the Little Women story (my 11- and 15-year-old boys had some trouble following the movie without prompts from their older sisters about which episodes are in the past and which are in the present). Jo’s memories provide the background explanations to her present, as viewers first meet her in New York City, where she sells a rather salacious short story to a publisher who desires stories with no moral value. Viewers learn that she has come to New York to work as a governess for two little girls in a respectable boarding house, where the fascinating German scholar she eventually marries also resides. A telegram from home in Concord, Massachusetts, prompts her immediate return, as her sister Beth is dying. As Jo journeys home by train, her memories convey the highlights of Alcott’s novel, starting with the Christmas breakfast the March girls agree to give to the poor Hummel family, who have nothing to eat.
Through the device of flashbacks, Ms. Gerwig builds the characters of the March sisters—Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Beth (Eliza Scanlon), and Amy (Florence Pugh), their mother, affectionately called Marmee (Laura Dern), and Laurie (Timothée Chalomet). The cast has great chemistry, making the seven-year aging process in the movie believable (though Amy does not quite look twelve in the movie’s earliest chronological scenes). Their well-worn yet comfortable home is actually Old Orchard (on the outside at least), the Alcott home in Concord, located very near the homes of their dear friends Thoreau and Emerson. Ms. Gerwig’s direction beautifully captures the subtle looks and tones of parental guidance and filial relationships, accompanied by a gorgeous soundtrack.
Despite the director’s attempt to re-focus the story as a tale of frustrated female economic independence and the place of marriage within that construct, Alcott’s central message of family love and its passing seasons cannot be overcome. Beth’s illness and eventual death, brought on by her diligent charitable attention to the Hummel family, provides a poignant account of the loss of a loved one that brings tears to the eyes of every viewer who has suffered such a loss. Indeed, these domestic scenes chronicling events all too common to human life lend strength and beauty to the film. It’s a coming of age tale that all viewers find recognizable in its emotional ups and downs that teach valuable lessons. Meg must learn the hard way that vanity obscures true beauty. Jo learns that she must moderate her temper and, like her mother, learn patience. Beth must learn courage so that she might enjoy the use of Mr. Laurence’s fine piano. Amy must learn maturity and self-control to be able to gain her sisters’ trust. To Ms. Gerwig’s detriment, she leaves out the very significant role played by the family’s strong Christian faith and the leadership of their father as well as their mother in teaching these lessons. Indeed, Alcott’s novel parallels Pilgrim’s Progress, the novel by which Bronson Alcott framed his own life. While the March family devotion to charity comes across in the movie, the basis of that charity in their Christian faith is not portrayed. This Christian aspect of Alcott’s novel is not a subtle undertone. Beth’s long road to death is a beautiful account of her gradual acceptance that she is dying and she eventually welcomes her journey to Heaven. The rest of the family, especially Jo, must come to terms with the impending loss of Beth and re-order their values to match hers so that they too might join her in Heaven. Charity is a major theme (charity as love; love as charity) from the very beginning of the novel, all the way to its end.
Little Women is a book about love and how the best relationships reflect the true love of our Heavenly Father. This is not a subordinated message in the novel but repeated throughout. Ms. Gerwig not surprisingly ignores this significant aspect of Alcott’s story.
The desire for a marital union based on love and the validity of marriage and family as worthy dreams also triumphs as a theme in the film. Jo’s enmity toward Laurie’s tutor John Brooke for “taking away” her sister Meg and ending their childhood is tempered by Meg’s insistence that her dream of having her own home and family is as worthy as Jo’s dream of being a writer. Despite Aunt March’s sharp words of disapproval over Meg’s choice to marry a poor tutor-turned-bookkeeper, the wedding is a joyful one. In Alcott’s novel, Meg and John’s long engagement brings the first volume of the work to a close. The second volume, Good Wives, was written by Alcott in 1869 in answer to the fervent requests of fans to know what happens to the March sisters. Ms. Gerwig nods at Alcott’s fan-induced concessions in Good Wives with publisher Dashwood’s insistence that Jo’s heroine marry in the novel. Here, director Gerwig weaves together aspects of Louisa May Alcott’s publication of Little Women and Good Wives with her adaptation of Little Women to film. Footage of the actual printing and binding process for books in the mid-19th century is cleverly inserted into the movie, as viewers rejoice with Jo over the publication of her book. Interestingly (and somewhat confusingly for the audience), the book cover is stamped with the author’s name as Louisa May Alcott, not as Josephine March. While Alcott’s own family experiences with having three sisters, one of whom died as a teenager, provide some of the material for the novel, it is not an autobiography. Ms. Gerwig’s artistic vision here is misleading at best. In the novel and in the film, Jo writes a short story about her sisters for Beth during their time at the seashore. This story is the basis for a published short story that is Jo’s first writing and reflects her true talent as an author. In the novel, this story brings hope to the German professor, Friedrich Baehr, that Jo may just carry a spark of romantic interest in him. Ms. Gerwig’s direction takes a different path with Jo’s turn to good writing, placing it as her response to her own regret over not accepting Laurie’s marriage proposal as well as her means of dealing with mourning Beth’s death.
Ms. Gerwig’s film ends as Alcott’s novel (the second part, Good Wives) does, with a family-centered fall festival at Plumfield, the estate Aunt March has left to Jo in her will, which has now become a school. The novel places this scene five years into the future, with Jo the mother of two young boys, Rob and Teddy, and Amy the mother of a fragile baby daughter, Bess. Meg’s twins, Demi and Daisy, are now eight years old. These and other children, students at Plumfield, are shown happily playing and learning as the March girls, now grown into women, gather round their mother, with their father and husbands standing behind them as beacons of love and support. Alcott depicts this moment without the male support, placing Marmee at the center, radiantly surrounded by her daughters and grandchildren. Jo calls it Marmee’s harvest:
‘Here it is, and we never can thank you enough for the patient sowing and reaping you have done,’ cried Jo with the loving impetuosity which she never could outgrow.
‘I hope there will be more wheat and fewer tares every year,’ said Amy softly.
‘A large sheaf, but I know there’s room in your heart for it, Marmee dear,’ added Meg’s tender voice.
Touched to the heart, Mrs. March could only stretch out her arms, as if to gather children and grandchildren to herself, and say, with face and voice full of motherly love, gratitude, and humility—
‘Oh my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!’
Perhaps unintentionally, director Greta Gerwig captures the spirit of Louisa May Alcott’s beautiful ending to her novel. Not only has she married off the heroine, but she has shown marriage to be far more than an economic arrangement.
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The featured image is an image of Louisa May Alcott’s home, Orchard House, where she wrote Little Women. It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, uploaded by victorgrigas. It appears here, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, and has been brightened for clarity.