There was something in Little Women that not only captivated me early on but reminded me of myself. I used to listen to an audio recording of the novel while I took baths as a young girl. Those hours spent soaking, until the water was lukewarm and my fingers pruned, were profoundly formative.
The world of the March sisters was enchanting to me as a child. The conservative and homeschooled world that surrounded my childhood valued the book’s 1860s model of womanhood from the character’s sewing kits to hoop skirts. A casual reading of Little Women would find its way onto any homeschooled family’s shelf along with Anne of Green Gables and every Jane Austen romance. Yet I had no idea how Louisa May Alcott’s novel of “domestic joys and struggles,” as Jo puts it, would be even more important in 2019.
I was elated to hear the brilliant Greta Gerwig was re-doing Little Women, yet I had no idea how well Gerwig’s adaption would give Little Women the justice it deserves. Gerwig focuses on the pro-women aspects of the original texts and inserts Louisa May Alcott’s own voice into the text in a way that was eliminated from the original text. The 2019 adaptation is the one I will be proud to play for daughters one day. Although Little Women might have received praise for its charm and morals in my childhood world, it receives my highest praise in my world today.
My childhood world was partially self-constructed due to my love for the classical and old fashioned. It was not until my teenage years I realized how harmful the conservative world could be and the irony of heroines like Jo March in said world. Without realizing it, I had bought into an ideology of old-fashioned womanhood that aligned with extreme conservative Christianity. This world, although admiring women like Jo for enjoying reading, was a marriage oriented world. Little Women ended with all three living March girls married and as mothers. Like the Jane Austen-eque storyline, women ended their storylines redeemed by marriage every single time (18th century women’s literature is more predictable than Hallmark movies).
Yet, Jo March is much more than a fairytale ending. “I intend to make my own way in the world,” Jo says in 2019 film, and she means it. Jo March is a heroine determined to make a way for herself. Jo gets a job as a tutor and writes anonymous scandalous stories for the newspaper to survive. She pays the bills for herself, and eventually her family. She makes a world for herself, despite the limitations of society.
One of the reasons I value the 2019 movie is the fact it shows Jo as a writer and lover of the written word so well. Little Women is a story that values female education and literary based careers. Jo is respected by her family for her pursuit of the writing and literary world. She resents Laurie for being able to go to University, yet educates herself in every way she can. She grabs books off of Laurie’s shelf and sneaks to read Aunt March’s books when she is sleeping. Long before Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own, Jo March had an attic. The original book tells of Jo shutting “herself up in her room” where she would “fall into a vortex, as she expressed it.” The take follows Alcott’s own story more than any adaption or even the book itself. It is honoring to both Louisa May Alcott and the world she lived in.
Louisa May Alcott never wanted Jo to be married woman; Jo was meant to be a writer, as Louisa May Alcott herself was. “Jo should have remained a literary spinster,” Alcott wrote, “but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare refuse.” The movie plays with concept in a clever fashion, suggesting Jo never married but showing the ending after her publisher demanded it. In the same way she sells stories anonymously for money, Jo knows she cannot be a successful writer as a woman unless she sells out a bit. Gerwig’s film gives us the ending the book was meant to have. For this reason, this adaption shines above the others as the one I would want to show my one day daughters. I would want them to know it is okay to live unmarried and okay to make difficult choices as women if they are the right ones.
Jo has come back to me in different moments throughout my life. She was my favorite as a kid who wanted to write stories. I thought of her infamous denial of Laurie when I had moments of failed romance or misunderstanding. I felt like Jo when I have been jealous of educational opportunities boys in my life have gotten (one of my favorite Jo quotes hails from the 1994 movie when she grumbles to Laurie, ‘I’d commit murder to go to college’). And now, Saoirse Ronan’s performance at Jo has just made me feel known.
The movie’s most powerful moment occurs when an emotional Jo tells her mother she might marry Laurie, after all. Her Mother quickly calls her out for not really loving him and reminding Jo of her identity. Jo does not want to get married, nor live a life under the social constraints of a wife. Despite this, she finds herself lonely and unseen.
Jo breaks it down simply: “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. I’m so sick of it!”
In that moment, Jo March addresses what historically seems to be the bane of womanhood. People see woman as objects to be married off. Jo, on the contrary, wants to be seen for more than just her heart, her romance, and the status of being wife. Jo wants to be seen for being a soul.
Although 2019 is different than the 1860s, I have felt the same as Jo. As a Christian woman I have been so tired of women being taught their whole life to wait and prepare for marriage. I have wept feeling unworthy or feeling selfish for wanting an education past college over wanting to be married. As I mentioned, a lot of this ideology I bought into myself. While I have distanced myself from this mindset personally, I am still surprised at how much marriage still defines the theology given to many Christian women.
While giving Jo a proper storyline as a woman who choices a literary career over marriage, Gerwig’s adaptation shows marriage is a worthy calling as well. Meg, the eldest March daughter, chooses marriage despite Jo urging her to find dreams and chase them. Meg tells Jo her dream is to be a wife and mother: “Just because my dreams are different than yours, it doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.” The sisters can embrace and support each other in their respective dreams, both portrayed as important.
Amy, the March’s youngest sister, has her own stand out moment about the role of a married woman. In Paris, Laurie tries to convince Amy to pursue her dreams as an artist and marry for love. Amy, however, tells Laurie she has always planned on marrying for money. Her choice is not one she is ashamed of. While Laurie himself cannot understand her choices, Amy knows that her only chance for the opportunities in life she desires come from marriage. She cannot make money as a woman. If she did, it would automatically belong to her husband. But marriage is the path Amy has decided to take, to elevate her in society and help her family.
We can learn a lot from Amy, and all the women of the present and past who marry to give themselves a voice in this world. Although it certainly is not a woman’s first choice, it is a choice and one that is understandable and empowering. While the modern world seems quite different from 1860s, I still observe women in my own life desire marriage for opportunity. In the Christian world, marriage often means social belonging, ministry opportunity, and respect in certain circles. I wish it was not so, but Amy’s reality as a woman who makes choices above her own desires is one I have to admire. I think if we started to see woman as more than their hearts, and understand the complexities of their choices, it would be a good start.
Gerwig’s Little Women shows that women have minds, talents, ambitions, and souls as well as hearts. It is easy to weep alongside Jo: women are still overlooked as souls able to worship, learn, and make their own way in the world regardless of their marriage status. Married women need to be seen, unmarried women need to be seen. We need to see each other.