- The Radical Art of Believing Women
Towards the end of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott's Jo exclaims: 'I do think that families are the most beautiful things in all the world!' In this line, readers see everything they know of Jo: Alcott tags on the words, 'burst Jo, impetuously', underlining after the full passage of the novel that her principal character still stands before us overflowing with energy and emotion, unaffected and improper to the last. This line also encapsulates the lasting power of the novel, first published in 1868. As Daniel Shealy writes in the introduction to his comprehensive, easy to use, and beautifully illustrated annotated edition (Harvard University Press, 2013): 'for many readers, the Marches are the family they never had, or the family to which they wished to belong'. In her new screen adaptation of the original Young Adult novel, director Greta Gerwig explores the complexity of that model family, and finds something new to admire in both the characters and the form of the novel itself.
The March family–at its core, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and their mother Margaret, known as Marmee; the familial love between these five characters is what draws young readers into a powerful and lasting relationship with this novel. Each of the characters is an archetype in her own right: Margaret, divine mother; Margaret Jr., feminine domesticity; tomboy Josephine; glamorous Amy; and devout Beth. In the construction of these archetypes, the work of the reader becomes important. So much has been written over such a long period about each of these characters–the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review, and the New Yorker have all run multiple pieces on this text in the last five years alone–that the Marches have a life in the cultural imagination that is quite distinct from what befalls the four girls and their mother in the pages of the book. For example, many childhood readers revisiting the text for the first time might be surprised to recall that when rough-and-tumble Jo first meets her neighbour Laurie, it is not through the exchange of sly glances over a fence; rather, she visits his sick room and, Little Woman that she is, tidies it up for him. More surprising still is that both [End Page 101] Father and Beth exhort Jo to stop, or at least to pause, in her writing, and look for happiness in faith and domesticity.
What Jo and her sisters mean to us as readers and what they are in the novel are distinct entities. Where the two meet is in the understanding of familial love. There is very little depth, for example, to Beth's character. This is exacerbated in more recent, and ever more secularised, readings of the text, when her hymn-singing and embracing of the plan she believes her creator has for her can seem insipid. Even in the original, there is little to Beth besides quiet goodness and giving away of the self. But Beth is good, and loved, and her loss is devastating to those who love her. It is through the love of the rest of the family for Beth, and the magnitude of their grief, that the reader's sorrow for Beth is generated. When the family first realise that Beth cannot be saved, Alcott writes from Jo's perspective: 'her mother stretched out her arms as if for help, and Jo went to comfort her without a word'. In Gerwig's adaptation, this interaction is moved to the moment of Beth's death. The silent performance by Laura Dern as Marmee and Saoirse Ronan as Jo is profound and complete: these are women who love and grieve; a family, they carry each other through the difficulties that make a life, unnoticed by the outside world.
For all its emotional strength, Little Women is a novel with a problem ending, and this problem is directly indexed to the fetishisation of the Christian family. Alcott was the first to refer to her children's work as 'moral pap for the young'. She also identified, though, that her work was simple and true...