A Few Little Thoughts on Little Women

If you haven’t already, you’ll be hearing a lot about Little Women in the coming […]

CJ Green / 12.19.19

If you haven’t already, you’ll be hearing a lot about Little Women in the coming weeks. Just watch the trailer and you’ll understand why. The credits are out of this world. I basically begged to see it in advance — and succeeded.

Based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women tells the stories of four sisters in Civil War-era Massachusetts. Middle sister Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is quietly determined to become a great writer whom “no one will forget.” Noticing that her publisher (Tracy Letts) has made significant cuts to one of her stories, Jo insists, “I took care to have a few of my sinners repent.” He looks unconvinced. “The country just went through a war,” he says. “People want to be amused, not preached at. Morals don’t sell nowadays.” (Of course, only morals sell nowadays. Wherever you look, you’re being told what to do.) But Jo hadn’t said anything about morals. She just thought her sinners should repent. Her impulse, it seems here, was to see the story beyond its scandal, to end it someplace tidier. Neater.

While “women” is an important word here, and the one reviewers have seemed most proud of, “little” is of equal importance. It refers to the girls’ youth, their being not-quite-women. It refers to their world, which is isolated and noticeably homogeneous. It also refers to their stories, the daily cadences of spending time together, studying, playing. The girls’ mother Marmee (Laura Dern) stands out as an exemplary character. Like the impoverished woman in Luke’s gospel who gave all that she had, just two coins, Marmee offers little gifts, none of which change the world but mean a great deal to their recipients. She takes the scarf off her neck and gives it to a cold man whose sons are at war, and she does so secretly, hiding the scarf in a blanket so as to avoid praise. She offers her own breakfast to hungry neighbors. Beth, the littlest of the little women (who is also regarded, incidentally, as “the good one”), follows her mother’s example and brings food to a sick family, from whom she catches scarlet fever. The giving, in other words, doesn’t always mean getting; sometimes it is the opposite. It is still good.

But altruism doesn’t come so easily to the rest of the March girls (nor to you, I suspect). Meg, Jo, and Amy are a flurry of drama and wisecracks, by turns delighted, saddened, enraged. At one point Jo wonders, “What is wrong with me? I’ve made so many resolutions and written sad notes and cried over my sins, but it just doesn’t seem to help. When I get in a passion, I get so savage I could hurt anyone, and I’d enjoy it.”

To which her mother responds not with advice but understanding. “You remind me of myself,” she confesses. “I am angry nearly every day of my life.” This, from that same Christlike mother. Which brings me to the complexity Gerwig weaves seamlessly throughout. If you could parse the main conflict, it would be the question about Jo: to marry or not to marry? But Gerwig complicates even this. As Aida Edemariam noted in her review,

Gerwig seems to be trying to explore something less Manichean than personal fulfilment versus subjugation. “I’m sick of people saying love is all a woman’s fit for,” she has Jo say. “I’m so sick of it! But I’m so lonely.” (In the book, it is Marmee who says: “I can’t help seeing that you are very lonely.”) The challenge for Jo, then, as for all her sisters, is to find fulfilment while at the same time taking steps to be less alone.

But the challenge for Jo is not to do all these things: it is first to admit that she wants them. To acknowledge, first, that to be human means to be both resistant to relationship and to crave it; to need both independence and intimacy, freedom and love. It means wanting; worse, it means needing.

Whether Jo marries in the end seems, for Gerwig, less important than the consistency of her multitudinous-ness. Jo herself need not be consistent. She grows and changes. She swears off marriage. She assents to it. Time passes. The war progresses then ends, taking any illusion of innocence with it. The girls grow out of childhood and into self-consciousness. Out of the living room and into the world, out of comfort, into survival. When asked if she misses her childhood friend, Jo admits, “I miss everything.” All the while she and the others circle around ideals, only sometimes closing in.

Growing up, I heard repeatedly that Alcott’s Little Women is or seemed boring. That tension exists within this film. The way Gerwig mapped it, more like a cyclone than a chronology, the script itself converges with Jo’s writing. Inevitably the question becomes: Do these little stories justify the telling of them? The answer, Jo discovers, is a resounding yes. There is a world in the smallness, a loud energy in the quiet, a bounty of eternal worth in the littlest gifts — a scarf, a meal, a story.