Growing Pains

Rebecca Short

Little Women, 2019. Directed by Greta Gerwig

What happens when you take a classic work of fiction, break it apart, and reassemble it in an entirely different order? If Greta Gerwig’s recent adaptation of Little Women is anything to go by, the experiment can result in a masterful success which brings fresh nuance to a well-known and well-loved tale.

Viewers who cherish Louisa May Alcott’s nineteenth-century novel will have been surprised when, at the film’s opening, they were transported not to the intimate, festive warmth of the March family home, but to the detached frenzy of a New York publishing house. Here the adult Jo March is pitching a short story (written not by her, of course, but by a “friend”), to a curmudgeonly editor. The story which unfolds from here is, from a temporal point of view, deconstructed. Like an accordion, the plot moves out and forward, before retracting; flashbacks to adolescence are interspersed among scenes from adulthood, as parallel narratives which feed into and illuminate one another.

As a girl, the oldest sister Meg revels in the opulence of a debutante ball; as a woman, she must work to make ends meet, sacrificing luxurious dresses for life as a wife and mother in a house which reflects her husband’s slender means. In childhood, Beth is able to fend off a bout of scarlet fever; as a woman, stricken once more, she passes away. Keeping watch devotedly by her bedside during the first episode, Jo awakens to an empty room. Sprinting downstairs, she finds Beth seated with Marmee at the breakfast table, her fever having finally broken. When Beth falls ill a second time, the scene is mirrored to heart-breaking effect. Jo creeps tentatively downstairs: this time she finds Marmee alone.

The rationale behind Gerwig’s collapsing narrative shifts is encapsulated in the mirroring of two beach scenes. At the apex of the film, we see the March sisters, accompanied by Laurie, Mr Brooke, and Fred Vaughn, frolicking by the sea. The scene is bathed in a golden, carefree haze as Jo, in a voice-over, reads from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss:

'We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it, if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers […] What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known and loved because it is known?'

Flash forward to Beth and Jo, resting on a blanket at that same beach, the halcyon summer long passed. You can’t help but savour along with them the joy-filled memories the place must hold; and you can’t help but mourn along with them the loss of the carefree bliss of early youth. The film is permeated with this great wistfulness: childhood, juxtaposed with maturity, becomes a lens through which we can grapple with, know, love and understand each character’s story.

Nostalgia here is not reduced to idealism: the young March sisters are dynamically and refreshingly real. They bicker and tussle with an intensity familiar to anyone who has siblings. In reckoning with their passions, they face up to big and complex emotions. The iconic scene which sees Amy cast into the fire the sole manuscript of Jo’s juvenile attempt at novel-writing, remains iconic. The hatred Jo feels towards her younger sister in the aftermath is consuming. The next day, however, when Amy unintentionally plunges into the icy water of a frozen lake, love for her youngest sister consumes Jo’s rage and the hurt is instantly forgotten. In a tender and telling exchange with Marmee, Jo struggles to comprehend her interior conflict, which has at its heart the perennial question: 'Why do I do that which I do not want to do?’ Her mother’s response is candid. ‘I’m angry nearly every day of my life’, she says. This phrase, taken directly from the novel though oft neglected in adaptations, is telling. Here is a story of real people grappling with real and often conflicting emotions, struggling with self-control and walking patiently along the ever-challenging path of virtue.

Saoirse Ronan's Jo brims with the heartfelt passion of a young girl struggling to come to terms with change. On the morning of Meg’s wedding to Mr Brooke, she laments the passing of girlhood. In the next scene, when Laurie proposes to her, this lamentation turns to exasperation. Why can’t things stay as they are, you can almost hear her begging. Later, as Jo grows to regret the decision to reject her dearest friend, she confides again in Marmee who gently questions: ‘But do you love him?’ Unable to answer directly, Jo, on the brink of tears, responds with her habitual candour: ‘I know that I care more to be loved. I want to be loved.’ In confusing the desire to be loved with love itself, we understand the crux of Jo’s dilemma. She does not yet know what it is that she desires most deeply. She has not yet grown to maturity. ‘I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it! But I’m so lonely!” she cries. From childhood all Jo has wanted to do is write and create: but she wants also to love and to be loved. Hers is the very real dilemma posed to women: is it possible to have both?

Coming of age, growing as a human being, demands patience. The truth behind Jo’s seemingly conflicting desires may one day be made evident: but, in this moment, her first step is simply to recognise that the desires are there. The anamnesic structure of the film brings the sharpness of this recognition to the fore, and Gerwig’s deep understanding and creative reordering of Alcott’s original novel give the viewer a privileged window into the intimacy and complexity behind Jo’s slow process of growth.

When Jo has finished quoting Eliot on the beach, Beth responds: ‘I love it better when you read the stories you’ve written.’ In saying this she gives Jo’s creative mission its proper impetus. And so, following her sister’s death, Jo begins again to write, and to write furiously. This novel which emerges out of her reflection on her family’s lives differs from her short stories. Her writing is no longer mercenary, but deep and personal. Significantly, she burns all of her prior works in order to begin again. And this time she cannot stop.

Literary purists may be dissatisfied with Gerwig’s apparent alteration of the ending of Little Women. Rather than have Jo married off neatly to Professor Bhaer, she leaves the conclusion of their relationship ambiguous. Do they marry in real life, or does Jo simply write this into her plot in order to satisfy the editor (whose critical temper has softened only very slightly), secure sales and, crucially, the copyright to her work? In a final scene we see her married to the professor and hosting a family celebration in the house Aunt March finally left her. Is this a scene from Jo’s story, or from her novel? We will never know.

Perhaps what really emerges from Gerwig’s conception is Jo’s realisation that maturing need not be painful. It is fine for her memories of childhood to remain golden. She may know and love the world because she knew it and loved it as a child: but as an adult, she also realises that she cannot remain fixed there. ‘Sweet monotony’ can be broken, and new joys can be discovered. She starts a school, enters a new phase of friendship with her sisters, and, finally, publishes her book, written in passion and haste: a tribute to the cherished life of the little girl she once was, and the woman she has grown to be.

Rebecca Short is a DPhil Candidate in French Literature at St Hilda’s College, Oxford where she studies self-fashioning and interiority in eighteenth-century apologetics