By Hannah Matis
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, and I’m so sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for. —Jo March
Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Little Women opens with a subtle optical illusion: the frosted glass door to a newspaper office, and a figure in silhouette: long coat, thick neck, broad shoulders. And then the camera shifts slightly, the figure straightens and releases the breath she has been holding, and we see the massed, pinned auburn hair. It is, of course, Jo March, ready to beard her New York editor in his den.
It is a fitting way to begin a story that asks, throughout, why is it so difficult for creative, ambitious women to be taken seriously? This question is asked even more acutely by being placed in a novel that deliberately blurs the boundaries between fiction and autobiography and tells the story of its own creation. How important, it asks, are the lives of its “little women,” and, in this context, what does “little” mean anyway?
I grew up in New England with two sisters; Little Women was the handbook of our culture and lives, and I must have seen the 1994 film, starring Winona Ryder as Jo, half a dozen times. Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic, released this past Christmas, stars Saoirse Ronan, the star of Gerwig’s previous film Lady Bird. Ronan is magnificent, as indeed she always is; she has the gift of conveying emotion with the tiniest of glances and gestures, and beautifully draws out Jo’s glorious combination of obsessive focus and strength of mind, tempers and passions, playfulness and humor, self-doubt and self-deprecation.
Both teacher and writer, Jo wrestles constantly with a world which places value on neither women’s art nor women’s education. That she and her sisters all read and form a community of readers, but also that they act their own plays and play male characters, is one of the more quietly radical things about what has always been a much more radical book concealed under a perceived veneer of New England quaintness.
One of the greatest strengths of Little Women is that it is a story of very different sisters, and thus becomes a kind of fable of the very different paths a woman may choose, or be forced to take by circumstance and the lack of any her own independent financial resources. Jo is the obvious heroine of the four sisters but she is not the only one, and Gerwig rightly allows each of her female characters her appropriate gravitas. Laura Dern is the matriarch, Marmie, straight of back and strait of principle, her moral code softened with a wry admission of her own constant battle with anger, amidst her very obvious and noble practical compassion.
Emma Watson is the eldest daughter, Meg, the natural actress and the beauty of the family, who loves pretty things and is ashamed of herself, who chafes at the family’s poverty and yet marries poor (fans will recognize Grantchester’s James Norton), for love and a family. Eliza Scanlan is Beth: shy and withdrawn, sweet and invalid, the most obviously 19th-century type of femininity in the book and yet given dignity by her passionate love of music and her quiet determination to care for the poor.
And youngest but certainly not least is Amy, played by Florence Pugh, whose acting star has risen about as quickly as Saoirse Ronan’s and who gives her elder colleague and sister a run for her money: the baby Amy, usually played in previous adaptations by two actresses and therefore always struggling for audience sympathy, used to being passed over in favor of Jo, yet possessed of immense practical wisdom, reluctantly appointed savior of her family. The scenes between her and Aunt March (Meryl Streep, in Full Crone), who does the appointing, are skillfully crafted and emotionally satisfying. And finally, there is Laurie, played by teen heartthrob Timothée Chalamet, the orphaned boy next door who, like all of us, yearns for adoption into the March family by any means possible, and Chris Cooper, grandly mustachioed, as his grieving grandfather.
Jo is warned by her New York editor in the first scene that, having survived the Civil War, the general public has no interest in the sorts of moral tales she has been writing: gory sensationalism is what sells. Everything has changed and nothing changes in the years since, but this exchange also signals to the viewer the very real intention of the book to pose moral questions for its young female readers. This is in practice a very different thing from the vague 19th-century sentimental assumption that a woman should be an “angel in the house,” affecting (by osmosis?) the moral decisions of her menfolk while herself doing nothing much in particular but wearing white and looking domestic.
Little Women takes for granted that women, and girls, are moral agents; one way to read the book is as a series of moral problems that remain, not surprisingly, ageless, because they are rooted in the material realities of everyday life. Amy becomes enmeshed in the schoolgirl system of debts and favors, until peer pressure pushes her toward something she should know better than to do, followed by her teacher’s vengeful corporal punishment. In Gerwig’s adaptation, if you’re paying attention, what the schoolgirls are talking about in the back of the classroom is how embedded slavery is within society and what the results of the Emancipation Proclamation of only five years before are likely to be.
The family’s poverty, we are told, is in part a result of their largely absent father’s decision to educate freedmen’s children. Laurie is half-Italian and therefore morally suspect for Concord’s Protestant sensibilities. The “professor,” Friedrich Behr, is a German immigrant who finds New York society tough going. Meg becomes the pet of wealthier society debutantes, and must weigh just how much cleavage and makeup is appropriate to show while on the Marriage Mart.
In a telling little scene, the whole family give away their Christmas breakfast to a hungry German family, while in the background the upstanding citizens of Concord parade to their white steepled church. Beth goes to visit the German family again even though she catches scarlet fever as a result. Jo wrestles with forgiveness. All must make the decision to marry for love or security — when security means the ability to get medical treatment for a sick sister and to support one’s parents in their old age. And finally, the moral decision that many of Alcott’s readers still find difficult, even now: to say no to someone you genuinely love, because you know that marriage with him would not make either one of you happy.
First and foremost, Little Women privileges human relationship: the strength of the bond between the sisters comes from the way in which the March family is a hearth that draws in everyone around them. Moral decisions are never made in a vacuum or in the abstract, and even when they are the right thing to do, they bring human consequences in their wake: isolation, poverty, hard work.
One of the chief ways that Gerwig’s adaptation distinguishes itself from previous efforts is its envelope structure and use of flashback, which in the end allows it to explore, with extreme tenderness, the long and deep resonance of grief within family, and the calm and dignified acceptance of illness and death. There is something at stake, Alcott and Gerwig are saying, in all the small decisions we make and are forced into making. There is no such thing as the consequenceless life.
It says something for where we are now that a film of small, domestic moral decisions should feel like a political statement; it feels, at any rate, broadly counter-cultural in contrast with a cinematic universe of endlessly resurrected Teflon and CGI Übermenschen. More power to it, I say.
Hannah W. Matis is associate professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary.