Love/hate relationships with nineteenth century children’s novels

Question: why did saying ‘ragequit’ go out of fashion? Sure, it has associations with the unfortunate tendencies of 2009, but I think it filled an important lexical gap. Anyway, today I ragequit watching Little Women (1995).

Here’s my review of the first hour and a half of the movie: its actors are lovely (young Winona!) and its adaptation of a book I think isn’t given enough credit for being difficult to adapt is really quite admirable. Some of the book’s most potent moments of pure joy, of deep unhappiness, and of the ultimate center of warm familial comfort that so many people remember it for are well-captured by it. The choice to give extra attention to the March family’s progressive politics (influenced, of course, by the Alcott family’s own) feels heavy-handed in some moments but poignant in others.

The movie adapts the tone of the book very well, really, and maybe even improves on it, if the moralistic narrative voice of the novel is a dealbreaker for some. It bursts with the same kind of bright, open-hearted sincerity. So no, I think Little Women ’95 is a bad adaptation. Maybe it’s too good: it captured and then hurt me in the same way the book did.

Not as a kid. And not because Beth dies. There’s a difference in the book between cruelty that Alcott recognizes as cruel, and cruelty that, if she ever recognized it as such, she does not frame as cruelty in the text.

I said ‘not as a kid’ because, while I read most of Little Women at age ten and liked it, I never invested myself in the narrative like I did after reading it for American Realism class last spring. Maybe it was sort-of being an adult, or being encouraged to think critically about the text, or the handy critical theory at the back of our edition. But where I could stay detached from what bothered me about the other books, this one stuck in my head. A coming-of-age children’s novel intended to teach digestible moral lessons, and I couldn’t get rid of it at age nineteen.

It’s a text full of paradoxes. Even as Alcott herself never married, she nonetheless married off all three of her living protagonists. And even as a woman who made a living writing, she lets her economically self-sufficient writer protagonist retreat from her dreams, recover from writing ‘morally corrupt’ sensation stories into soft, ‘feminine’, familial accounts.

Jo March is at the center of these paradoxes, really. Generation after generation of bookish girls with desires for grand adventures saw themselves in her, but her beloved incarnation is not her final one. Writing does not ultimately sustain Jo; it’s marrying an old professor and running a school out of her dead great aunt’s estate. Are we supposed to think she’s happy? Are we supposed to think she would have wanted this all along?

And then there’s the marriage question itself. Jo doesn’t marry Laurie, you know. Last year, reading the book for class, I made an Instagram poll: “Jo should have ___”, with a sliding scale of “married Bhaer” to “stayed single” to “married Laurie” filling in the blank. Scores and scores of girls who had read the novel as children slid it all the way to the end; a few did the middle, and I wonder if they’re the ones Alcott would have been secretly proud of. No attachment to Bhaer seemed to be present, though I’m sure they’re out there somewhere.

This December, Saoirse Ronan (my favorite actress) will play Jo in Greta Gerwig’s second shot at directing. I wonder at what it means that the trailer’s framing device seems to draw attention to what one could call ‘the metanarrative of Jo March’ – that as much as Alcott resented the widespread interest in who Jo marries, her love life has remained a major talking point of fans for the remainder of her life.

coming December 2019, to break my heart again

Beth dies and Jo doesn’t marry Laurie. Generation upon generation of disappointment and unhappiness about the second part of the book. It doesn’t align; the death of a beloved family member is not at all equivalent to not marrying your best friend. And it’s easy to dismiss it as silly; the nineteenth-century origin of ‘shipping’, ignoring the more important aspects of a character. Personally, I do think there’s a certain power to Jo’s rejection of Laurie – one that is instantly undermined by the end of the book.

Opinions on shipping aside, I think when enough people cared about it this deeply, and maybe still do, it’s not worth tossing aside. Maybe it’s not just about ‘shipping’ it’s that people see more than they think they see, and more matters to them than they think it does. Here’s Jo and Laurie, after Jo submits her stories to be published for the first time:

“Well, I’ve left two stories with a newspaperman, and he’s to give his answer next week,” whispered Jo, in her confidant’s ear.
“Hurrah for Miss March, the celebrated American authoress!” cried Laurie, throwing up his hat and catching it again […].
“Hush! It won’t come to anything, I dare say, but I couldn’t rest till I had tried, and I said nothing about it because I didn’t want anyone else to be disappointed.”
“It won’t fail. Why, Jo, your stories are works of Shakespeare compared to half the rubbish that is published every day. Won’t it be fun to see them in print, and shan’t we feel proud of our authoress?”
Jo’s eyes sparkled, for it is always pleasant to be believed in, and a friend’s praise is always sweeter than a dozen newspaper puffs.

Little Women, Chapter Fourteen (via Project Gutenberg)

Does the marriage part matter, really? Are generations after generations preoccupied with whom Jo marries? Or are they only chasing after the moment when she seems happy and free? How much of that is the divide between the great loss the family suffers in the form of Beth – is it even fair to think Jo can recapture this youth?

And do I really have the right to criticize Alcott right now? She’s making me break what I think of as a central rule of English major-ing: fictional characters are not real people, do not think of them as such. Here I am, chiming into generations of over-identification.

But here’s the final thought: Alcott is dead, and her choices are her own, and maybe all I can do is close out of Young Winona Little Women after Meg gets married. Pretend they stay the little women of the book’s first half, happy and free, on the very cusp of nineteenth-century female adulthood. Just able enough to still get away with being the people they want to be.

(Image used originally in Vogue’s Why Little Women Is Still The Best Christmas Movie)

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