Little Women is a piece of literature that has had a profound effect on me for years; the release of the 2019 film only heightened my love for it and thus propelled me to write a literary analysis of Alcott's 1868 novel. It's strange that I haven't written a song about it yet, but I guess that my creativity was channeled into a much different sort of writing. Please enjoy "Relationships in Little Women," an essay in which I fervently defend the end game relationships of both Jo and Amy. This will be the first of a four part series.
*In the above photo, I am standing on the porch where Jo and Laurie danced at the New Year's Eve Ball in Little Women 2019. This scene was filmed at the Lyman Estate in Waltham, Massachusetts.
While sometimes the line between friendships and romances is frustratingly unclear, Louisa May Alcott takes special care to ensure such is not the case with Little Women. Alcott’s classic novel chronicles the story of the four March sisters as they leave childhood behind and experience relationships outside of their family. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy form a friendship with their neighbor, Theodore Laurence, whom they affectionately call Laurie. Laurie falls in love with Jo and proposes to her; however, she rejects him and eventually falls for Professor Friedrich Bhaer; Laurie moves on to realize he loves Amy, and marries her while Jo marries Professor Bhaer. This ending has received considerable criticism from fans who so heavily identify with Jo that they cannot imagine her ending up with anyone but Laurie (Barker 189), for they themselves experience attraction towards him. Others misinterpret the companionships between Jo and Laurie and Jo and Professor Bhaer, because many read the “friendship… like a romance, and [the] courtship… like a friendship” (Wadsworth 380). The lasting popularity of Little Women, originally published in 1868, is partially due to the fact that readers are so passionately divided on the conclusion that Alcott wrote. Many seem to neglect how Alcott portrays platonic relationships as symmetrical, and romantic partnerships as two-halves of the same incomplete whole. They also neglect Alcott’s personal history, which shaped Alcott’s writing decisions. Alcott’s contrasting depictions of platonic and romantic connections and her semi-autobiographical writing in Little Women support Jo’s pairing with Friedrich Bhaer.
Jo rejects Laurie’s proposal for a multitude of reasons, most importantly their established friendship dynamic. Having been friends for years, Jo feels that to marry Laurie and force herself to love him would be foolish and would result in the termination of their friendship. Though it hurts Jo to see Laurie in pain after turning him down, “she does what she has long known she would have to do” (Acocella 4). Jo knows that her relationship with Laurie would come to this point— others expect them to marry. However, she understands that “it wouldn’t be true love. Just like a friendship that would be forced over time” (Barker 191). Jo’s refusal of Laurie in order to maintain their friendship and allow herself to find true love shows a deep understanding of relationships and maturity that Laurie does not yet show— yet another reason why a marriage between the two would be unfitting. Jo and Laurie would not improve upon each other, as Laurie does not push Jo to pursue her dreams and Jo does not teach Laurie how to better himself. If they were to marry, Jo explains, “We should quarrel— and I shouldn’t like elegant society and you would, and you hate my scribbling, and I couldn’t get on without it, and we should be unhappy…” (Alcott 469). All of the things that have no effect upon their friendship, most importantly, Jo’s writing, would weigh them down in marriage. Jo refuses to put their happy friendship in jeopardy to appease Laurie (468). Jo is often read as heartless in this moment, but she saves herself and Laurie from further heartbreak due to an unhappy marriage. It also allows both of them to connect with their true loves. In order to preserve their friendship, Jo denies Laurie’s proposal.
Alcott portrays Laurie and Jo as symmetrical to emphasize the fact that a romance between the two would fail. When Jo and Laurie first meet at a ball, readers immediately notice their similarities. The two share many traits, Jo noting it aloud: “I hate my [given] name, too!” (Alcott 37). They both bashfully hide from the chaos of the ball (36), and this identical decision stresses their symmetry (Wadsworth 387). Even in appearance, “the two… mirror one another with their curly dark copper hair, tall, slim builds, and brown faces” (388). Because they are nearly exact copies of one another, their friendship flourishes: Jo need not worry about the judgments of a boy who acts the same as her; similarly, Laurie never stresses that Jo will look down upon him or his ambitions. Marmee explains that these similarities only exist platonically: “As friends you are very happy... But I fear you would both rebel if you were mated for life. You are too much alike… to get on happily together” (Alcott 424). Taken even further, Barker proposes that Laurie is a literary device that “functions as the inner boyish self of Jo” (192), giving Jo an outlet to express all of her tomboy-ish qualities. If Laurie is a separate manifestation of a piece of Jo’s personality, marriage would be impossible, for Jo would be marrying a part of herself. Jo chooses not to marry Laurie “because Jo *is* [sic] Laurie, or the other way around. He’s the projection of the kind of man that Jo might have been, born into the other gender” (192). Jo’s lack of traditional femininity is core to her being, and succumbing to a custom of womanhood by marrying specifically Laurie would betray her— and by transmission, Laurie’s— morals. Though Jo does end up married, her marriage to Bhaer is free from society’s input; the opposite would occur with Laurie. As Laurie and Jo do eventually mature and marry their respective partners, they can no longer act as mirrors to each other: “[readers] find asymmetry….” (Wadsworth 390). At this point, their spouses act as their perfect halves— but Jo still maintains an equality with Laurie because the pillars of their friendship remain unchanged (390). Laurie and Jo’s perfect symmetry would be disrupted by a union between them.
Stay tuned for part two next week; thank you for reading!