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 is the final part of a four part series.
For a recap, please read part 1, part 2, and part 3.
Beyond her past, Alcott explains why she never paired Jo with Laurie, and instead chose Professor Bhaer. By the time the first volume of Little Women had become well-read and well-loved, most readers expected Laurie and Jo to marry. She details these expectations in Laurie's own proposal: “Don’t disappoint us, dear! Everyone expects it. Grandpa has set his heart upon it, your people like it, and I can’t get on without you” (Alcott 468). Alcott mirrors the pressure she faces to marry Laurie and Jo in Laurie’s proposal, perhaps even alluding to the readers as “your [Jo’s] people.” However, Alcott does not succumb to this force, and rather becomes quite cheeky with it. She feels “rather annoyed by the argument that Jo and Laurie are perfect romantic partners, [and] states: ‘I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone” (Shealy 368). Alcott instead plans to write a character that is the opposite of Laurie for Jo to marry, subverting the expectations of fans all around. She explains that she “wanted to disappoint the young gossips who vowed that Laurie and Jo should marry…” (qtd. in Barker 199). Alcott clearly succeeds on this front, as many readers find it appalling that Jo ends up with anyone besides Laurie, especially someone who is so explicitly the opposite of him. Alcott makes it clear that in her mind, Laurie and Jo do not belong together, and that they never will unite romantically simply because some readers felt it best. It is worth noting that even Professor Bhaer is a compromise between Alcott and her publishers, as she confesses: “Jo should have remained a literary spinster” (qtd. in Acocella 4). Despite this fact, Alcott writes this compromise with extreme care, and Professor Bhaer proves a worthy match for Jo. Alcott knows the characters of her story more deeply than anyone else, therefore her judgment should be considered when asserting that Laurie is superior to Professor Bhaer.
Jo’s presentation as a tomboy helps to explain why Laurie and Jo’s relationship remained platonic. With her sisters, Jo needs to follow a strict set of rules befitting a lady; Meg commands: “Only don’t stain it… Don’t put your hands behind you, or stare, or say ‘Christopher Columbus!’.... winking isn’t ladylike…. Now hold your shoulder straight, and don’t shake hands…” (Alcott 31-33). It is clear that Jo struggles to adhere to the rules society prescribes to womanhood. Jo contains no lack of masculinity— though Laurie is the man in the relationship, “Jo’s gender rebellion and masculine identifications are no less pronounced. One of the reasons she so enjoys writing her dramatic pieces... is that she gets to ‘play male parts to her heart’s content’ (Eiselein 224).” It is obvious that Jo needs an outlet for all of her masculine energy, of which no room exists in the mid-1800s. Jo “transgresses the rules of nineteenth- century feminine behavior…” (Daly-Galeano 115) by maintaining a friendship with Laurie, the only avenue besides her writing that allows her masculine energy to escape. Laurie and Jo’s relationship suffers from “socially prescribed gender roles [that] differentiate them...,; ironically, individual gender expressions bring them closer together” (Wadsworth 388). Jo’s boyish disposition allows for her friendship with Laurie to flourish. In some respects, Jo’s tomboyishness discourages a romantic relationship with Laurie. Jo and Laurie’s friendship is based on freedom and expression, therefore marriage between the two would ruin their relationship. Also, in many cases, “... tomboyishness— is aligned with adolescents… Jo’s tomboyishness… helps to explain… her marriage” (Barker 196). At the time of Laurie’s proposal, both Jo and Laurie are immature, meaning that Jo still possesses some of her more manly traits. As she matures, she naturally loses some of these qualities, and in her own eyes, becomes more fit for marriage. When she has lost her tomboyishness, which, in Jo’s case, goes hand in hand with childhood, she becomes ready for the challenges love and marriage propose; the timing of this maturation provides for a romance with Professor Bhaer to bloom. Jo even sees herself as unsuited for marriage, expressing when she sees Laurie and Amy together, who have completed their own coming-of age: “How well they look together! I was right, and Laurie has found the beautiful, accomplished girl who will become his home better than clumsy old Jo” (Alcott 573). Jo contrasts Amy’s beauty and accomplishments with her own perceived clumsiness, showing that a woman of Amy’s type serves as a better match for Laurie than Jo’s own self-proclaimed awkwardness. Jo’s gender expression prohibits a romantic relationship with Laurie.
Jo and Laurie’s friendship is innovative and to end their story in a marriage would be to undo all the hard work Alcott did to portray such a modern relationship during a conservative time period. At the time Little Women was written, “some men did think women unfitted for friendship…” (Wadsworth 379). For Alcott to write Laurie and Jo as such intimate friends, at a time when women were only viewed as potential wives, was ingenious and contemporary. Laurie and Jo’s friendship was simply revolutionary, creating the basis for many friendships written in the future. At the same time, Alcott manages to deconstruct traditional views on marriage by “de[veloping] her concept of marriage as a partnership” (Shealy 369). With these two modern viewpoints on co-gender interactions, Alcott opens up a new world of possibilities in literature. She would reverse that by marrying Jo and Laurie, conforming to the expectations for women of that age. Laurie and Jo remain friends in order to maintain the effort Alcott put in to deconstruct stereotypical gender stereotypes of her epoch. Society expect males and females to marry during this time period, and Alcott laments that “... half the misery of the world seems to come from unmated pairs trying to live their lie decorously to the end, and bringing children into the world to inherit the unhappiness and discord out of which they were born” (qtd. Shealy 370). Unlike Jo and Laurie, many friends throw out their friendship in favor of trying to foster a faux love, leading to only misery and unhappiness in the future. Preserving these friendships instead of giving them up ensures happiness. Alcott touches on social expectations, noting that Laurie initially expects all women to be suitable romantic pairs, because his one female friend had rejected him: “Laurie... [feels] that all women owed him a kind word because one had been cold to him” (514). For a while, Laurie sees women as unfit for friendship, but realizes as he matures that not all women are a romantic conquest. It is important for Jo and Laurie to remain friends due to the historical literary context and of Alcott’s transcendence of gender stereotypes.
Much like Amy and Laurie, Jo and Professor Bhaer improve upon each other’s character. Amy and Laurie share dreams of greatness, while Jo and Professor Bhaer share a love of literature and writing. As with Amy and Laurie, one can see with Professor Bhaer and Jo that “once again, similarities in vocation… and personality form an important element in a marriage” (Shealy 376). The main betterment that Professor Bhaer offers Jo is improvement with her writing. Undeniably, “the first love of Jo’s life [is] her of writing” (Barker 193). Writing is Jo’s true calling, but Jo achieves happiness in romance and in career by marrying an English professor. Professor Bhaer acts “as a symbol…. Bhaer fills an important role in Jo’s development as a writer… he represents an author, a reader, and a text or book to be read” (Daly-Galeano 122). Jo’s character development also relies on Professor Bhaer’s presence. Jo admits, “The Professor was very patient with me, but it must have been torment to him...” (Alcott 439). She projects a feeling of impatience onto him, but seeing him deal with it helps her to become more composed. Most importantly, he “encourage[s] Jo to pursue writing with meaning, not the writing of which she was always somewhat ashamed” (Barker 194). Although Jo is initially upset with any criticism of her work, she learns to accept the critiques and lets Professor Bhaer guide her to excellence. This would not be the case with Laurie, who has no qualifications in writing analysis, nor would he dare suggest changing anything that Jo writes. Some readers may claim that Professor Bhaer distracts from Jo’s writing, citing a sudden marriage and family as discouragement from Jo’s dreams. However, just like how Jo’s tomboyishness fades away as she matures, her dreams grow to become more realistic. She never truly gives up writing; she might have had Professor Bhaer not stepped in to teach her. While Professor Bhaer helps Jo to better her writing, Jo aids Professor Bhaer with American life. Professor Bhaer emigrated from Germany, and knows little about life in America, and Jo serves as a place for him to feel safe and secure in this unknown land. Additionally, Jo often refers to Professor Bhaer as “her Professor'' (439), and “this nomenclature has a way of reinforcing the similarity between Jo and Laurie, while calling attention to Professor Bhaer’s contrasting maturity and experience” (Barker 192). Jo would not refer to Laurie with such formality; Jo’s moniker for the Professor stresses an admiration and respect for him and his maturity; she appreciates his ability to provide lessons to her in a way that no one else can. It is because of the tradeoff of improvements and similarity to each other that Professor Bhaer and Jo fall in love.
After Jo marries Professor Bhaer, they have two boys and establish a school where both Jo and Professor Bhaer can continue to work on their dreams. As for Amy and Laurie, they are married happily; the entirety of the March sisters and their extended family live in harmony. Despite the initial tension and awkwardness between the two pairs of partners, Jo and Laurie are both able to maintain their relationship, further reinforcing the idea that they work better as friends. They never return to their perfect symmetry, because of the life they experienced without the other, and their newly-arrived maturity. To this day, readers are still divided on whom Jo should have married, but the bottom line is Professor Bhaer perfectly matches Jo. Barker notes, “In the end, all of the reactions to Alcott’s funny match for Jo are ultimately less about what is best for Jo in the context of Little Women than they are about fans’ own values” (199). If readers were to remove themselves and their personal interests from the question, they could easily understand why Jo belongs with Professor Bhaer and Laurie belongs with Amy. Louisa May Alcott portrays platonic and romantic relationships differently and uses her own experiences to form the characters of Little Women, so that Jo’s marriage to Professor Bhaer makes perfect sense.
Below you will find the works cited for this literary analysis.
Thank you for reading!