This article contains major Little Women spoilers. Our spoiler-free review is here.
The menace of great expectations permeates Little Women’s first scene. The greatly terrible expectations men have for women, that is. Jo March (a sublime Saoirse Ronan) wants to be a writer, yet she is met with derision and suspicion by a New York publisher named Mr. Dashwood (a cantankerous Tracy Letts). He dismisses Jo’s prose out of hand as soft and preachy and offers her $5 less than what he’d pay a male writer for the same work. Desperate to establish herself as a published author, and to support her family, Jo sells her short story and asks if she may inquire about sending in more work. Dashwood condescends with the backhand, “If the main character is a girl, make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead, either way.”
This is how Greta Gerwig chooses to open her sometimes drastic and always illuminating reimagining of Little Women. Right from the outset, those familiar with the tale will recognize this is a very different version, beginning with Jo already grown up and living in New York City. On the page, this is a development that didn’t occur until Little Women’s second volume, published in 1869. In England, that edition was cruelly titled Good Wives—decidedly the publisher’s idea and not author Louisa May Alcott’s.
That friction between artistic and commercial sensibilities—and feminine creativity and patriarchal control—has always bedeviled Little Women and its fans over the last 150 years. Gerwig has placed that conflict front and center in her movie adaptation that not only documents Jo’s growth as a young woman entering the world, but as a creative talent who breaks free from its patriarchal expectations… just as Louisa May Alcott did centuries ago.
Indeed, more so than even the amazing 1994 adaptation, Gerwig’s 2019 film pulls from Alcott’s own life for influence on Jo March. Ronan’s interpretation thus comes across like a blend of Gerwig’s own sensibilities and Diane Keaton’s iconoclasm in the reconstruction age. In both the Little Women novel and 2019 film, Jo declares she has no desire to marry. It is even one of the many grounds on which she refuses childhood friend Laurie’s (Timothée Chalamet) marriage proposal. But by the end of the novel, she is falling in the arms of Professor Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel). This was an invention of necessity for Alcott, who herself was a female author in the 19th century who never married.
When once asked about her decision of not tying the knot, Alcott famously said, “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.” That was not a line she gave Jo in Little Women, yet Gerwig allows her Jo to say just that; she would rather enjoy the freedom of living her own life than live it for her husband.
Similarly, Alcott had no desire to see Jo March married in the second volume of Little Women. While to this day, many a young person who reads the book is sure that Laurie is the love of Jo’s life in the first half of the book, it was that fan speculation in 1868 and ’69 that led Alcott to brutally dash Laurie and readers’ hopes.
“Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life,” Alcott wrote in her journal in 1868. “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone” (emphasis is Alcott’s).
Alcott had no desire to marry Jo and Laurie, and because her publisher insisted that all the March girls be wedded by the end of “Good Wives” (or dead, in the case of Beth), she invented Professor Bhaer to subvert readers’ expectations of what is a good match for Jo. In the original book he is decades older, gray, balding, and overweight, but he has a great intellectual mind. Of course movie adaptations have tried to smooth over those unattractive qualities, such as a dashing, if older, Gabriel Byrne in the 1994 version, or Gerwig herself picking someone who is at least in his 30s with Garrel.
But the real point Gerwig is making is to try and offer, in a meta-textual context, the ending Alcott might’ve written if she didn’t face social pressures from her readers or male publisher: as if marriage was the only aim and end of a woman’s life.
Gerwig’s film is the only version that I have seen where Jo and Laurie do seem like a bad match, and where their relationship is more that of quarrelsome siblings than free spirits who’ve found each other. Additionally, when we come to the end, it is so much more about Jo finding her book than it is her finding Professor Bhaer. Indeed, the point of the Little Women ending in 2019 is that the book is the great love of Jo’s life.
Throughout the second half of the film, we see Jo forlorn and grieving in her loneliness. She grieves for Beth who is already dying upon her return to Concord, Massachusetts. And she grieves for the familial domestic bliss she had with her sisters that can never be recaptured, especially with Amy (Florence Pugh) in Europe. And yes, she even grieves for the loss of a confidant in Laurie or Bhaer. However, what she is looking for is not a lover, even if she initially considers that option. What she desires is direction, autonomy, and true independence.
So then we come to the finale, film which is told in two sequences. The first is a rushed and melodramatic rendering of the ending in Alcott’s novel. Rather than a quiet conversation on a road between Bhaer and Jo, like the ’94 movie, Little Women (2019) gives the novel’s climax a gaudy veneer built by a thousand Hollywood romance clichés. Jo races to beat Bhaer to the train station by carriage, even though he is on foot. And she runs into his arms beneath the umbrella while practically shouting her proclamations of love.
It’s grand, it’s scored like an old Henry Manci movie, and it’s a lie. It is also the picture a much more confident Jo March is painting for Mr. Dashwood in his office after he demands to know who Jo’s fictional heroine in the book-within-a-film is going to marry. This is the real denouement.
“No one, she doesn’t marry either of them,” Jo smiles. And when her publisher demands to know why Jo doesn’t marry Laurie or at least this German poet, she adds, “Well, she says the whole book she doesn’t want to marry.”
Jo March, more so in Gerwig’s movie than even the novel, has spent the whole film telling you she doesn’t want to be married. And yet, you at first might expect she doth protest too much, if only because that’s how the book and all the other movies have ended. That is the right ending, and as Dashwood says, “The right ending is the one that sells.”
So you see Jo make a mercenary decision and describe a gushingly romantic finale that appeases a man oblivious to its phoniness. But Gerwig is also appeasing fans—to a point. Her film does not come right out and say that it has changed the ending. We very well see the ending of Little Women, and in fact the beginning of Little Men, Alcott’s sequel novel. In that book, Jo March and Professor Bhaer now run a school in Great Aunt March’s house, and Gerwig depicts it complete with the whole March family all gathered at the school to celebrate Marmee’s birthday with a cake.
It’s more authentic than the staging of Jo and Bhaer’s big kiss, but it is still in a golden hue of oversaturated happily ever after. This can be the perfect ending if you want it to be. It is the ending Alcott eventually depicted for the literary heroine.
But this only comes in the movie after Gerwig and Ronan’s Jo says, “Mr. Dashwood, if I’m going to sell my heroine into marriage for money, I might as well get some of it.”
It was an economic concession Jo made, like her real creator, to get her novel published. And then comes the true happy ending. Jo March sees her book, the one she fought to maintain the copyright of, published in its first edition. In her hands she holds the love of her life, which is her art, her prose, and all of her feelings composed into a timeless literary work that will live on as long as young women can read and come of age. While the movie does not explicitly state that the happily ever after for Jo, Bhaer, and the alleged school is a fiction, it is implicit when that vision is told in oversaturation while in reality Jo stands in natural light with the first copy of Little Women.
Jo will paddle her own canoe, like Alcott did, and be happy that she is no longer alone; her art and her words fulfill her. Gerwig corrects what many see to be the failure of the Little Women book and gives Jo the iconoclastic and subversive ending that Alcott herself sought. One where marriage is an option as opposed to the endgame of a life lived outside of convention.