The insurmountable problem with Little Women — the one that’s had its fans in fits ever since its second volume was published in 1869, that every Little Women adaptation wrestles with — is that its climactic marriages are so profoundly unsatisfying. But Greta Gerwig’s take on Little Women, out now in theaters, is the first adaptation of the book to truly solve that problem — and it does so by leaning into everything fans dislike about those marriages, and amplifying it.

The end of Little Women sees its heroine, tomboyish and ambitious Jo, married off to the pointedly unromantic Friedrich Bhaer, a middle-aged and unattractive German professor who disapproves of the sensational stories she writes. And the character readers expect Jo to end up with, her charming best friend Laurie, marries Jo’s least favorite sister Amy instead.

And so, while generations of readers have loved Little Women and sighed over Little Women, they have also puzzled over that bizarre, unsatisfying ending. Why would Louisa May Alcott do such a thing to Jo? Why would she do such a thing to us?

Little Women adaptations have struggled to provide satisfying answers to those questions, and generally they do so by working hard against the grain of Alcott’s writing. Laurie’s marriage to Amy generally gets glossed over as quickly as possible, while Bhaer generally gets transformed into a palatable romantic hero.

Most contemporary versions of Little Women, contra Alcott’s description of the professor as a middle-aged man who is both “rather stout” and also “plain and odd,” have cast Bhaer with a young and attractive actor. He also becomes less harsh toward Jo’s writing: Heidi Thomas’s 2018 Little Women miniseries, for example, includes a scene in which Bhaer apologizes to Jo for criticizing her. Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 Little Women movie goes so far as to have Gabriel Byrne’s Bhaer bring Jo a tray of coffee and flowers as she writes and offer her advice on what kind of murder weapon would be best for the story she’s currently working on.

Gerwig’s Little Women follows some of the path laid out before it by previous adaptations. Gerwig, too, makes Bhaer younger and sexier than he is in Alcott’s novel. And she, too, reinterprets his criticism of Jo’s writing: Now, instead of moralizing to her, Bhaer is giving Jo constructive feedback because he respects her and her talent enough to be brutally honest with her.

But what sets Gerwig’s treatment of the two problem marriages of Little Women above every version that’s come before is that she is not trying to make them purely romantic. Her version of the story, like Alcott’s, is brutally practical. Gerwig reveals the economic underpinning that lies beneath each marriage, and in so doing, she transforms the whole fraught and vexed climax of Little Women into a celebration of subversive feminine ambition.

“I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone”

Alcott knew her ending was unsatisfying. It was a deliberate choice on her part.

Little Women was first published in two volumes, and after the first volume came out in 1868, droves of letters descended on Alcott as her fans clamored for more. They wanted more of tragic Beth and vain Amy and fashionable Meg and, most of all, more of Jo, who readers believed would surely and inevitably marry Laurie at the story’s end. And Alcott set out to thwart them all.

“Girls write to ask who the little women will marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life,” she wrote in a letter to a friend in 1869. But: “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

Alcott originally intended for her story to end with Jo as a “literary spinster,” much like Alcott herself. But Alcott’s publishers insisted that Jo had to marry someone, that the book would be unsaleable otherwise. And so, although “much afflicted” by their demands, Alcott wrote to her friend, she had concocted a solution “out of perversity.” She invented dour and dictatorial Friedrich Bhaer as a “funny match” for Jo. Laurie she disposed of by marrying him off to Amy.

Alcott was intentionally being perverse in her invention of Bhaer, but it’s unlikely that any ending she wrote that involved marrying off Jo would ever be truly satisfying. The structure of Little Women forbids it.

The two halves of Little Women form a neat before-and-after dyad: The first half shows us the home of childhood, idyllic and cozy, and the second half shows us each little woman leaving home, one by one, as she heads off into adulthood. And while the novel ostensibly recognizes it is inevitable that children must grow up and leave home, its allegiance clearly lies with its first volume.

It’s Little Women’s first half that its most iconic images come from. It’s where we get Jo burning Meg’s hair, Meg spraining her ankle in too-tight shoes, Amy burning Jo’s manuscript and a vengeful Jo almost leaving Amy to drown, Beth embracing stern Mr. Laurence after he gives her a piano. Loving Little Women means loving these moments, luxuriating in them, and resigning oneself to the idea of leaving them behind.

And Jo, like the reader, rails against the idea of leaving behind childhood and the idea that she and her sisters must leave their nest. Jo is furious when Meg is the first to betray their sisterhood and marry. “I just wish I could marry Meg myself, and keep her safe in the family,” she remarks. Laurie, who Jo positions alternately as her brother and as her own masculine self, betrays Jo when he proposes marriage to her: She would much rather that he marry either Meg or Beth (imagine Laurie and Beth together! a truly absurd idea, but Jo floats it out there!), thus preserving her ideal family structure.

As Lara Langer Cohen wrote at the LA Review of Books’ Avidly, “Jo is angry, above all, because she gets the bitter tragedy of Little Women as no one else in the novel does. It tells a story about the bonds that knit together a family of women — of love nurtured with exquisite care — only to break up that family and transfer its bonds to an array of frankly disappointing men.”

And Alcott’s men truly are universally disappointing. John Brook belittles Meg’s domestic labor. Mr. March thoroughly disappears from the page, even when he isn’t away in the war. Even charming Laurie makes a fool of himself by idling his way through Europe after Jo rejects him. Bhaer, of course, is the most disappointing of all.

But the economy in which the March girls live means they are required to support themselves somehow, and marriage is the means through which they are socially encouraged to do so. And so the March sisters are raised — and readers approach the story — with the expectation that they will marry and put all the domestic and emotional skills they developed together to work for the undeserving men around them. As Cohen puts it, “As girls, their love is manufactured only for export, to enrich the emotional lives of men.”

Amy, the other March girl in a problem marriage, sees her circumstances as clearly as Jo does. But unlike Jo, who is a born rule-breaker, Amy is a born winner, and so she plans to follow the rules, play the game, and win. “One of us must marry well,” Amy concludes; “Meg didn’t, Jo won’t, Beth can’t, yet, — so I shall, and make everything cozy all around.” And although Laurie reproves her for such mercenary logic — “it sounds odd from the lips of one of your mother’s girls” — Amy contrives to fall in love with wealthy Laurie and have him fall in love with her in return, thus ensuring not only her family’s survival but also her family’s continued coziness.

Jo, meanwhile, after spending the whole book insisting she will never marry, resigns herself to Professor Bhaer, and the narrator tells us she’s happy about it.

Under such circumstances, there is no way for the novel’s climactic marriages to read as purely romantic. They are, as Greta Gerwig’s Little Women would put it, economic propositions: maybe not entirely, maybe not first and foremost, but certainly inextricably. Pretending that they truly are pure love matches, as Alcott’s narrator does, will always feel a little dishonest and perverse.

So Gerwig’s Little Women approaches its ending with its eyes open. It chooses not to lie to us about the economics of its marriages.

“Don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition”

Gerwig understands the binary of Little Women’s two-part structure, and her film leans into it. Its first scene takes place well into the action of the novel, with Jo already off in Manhattan, fulfilling her literary dreams by placing a story in a magazine. It’s from that vantage point that we see the much-beloved first half of the novel. All of Little Women’s most iconic moments become a series of flashbacks and memories, suffused with the warm, golden glow of nostalgia: a past that is already lost to us, all the more perfect for being lost.

This restructuring means we spend plenty of time on the oft-glossed-over courtship of Laurie and Amy, and Gerwig makes both the emotional and economic logic of the match clear.

Readers of Little Women often resent Amy, who burns Jo’s manuscript as a child and later seems to steal her ideal future by going to Europe with Aunt March in Jo’s place and then marrying Laurie. But under Gerwig’s direction, Amy (as played by Florence Pugh) is a thoroughly sympathetic figure. In this version of the story, Amy’s art for once gets the same respect that Jo’s writing does — but while Jo, determined to make her own way in the world, sticks to her writing even when she has to make it mercenary and commercial, Amy decides early on that her artistic talent does not rise to the level of genius and so abandons it. “I won’t be a commonplace dauber,” she says firmly, and decides she will follow her other talents and become “an ornament to society” instead.

In Gerwig’s Little Women as in Alcott’s, Laurie objects to Amy’s mercenary wedding plans. But Gerwig allows Amy to respond to that objection by saying out loud what Alcott’s Amy had to keep to the subtext: Of course it’s reasonable for Amy to want to marry money, because in choosing to marry at all, she’s signing up to give away her freedom, and she might as well be paid handsomely for it.

Pugh’s Amy advances on Laurie, listing off the legal boundaries of 19th century American marriages. She notes that she has no real way of earning money of her own; that when she marries, her property will become her husband’s property, as will her children; she notes that her legal rights will be bound to him. “So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition,” she concludes, and Laurie is unable to come up with any convincing rejoinder.

The mingled dignity and ferocity of that speech forces the audience to respect Pugh’s Amy, even those who read her as a quasi-villain. (I will admit that I have always been an apologist for Alcott’s Amy, but judging from the amount of scandalized “Really???”s this statement is usually greeted with, that is a minority opinion.) And when Amy chastises Laurie for courting her, telling him through tears that she has been second-best to Jo for her whole life, the scene feels redemptive. It becomes possible to read the match between Amy and Laurie as meaningful for both Amy and Laurie in their own rights, rather than a case of Alcott pairing the spares just to keep Laurie thoroughly unavailable to Jo.

But it’s also clear that part of what draws Amy to Laurie is his wealth. Gerwig’s innovation is to make it plain that this attraction does not make Amy cold or unfeeling. Instead, she is someone who has taken a look at the world in which she lives and drawn some reasonable conclusions about how to survive in it.

Jo’s marriage to Bhaer, meanwhile, is even more thoroughly reimagined than Amy’s marriage to Laurie, but the two are closely rhetorically linked. We first see Jo (Saoirse Ronan) in her publisher’s office, listening attentively as he admonishes her to make sure her heroines always end up either married or dead. And at the end of the film, we see her back in his office, cheerfully rolling her eyes as he scolds her for leaving the heroine of her new novel — Little Women itself — unmarried.

“She said the whole book that she doesn’t want to marry anyone,” says Jo of her lead — if, at this point, we can truly call Saoirse Ronan’s character Jo: in this final sequence, she seems to exist in some free-floating liminal space between Jo and Alcott herself.

The publisher is unmoved. He tells her that no one will buy the book if the heroine remains unmarried.

Jo/Alcott shrugs. “I suppose marriage has always primarily been an economic proposition. Even in fiction,” she agrees, echoing Amy’s words to Laurie. We cut abruptly to Jo running to Professor Bhaer and professing her love to him, sheltered under an umbrella in the pouring rain. Then we cut back to the office, and Jo/Alcott, in a businesslike fashion, commences negotiating a higher rate of royalties out of her publisher.

“If I’m going to sell my heroine into marriage for money, I might as well get some of it,” she says.

What remains ambiguous is whether what we just saw “actually” happened within the world of the film — that is, whether Gerwig’s Jo truly married Bhaer — or if she just wrote a proposal scene into her book because she had to. But what is absolutely clear is that ending Little Women with a marriage is an economic choice.

Ronan’s Jo/Alcott hybrid is reenacting Alcott’s actual dilemma, the choice she made to rewrite Jo’s ending and sell her in marriage in order to sell her book. And Gerwig is explicitly linking Jo/Alcott’s decision to sell her heroine into a fictional marriage — that deeply unsatisfying marriage to Bhaer — to Amy’s decision to sell herself into marriage.

In both cases, Gerwig is saying, marriage is a business transaction. It’s the action of a woman who is living with profoundly curtailed choices, using her particular talents to make the decision that allows her to survive.

Gerwig doesn’t ask us to try to consider either of these marriages to be the stuff of fairy tale romance — even with a fully sympathetic Amy and a dissolute Laurie, even with a young and handsome and respectful Bhaer. Her primary concern is the same as Alcott’s was, under the layers of moralizing narration: it’s with their economic logic. And because Gerwig has stripped away from the text everything that might obscure that logic, for the first time, the ending to Little Women really feels fully satisfying.

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