Arts Illustrated

April 28, 2020

Free and Flawed

Greta Gerwig revitalises the literary classic, Little Women, highlighting the literary journey of its temperamental and wonderfully flawed female protagonist, Jo March

Rehana Munir

I was wondering how Greta Gerwig would make Little Women her own. Would the headstrong Jo March ache for a woman? Would Beth live? Would Marmee be unmaternal? Would the world be less white?

The answer to these questions is resoundingly, no. Yet Gerwig adapts Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel to her own contemporary sensibilities. It’s tough, considering the Susan Sarandon-Winona Ryder adaptation never really left one’s head. And popular references to the classic abound, most famously Joey’s immersion in the novel in that Friends episode where he leaves the book in the freezer when the tension gets too much to take.

The book, which traces the fortunes of the March sisters in a conventional American nineteenth century setting, will always attract young and old readers with its unwavering attention on a demographic that hadn’t yet got the vote or the pill. Gerwig’s film takes the implicit position that not all that much has changed in the world since those days of horse-drawn carriages and debutante balls. Yes, we have made progress as a society, but underneath lurks the same beast of patriarchy that left the March sisters so vulnerable to the passions and whims of men.

As a counterpoint to this world stands Jo March: hot-headed, free-spirited, single-minded. Gerwig looks at the milieu that Alcott explored (her book came out in two instalments, one in 1868 and the other in 1869) through the eyes of the firebrand teacher Josephine, who contracts her name, cuts off her hair and commands her destiny like someone ahead by a century. Jo is sketched as a young artiste, rather than as yet another anodyne woman content with family life; she is ruled by moods and feelings that can lead her to dark places.

Sample this. When Amy, her warring sibling, follows Jo and her suitor Laurie to the frozen lake where they ice-skate, Jo refuses to acknowledge her, still seething at the manuscript fiasco. In hot pursuit of her sister, Amy falls into a crack, risking her life. At another time, Jo rejects Laurie’s love over an idea she has about herself. Impetuosity seems to be her fatal flaw, the error that threatens to damage her future.

And here’s where Gerwig’s adaptation establishes its raison d’être. The fiery and flawed heroine does, in the end, get what she wants. She may regret the error of her ways, but that doesn’t impede her progress in the world. When Professor Bhaer criticises her writing, she doesn’t take the flak submissively. Instead, she launches into a tirade ending with: ‘No one will forget Jo March.’ Likewise, while the film begins with Jo’s publisher dictating what she writes anonymously, it ends with her dictating the terms under which her debut novel will be published. And this time, the story is from everyday life – the domestic episodes that so amused the ailing Beth. Throughout the film we hear discussions on the ‘right’ material for fiction; what makes a subject literature worthy?  And, finally, there’s the lovingly depicted physical production of the book, Jo’s leather and ink alter ego.

The film rearranges the narrative of the book using non-linear episodes from the March sisters’ childhood and early adulthood. And so the iconic opening scene, with the March family gathered around the fireplace, bemoaning the lack of presents at Christmas, greets the viewer well into the film. It is this back-and-forth nature that gives the film its immersive quality. You never quite know where you’ll be picked up and dropped in a narrative you think you know so well. The familiar is made new without sacrificing the original story’s essence.

Each of the March sisters is endowed with an artistic skill. Meg acts; Jo writes; Amy paints; Beth plays the piano. And yet the talented sisters live in a world where none of these gifts is marketable for a woman. Conversation often veers towards marriage as a woman’s only hope if she is to make something of her life; Jo stands in strong opposition to that so-called law. Meryl Streep plays the no-nonsense wealthy aunt who takes Amy under her wing in Europe – a version of the implacable Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey. Both occupy privileged positions in a highly coded world where obeying the rules is a woman’s lot, and both offer a wry commentary on its hypocrisies.

Jo March’s imperfections not so much as diminish as elevate her character in the film. They give her a depth that is usually the reserve of male artistes in period pieces. But nothing marks her out from the other characters as the inner life that she guards zealously up in the attic. Her writing – at first derivative – comes into its own by trial and error. Just like her life, ragged and untidy until she edits it into shape. It is a comment on Alcott’s times – and perhaps ours – that her manuscript is rescued from oblivion by the publishers’ little daughters; littler than the women Jo writes about with warmth and interest, rescuing them from oblivion.

Within the larger world, beset by the horrors of war and the demands of the market, a resolute woman chooses to write about the microcosm of a home and the life of its female inhabitants. Merit is traditionally conferred on art that addresses ‘manly’ themes using complex tools; just like Jane Austen self-deprecatingly called her work, ‘A little bit of ivory, two inches wide’, it is possible that Jo March would be similarly accused of writing that wasn’t gritty enough.

Gerwig, drawing from a 150-year-old text, makes a film whose concerns are not dated. We still live in a world where gender governs social relations, marriage is a universal obsession and ‘women artistes’ is a common appellation. The adaptation’s ambiguous ending is its finest bit of wizardry. Like in the book, Jo inherits a large manor from her aunt. But it is in her writerly dealings where the paths diverge. Gerwig makes Jo give her publisher the ‘happily married’ ending he desires in her novel, in return for higher net profits and copyright over her work. Jo herself, it appears and can be debated, stays happily single. A radical departure from the classic in its open-endedness. ‘I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe’, Alcott originally wrote, that Jo is made to say in this version. I’m going with the free spinster ending.

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