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In Little Women, Jo March Listens to Markets, Not Just Moralists

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I want to realize my dream of supporting the family and being perfectly independent. Heavenly hope!

—the journals of Louisa May Alcott, January 1868

For a century and a half, it has been possible to ask nearly any American girl or woman, “Are you Meg, Jo, Beth, or Amy?” and receive an unhesitating reply. If the joyful reactions of my 11- and 14-year-old daughters to Greta Gerwig’s new film of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women are any evidence, we will be able to ask the question for a good while longer.

Adapting such an intensely beloved book for the screen is a tricky business. When every moment of the story is someone’s favorite moment, someone is going to be disappointed.

Greta Gerwig cut my favorite moment from Little Women

Before I complain about that, though, I want to point enthusiastically to some of the many other favorite moments she kept. 

One of the strongest themes of Little Women, and of all of Alcott’s work for young people, is the importance of financial independence and responsibility. Alcott was a hard worker, and she was the primary support for her family for much of her life. She had no patience with those who were unwilling to try to support themselves, or with those who—lucky enough to be born wealthy—do not have a philanthropic spirit and the good sense to use their money wisely.

Gerwig’s film understands and conveys this theme. Aside from Beth, who is generally too ill to plan for much of a future, the March sisters are always working, always planning for their futures, and always trying to find a way to stretch their limited resources further.

Meg, who aspires to a traditional life as a wife and mother, managing her household and teaching her children, teaches other people’s children before she gets married. Gerwig shows that the extra money Meg brings home from teaching provides necessities as well as small treats—particularly for Amy, the youngest, that help her feel less like an outcast among her wealthier school friends.

Jo plans on a career as a writer, and Gerwig shows her constantly working on learning her craft by creating plays and stories for her sisters. Meanwhile, she brings in some spare money and invests in a possible future by reading to her wealthy Aunt March, who dangles promises of trips to Europe and inherited wealth in front of the sisters. Amy, who would like to be a great painter and become rich and famous as a result of her art, also has a strongly pragmatic side to her dreams for the future. As the beauty of the family, she is expected to marry well and support her family with her husband’s wealth.This has been made clear to her very early on. Her vanity, which her sisters find annoying (and which irritated me endlessly as a young reader) becomes understandable and even tolerable when one views it as an investment in her future and in her ability to care for her family. And her dedication to learning to be a charming and pleasant companion, fit for any gracious social setting, means that when Jo alienates Aunt March, Amy possesses the skills to maintain the family’s relationship with this potential patron.

Alcott’s little women have plans for their lives and work consistently to make those plans a reality.

It is no accident, then, that some of the most memorable moments in book and film touch on these plans and on the attitude of independence the March sisters bring to them.

Much has been made of a speech that Gerwig added into the film for Amy, justifying and explaining the rationality of her insistence on marrying well. Confronted by Laurie about her upcoming engagement to a perfectly pleasant, very wealthy non-entity of an English gentleman, Amy argues that Laurie has the luxury of judging her because he is rich, and even if he weren’t, he has a wide range of possibilities for employment. For her, however, “there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family, and if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property, so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.”

Some critics have suggested this speech was anachronistically “woke” in the mouth of a character from the Civil War era. This is utter nonsense, as debates about the laws surrounding women’s property rights were of key legal and social importance in America from the 1840s on. Young woman raised by American radicals and Transcendentalists—as the March sisters were, and as the Alcott sisters were—would certainly have been well versed in those debates.

Gerwig’s speech makes explicit for modern viewers a few ideas that Alcott’s novel did not need to explain to the book’s original readers. In the novel, Amy mentions her possible engagement and simply notes, “One of us must marry well. Meg didn’t, Jo won’t, Beth can’t yet, so I shall, and make everything okay all round.” 21st century women are rightfully discomfited by the idea of so bluntly setting out to marry for money, and Amy’s desire to “make everything okay all around” by doing so requires some unpacking for a modern audience not to dismiss her as a mere gold digger.

Gerwig also makes sure that Meg, whose story often fades into a blissful watercolor domesticity, is allowed to share her key lesson of financial responsibility. Out shopping with a rich friend, she succumbs to a moment of vanity and spends an unthinkable $50 on the fabric for a silk dress. Her impulsive purchase means that her husband cannot afford to buy himself a winter coat, and Meg is brought face to face with the conflict between her love for pretty things and her love for her husband. She sells the silk to a friend, and her husband gets his coat. It’s a quiet moment, with nothing like the fireworks of Amy’s speech about women and property, but it’s a fine example of the kind of personal responsibility that the March sisters have practiced their whole lives—even when it takes them a few mistakes to get it right.

Gerwig also wisely keeps one of American literature’s three greatest moments of hairdressing drama. Mr. March, who has gone to serve in the Civil War as an army chaplain, has fallen seriously ill, and Mrs. March needs to travel to care for him and bring him home to convalesce. Gerwig’s film makes explicit what Alcott’s novel rightly assumes her readers would know: Such a trip was expensive, not merely because of the cost of travel, but because the state of military hospitals at the time was such that Mrs. March needed to bring clean bed linens, pillows, and food for her husband. For a family living on such a tight budget, the sudden expense was enormous.

To help provide for the costs of travel and medical care, Jo sells her hair to a wigmaker for $25. A few crucial things coincide in this moment. The first is that Jo has, as she and her sisters always do, found a way to use her limited resources to make money when her family most needs it. The second is that she has done so alone and unprompted, out of a desire to keep her family independent and out of debt. The third is that like Amy, who is prepared to trade herself—within reason—on the marriage market for security for her family, Jo finds that the only thing she has of value in this moment of crisis is her body. Perhaps because of that realization, Jo becomes the sister most determined to find a way to earn her own living.

And here is where Gerwig let me down.

For me, one of the greatest moments in Alcott’s novel is when Jo secretly submits a sensational adventure story to a magazine contest and wins. The prize is an unheard-of (for the Marches) $100. This is four times what Jo made a little earlier by literally selling a part of herself. Her family is very excited, but her father reads the story, disapproves of its lack of moral instruction, and tells her “You can do better than this, Jo. Aim at the highest, and never mind the money.”

I still remember my rage when I first read this passage. Jo had sold her hair to earn $25 to safeguard her father’s health. She has now presented him with $100 more that she has worked to earn, and she is chastised for it? I found it unbearable, particularly from a father who cannot and does not provide for his family on his own.

I think Alcott wasn’t pleased either, as she was careful to tell her readers that Jo uses the prize money to send Beth to convalesce at the seaside and that later stories provided similar necessities for the family: “So Jo was satisfied with the investment of her prize money, and fell to work with a cheery spirit, bent on earning more of those delightful checks. She did earn several that year, and began to feel herself a power in the house, for by the magic of a pen, her ‘rubbish’ turned into comforts for them all. The Duke’s Daughter paid the butcher’s bill, A Phantom Hand put down a new carpet, and The Curse of the Coventrys proved the blessing of the Marches in the way of groceries and gowns.” The immoral stories have produced moral results.

Jo’s moment of resistance is brief. She soon gives in to her family’s moral arguments and gives up writing sensational stories, which means she also gives up making money that was vital to her family’s well-being: “Jo wrote no more sensational stories, [she] produced a tale which might have been more properly called an essay or a sermon, so intensely moral was it. She had her doubts about it from the beginning, for her lively fancy and girlish romance felt as ill at ease in the new style as she would have done masquerading in the stiff and cumbrous costume of the last century. She sent this didactic gem to several markets, but it found no purchaser, and she was inclined to agree with Mr. Dashwood that morals didn’t sell.”

But no matter how brief it was, I wanted this moment for Jo. And I wanted it desperately. Instead, Gerwig retains the similar moral scolding Jo receives from Professor Bhaer when he discovers the trashy stories she has been writing, and Jo never stands up for the good that her income does for her family. She does bargain effectively with her publisher over advances, royalty rates, and retention of copyright, but her family is never brought to see that her “sensational stories” were, for many years, the only thing between them and debt or penury.

This is all the more galling because of the way that Gerwig fleshes out Amy’s character, and because of the obvious sensitivity with which her film shows the similarities and distinctions between Alcott’s real life and that her fictional analog, Jo March. We have, in Alcott’s journals, numerous examples of her pride in the money she can bring in from her writing. In March of 1856 she recounted that she “Got $10 for ‘Genevieve.’ Prices go up, as people like the tales and ask who wrote them.” That same month she also “Sewed a great deal, and got very tired; one job for Mr. G. of a dozen pillow-cases, one dozen sheets, six fine cambric neckties, and two dozen handkerchiefs, at which I had to work all one night to get them done, as they were a gift to him. I got only $4.” One needn’t be a financial genius to understand why Alcott, and Jo, might elect to write whatever sold rather than do piecework.

In August 1866, Alcott was still sewing for money at times, though her profits from writing increased. Like Jo, she found herself the breadwinner for her whole family, commenting on her return from a trip that “things were, as I expected, behindhand when the money-maker was away.” In other words, Alcott went out of town, her family went into debt, and she came back to pay their bills. She notes that she sent her banker $100 to invest and “could have sent $300, but it was needed, so I gave it up unwillingly, and must work away for the rest.”

It was with no small amount of satisfaction that I learned that Little Women was published and became a runaway bestseller in the same year that Alcott’s father published his justly forgotten book of transcendental philosophy, Tablets. Louisa May Alcott never gloats over her success in contrast to her father’s failure, but in 1870 she does write home cheerily to report: “No news except through N., who yesterday sent me a nice letter with July account of $6,212,—a neat little sum for ‘the Alcotts, who can’t make money!’ With $10,000 well invested, and more coming in all the time, I think we may venture to enjoy ourselves, after the hard times we have all had….That does soothe my rumpled soul.”

Gerwig closes her movie with shots of the first edition of Little Women coming off the press. I think it would have been greater justice, to the author and to her work, to have filmed just a moment longer, showing us the book’s great success and the pleasure and wealth produced by a novelist who cut her literary teeth by writing “rubbish” and ended by writing one of the great American novels.

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