Jo March Makes a Choice: Thoughts on Greta Gerwig’s Adaptation

I’m excited about Greta Gerwig’s newest adaptation of Little Women, despite how often I’ve bemoaned the lack of other Alcott works on the big screen. The first trailer for the upcoming version has recently premiered. Now we can see our favorite and notable actors in costume. At one point in the trailer, Saoirse Ronan’s Jo dons a kerchief and masculine overcoat and in another moment Emma Watson’s Meg is posing in a rose-colored laced gown. Historical costuming is only one reason to cherish period dramas.

Gerwig promises a feminist film. In the span of two minutes, viewers are geared up for a revolution, exhilarated, and empowered by Jo’s narration of all the things of which women are capable. But Alcott’s novel is inherently feminist and all the more impressive in its subtle power. I’m eager to see how Gerwig translates Alcott’s fighting spirit: with tailored grace or with a bang? In the end, one can only hope that Gerwig does not turn Little Women into a footing for curated feminism, but rather appreciates the facets of female struggle that Alcott famously explores. For instance, women being denied a profession but obligated to manage life during wartime or the strict and oppressive guidelines regarding gender roles and identity, a topic I discuss in “A Quick Temper, Sharp Tongue, and Restless Spirit”: Jo March Seeks Emancipation in Little Women.”

While the trailer is magnificent and worth watching more than once, it’s lacking the presence of a certain professor. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering he doesn’t make an appearance until the latter portion of the novel. But it brings me to my BIG QUESTION: is it so bad that Jo March marries in the end, in spite of her protestations as a young girl?

Samantha Ellis discusses her dismay of PBS’ 2017 version in her article for The Guardian: “It’s very hard to see Jo, the rebel, writer, tomboy, misfit and author avatar – an enterprising girl who raises money for her sick father by selling her own hair – marrying a paternalistic professor who is so critical of her writing that she ‘corks up her inkstand’ and sets up a boys’ school.”  1  (Side note: Jo becomes a rather famous writer in addition to managing a school in Little Men and Jo’s Boys. In fact, she is obligated to hide from the devoted fans who come to the door to meet and talk with the famous authoress). Perhaps others thought the same as Ellis upon hearing the news of yet another adaptation. 

Image result for pbs little women professor bhaer(Jo and Professor Bhaer in PBS’ Little Women [2017], IndieWire)

My opinion, and perhaps it’s controversial, is that Professor Bhaer is a worthy partner for Jo March. Gerwig’s trailer opens with Jo speaking to a male editor who insists that any female protagonist must marry by the end of the novel. In reality, Lousia, much like Saorise’s Jo, was adamant about women living for more than love. She famously wrote in her journal: “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”  2 In the end, of course, Jo does marry.

Nineteenth-century feminism was a budding thing without a name. By the time second wave feminism developed, many proponents were insisting that the woman who marries is not a feminist. The ideology of the movement has since expanded to support more than one type of woman. Marrying a man does not equate to subjugating oneself, a point Emma Watson’s Meg alludes to when she speaks to Jo: “Just because my dreams are different than yours, doesn’t mean they aren’t important.” Indeed, women have the right to choose more than one path in life. 

Image result for emma watson meg march(Emma Watson as Meg March in Litte Women [2019], CinemaBlend)

Readers no doubt despaired when Jo refused Laurie in the second half of Little Women, and some may have even chucked the book across the room when she married Professor Bhaer (and worse, went on to have sons with him). If Jo had to marry, then Louisa would make a compromise, and she did indeed compromise her hope in leaving Jo March a successful non-married writer. Though, I think this particular compromise comes with a reward; Professor Bhaer may not be romantic and no one can imagine him looking remotely like Timothée Chalamet, but this character is Jo’s intellectual and emotional equal. As a German immigrant, Professor Bhaer understands and experiences hard work and struggle. He bares in mind the responsibility he has in caring for a woman if he is to marry. He is more grounded and stable than Laurie, whose idealized hopes of marriage remind me of Louisa’s own descriptions of her imprudent father (“…he was a man in a balloon, with his family holding the ropes trying to hold him down to Earth”) 3

In the novel, the professor explains why he remained nearby to Jo despite having been under the impression Jo was out of reach:

“What made you stay away so long?” she asked presently, finding
it so pleasant to ask confidential questions and get delightful
answers that she could not keep silent.

“It was not easy, but I could not find the heart to take you
from that so happy home until I could haf a prospect of one to
gif you, after much time, perhaps, and hard work. How could I ask
you to gif up so much for a poor old fellow, who has no fortune
but a little learning?”

“I’m glad you are poor. I couldn’t bear a rich husband,”
said Jo decidedly, adding in a softer tone, “Don’t fear poverty.
I’ve known it long enough to lose my dread and be happy working
for those I love, and don’t call yourself old–forty is the prime
of life. I couldn’t help loving you if you were seventy!” 4

In her series of articles for The Paris Review, Sadie Stein ponders the various Bhaer takes proposed on Twitter. One #TeamBhaer member professed:  “[Professor Bhaer represents] the beauty of quiet love even if it lacks drama” and another Twitter-user wrote: “I like Bhaer because he is wise, kind, possessed of strong opinions but slow to share them, and respects Jo enough to be direct.” Others expressed their distaste of the professor’s paternalistic nature.5

It seems surprising that I would like the professor, seeing as I’m someone who dislikes Jane Austen’s Mr. Knightley–who has also been accused of being paternalistic with Emma. His fatherly habits are different, however. Where Mr. Knightley is condescending, Professor Bhaer merely challenges. The latter proposes self-reflection in Jo rather than shaming her for her girlish ways. That is not to say that Jo’s development is due wholly to Professor Bhaer’s influence. Rather, his friendship and discussion encourage Jo to think outside the small box created by her quaint upbringing. Their shared business venture further proves Professor Bhaer’s respect for Jo’s principles. He thinks her capable of managing a school, and moreover, he offers her the reins in the education of their students. If he is as paternalistic and condescending as some suggest, then those same readers may want to reassess their preference for Laurie. The same boy who escaped to Europe to relish in self-pity and drink. Yes, it is still entirely valid to wish Jo had remained a single working woman. And I must ask again: is it so bad that she married a man who supports her as a working woman and loves her as a woman with talent and skill as well as loving her as a wife?

How will Greta Gerwig’s Professor Bhaer impress us? More importantly, how will he impress our dear Jo? One thing I do know: I’d take Gabriel Byrne over Louis Garrel any day.

  1. “The Big Trouble with Little Women” by Samantha Ellis
  2. Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography by Susan Cheever
  3. “Alcott: ‘Not The Little Woman You Thought She Was'” by NPR
  4. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott [The Literature Network]
  5. “Getting to Know Professor Bhaer, Part 1” by Sadie Stein

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