25 Years Later, I’ve Finally Accepted Little Women 1994’s Ending

Before you watch Gerwig's adaptation of Little Women, the 1994 version is compulsory viewing.

little women 1994

Little Women, in my opinion, is essential reading while growing up. I read the book when I was a young girl, drawing myself into the world of the March girls, wishing I had sisters to spill my secrets to. The girls amazed me with their kindness, empathy and capacity for forgiveness. They part with their Christmas feast because someone needs it more, Jo sells her beautiful hair so her mother can have money to go care for their father, and Beth nearly loses her life to scarlet fever from caring for the Hummels’ sick child.

Jo and Laurie’s relationship fascinated me the most, because while I, like Laurie, believed that there was something romantic there, Jo was dead set on the two of them just being best friends. In the book, eventually we see that Jo was right. Jo had good reasons for rejecting him; she hardly knew herself and what she wanted from life outside of her relationships with her sisters. They both end up with people more suited to them and their lifestyles, and we concede to Jo’s decision, because maybe they would have driven each other mad from being together.

The movie, on the other hand, has a very different handle on the relationship. Yes the narrative follows the book, but the treatment of Jo and Laurie’s relationship is infinitely more romantic than platonic. Jo jealously tells Laurie of Meg’s bald spot when he is complimentary of her good looks, and the scenes that follow, with them dancing about goofily and gossiping about Meg and Mr Brooks’ romantic pairing, is enough to set my heart aflame.

It doesn’t help that they have the most romantic scene in the movie: Laurie’s confession to Jo about his feelings and his desire to marry her. Winona Ryder and Christian Bale, pre Stranger Things and Batman, have so much chemistry together, which makes the rejected pairing harder to deal with. Also, because it is a movie and the narrative has to be trimmed, the development of Amy and Laurie’s relationship doesn’t get fleshed out on screen.

We get a weird scene of Laurie being jealous about Amy’s upcoming proposal from a suitor, not because it meant losing her, but due to him feeling that he would be jealous if it had been any one of the March girls. Amy says she doesn’t want to be loved for her family, and Laurie goes away, promising to come back and be worthy of her. Eventually, Beth’s death and their shared grief over it brings them back together, and they return married. In the book, Laurie and Amy actually spend quite a bit of time together. She is the reason why he stops swanning about and gets serious about his career and future. They have their passions (Amy has her art and Laurie his music), and Amy would be able to be the high society wife Laurie needed.

The movie obviously prioritized Jo’s narrative, laying the path for a proper acceptance of Friedrich. Being a philosophy professor and a part of academia and writing, Friedrich could understand and respond to her artistic ways. They are passionate about books and share a great many interests. Gabriel Byrne does a great job as Friedrich, but the age difference looks all the more visually obvious on screen, and oftentimes it seems that Jo was just a girl with a crush. It doesn’t help that Alcott (the writer) never wanted Jo to end up with anybody, and was forced by the publisher to marry her off, thus necessitating the creation of the professor.

There are also literary precedents that seemed to establish that Jo and Laurie would find their way back to each other. Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice also rejected Mr Darcy, but then ended up with him. John Thorton also suffers heartbreak after Margaret Hale says no in North and South, though his heart heals when she accepts him at the end. Hence, when the romance is set up the way it is in the movie, it makes it harder for the viewer to accept the ending when it was already difficult enough for the book. We can’t help but think of what could have been if they could have found a way back to each other, if Laurie had tried again years later after the rejection.

As I struggled emotionally watching all this unfold on screen, it made me ponder why this was so important to me. Why did I want Jo to choose him and feel such palpable disappointment when she didn’t? The answer appeared with amazing clarity – I was Jo. In fact, many of us reading the book would relate to Jo, with her pigheaded ways and zealous ambition. Jo always struggled with what it meant to be proper, never toe-ing the line of feminine identity in the 19th century. And in seeing myself as Jo, of course I wanted her to end up with Laurie.

On paper he made such sense, and for all of us, it would be so easy to fall in love with someone like Laurie. But Jo isn’t me, she isn’t living in the 21st century where a woman can be more than a wife or need to hide her accomplishments under a man’s name. Jo’s acceptance of Laurie would have killed what she eventually became. They would travel the world together, and she would never want for anything. Yes she could still write while being with Laurie, but the drive wouldn’t have been the way it was without him. She wrote for trade first before she pushed herself to give more to the narrative she wanted to put forth.

And now, in 2019, 25 years later, we are getting another Little Women adaptation, with Greta Gerwig directing and Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet as Jo and Laurie. With these two actors playing these characters, it is going to be even harder to understand Jo’s choice, but I urge you to try. It is key to remember that romance does not make a life, while choice and agency are yours to keep forevermore.

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