upon finishing the re-reading of “Little Women”
As a girl the ending of Part Two of “Little Women” disappointed me. In fact it grieved me. The “happy ending” was most decidedly not happy for me, because Jo March had refused to marry “Teddy” Laurence, the handsome, wealthy and playful boy next door. Instead she ended up with a middle-aged German professor, Mr. Bhaer, and acquired a houseful of rampaging young boys.
Today as a middle-aged woman I can see that Louisa May Alcott had a higher purpose behind her book: it was intended not simply to entertain its young female readers but also to instruct them. Nearly every chapter carries a lesson, and the lesson in refusing to marry Jo off to Teddy was twofold. First, don’t marry someone that you’ll always be squabbling with (Jo’s own reason). Two, love arrives in mysterious ways, and you can’t always predict whom you will fall for, and it doesn’t always have much to do with appearances. To me, this latter lesson is indeed a good one, but the first one is utter nonsense. As the story unfolded during the course of nearly a decade, Jo and Laurie schemed and laughed and quarreled together, over and over and over. Why should the presence of occasional squabbling amidst the general good humor and affection be any reason to shun marriage?
And now, as an adult reader, I confirm and underline my original reaction to the ending of the book. I don’t like it, but I can bear it that Jo simply didn’t love Laurie. I don’t mind (much) that she fell instead for a kindly man who was old enough to be her father. But what I vehemently object to is that Professor Bhaer made Jo stop being herself: untidy, harum-scarum, occasionally thoughtless, focused on her writing. He objected to the cheap sensational stories that she wrote for magazines under assumed names, and he made her so ashamed of earning money in this manner that she stopped doing it. He made her grow up and behave “properly.” The final scene of the book shows three generations of the family united, all the daughters married with children, everyone beaming. But there’s no joy in this scene to me, for Jo is no longer the coltish and reckless outspoken teen girl who was so appealing to me as a reader. Instead Jo has become thoughtful, careful, attentive, a good wife and a loving mother. I can almost hear Louisa May Alcott saying to herself as she finished the book, “There! Now Jo has overcome her many faults and become a good wife.” But in doing this, Jo lost every characteristic that made her the most memorable female character of American literature of the 1800s; she became someone else who was no longer interesting.
A recent blog post made a valid point: weakness, not strength, is what makes women characters interesting (http://www.overthinkingit.com/2008/08/18/why-strong-female-characters-are-bad-for-women/). I think this is completely spot on. I loved Jo in all her weaknesses, and when she grew up and became a perfect mother and wife she no longer retained any characteristic I could relate to. Jo’s body was still there, but her character had died, erased by the author.
My verdict: as a child I was disappointed by the book’s ending. Today I’m indignant at the diminishing of such a wonderful character. I’m very sorry, Miss Alcott, but I doubt that I will ever re-read your entertaining but fatally flawed novel within my lifetime.