The Little Women of A New Age

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s nineteenth-century novel is still both radical and relevant.

Reporting a significant lack of male audience in the early screenings of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Vanity Fair warned in its headline two years ago‘Little Women Has a Little Man Problem.’ The film’s producer, Amy Pascal, called it an “unconscious bias”, where male viewers might find themselves easily dismissing the film. The film viewing experience is suffused with our worldviews and presuppositions, indicating a larger social context. Our biases determine which stories we choose to consume. In that respect, the “Little Women” problem with men is still rather alarming. If men truly haven’t watched the film, are we still miles away in terms of treating and considering all kinds of female narratives with equal thoughtfulness and attention? Are movies by men, for men, and of men, still the norm? Where, then, does Greta Gerwig’s Little Women stand?

Set in the American civil war, Little Women follows the story of four March sisters—Jo, Amy, Meg, and Beth and documents their journey into personhood as they together endure all the hardships and trials. With their father fighting in the war, the sisters live with their mother. The mundanity of the lives of four young girls may not seem worthy of serious consideration, but Little Women remarks potently about the conflict between self and society, contentment and grief, and coming of age. It is a story that is timeless and for all.

Gerwig identifies the subject of male violence—male on male, male on female—as a central theme in pop culture, situating its presence at the top within the “hierarchy of stories.” So, when Amy asks Jo to write about her childhood, Jo’s natural response is to wonder if these stories even matter, if they are compelling or complex enough. “It’s just about our little life,” she says, expressing decades of female creative doubt as to who would be interested in reading about the struggles and joys of domestic life. Amy remarks that perhaps no one sees those stories as important only because no one has written about them, with which Joe disagrees, “writing doesn’t confer importance, it reflects it.” But perhaps Amy is right. Maybe writing about things imparts them with more significance. Alcott, Gerwig, and Jo, by turning their pen to document seemingly banal things, have ended up conferring them with considerable greatness. 

Gerwig’s rendition of Little Women is both refreshing and radical. It goes beyond the words written on the page to search for those that were left out. By making those unwritten words its central focus, Gerwig breaks down the wall separating Jo, Alcott, and herself thus creating an ongoing dialogue between them about art, writing, and challenges involved in a world that is not only hell-bent on categorizing female stories in narrow compartments (chick-flicks, sentimental, melodramatic), but is also severely hostile to them. They are looking into the eye of the audience and asking, “Is it possible to undo the centuries of the male gaze that distorts your visual experience, to zoom into the female experiences instead of shrugging it off, to really see what you have rendered invisible for such a long time?”

Many of the lines spoken by Jo or the situations she finds herself in within the film have been adapted from Alcott’s own life. One does not know where Jo ends, and Alcott begins. Is Jo the author? Is Alcott the character? The film builds the writing of the novel Little Women in the storyline, but the author isn’t Alcott. It is Jo March. By placing Jo and her development as a professional writer more firmly at the centre of the story, Gerwig is moving beyond the generic tale of the birth of a female artist. She is, instead, creating a space of resistance as ‘fiction’ Joe, ‘past’ Alcott, and ‘present’ Gerwig choose to tell stories—not about grand happenings of the world—but quiet acts of love and finding one’s way into the world. Gerwig’s approach, as she says, is ‘cubist’—Gerwig is writing Alcott who is writing Jo who is writing Little Women. Through the blurring of fiction and reality, she is questioning memory, writing, and compromises made in the process of art. By merging the beings and experiences of Jo and Alcott, Gerwig is aiming to find the gaps between the writer’s life and their work; their memory and their art—“Is that what happened or is that what you remembered? Is that what happened, or is that what you wrote down?” 

While Gerwig’s adaptation strongly emphasises on the creative and artistic ambitions of Jo, it does not shy away from the real monetary concerns of the March sisters. Jo might have loved writing, but she also needs to be able to make money from it. The film opens up with her timidly discussing rates with her publisher, Mr. Dashwood of Volcano Press. He informs her that they are going to publish her work—“We normally pay between $25 and $30 for something like this. We’ll pay you $20.” Jo happily accepts. 

Alcott herself was wretchedly poor and her poverty was a great motivation behind her writing. She valued the craft, but was equally concerned about the profit made from it. Art was not some sort of divine inspiration to her. Virginia Woolf, one of the important literary figures, speaks upon the significance of money for artists to be able to produce their work, and the precarious position of female artists because they have always been poor.  Little Women also reminds us that art cannot be divorced from its materiality. Certainly not for Alcott. Here is an excerpt from a letter she wrote on Christmas Day in 1878 to one of the aspiring writers:

“My Dear Miss Churchill,

I can only say to you as I do to the many young writers who ask for advice—There is no easy road to successful authorship; it has to be earned by long & patient labor, many disappointments, uncertainties & trials. Success is often a lucky accident, coming to those who may not deserve it, while others who do have to wait & hope till they have earned it. This is the best sort & the most enduring.

I worked for twenty years poorly paid, little known, & quite without any ambition but to eke out a living, as I chose to support myself & began to do it at sixteen. This long drill was of use, & when I wrote Hospital Sketches by the beds of my soldier boys in the shape of letters home I had no idea that I was taking the first step toward what is called fame. It nearly cost my life but I discovered the secret of winning the ear & touching the heart of the public by simply telling the comic & pathetic incidents of life.

Little Women was written when I was ill, & to prove that I could not write books for girls. The publisher thought it flat, so did I, & neither hoped much for or from it. We found out our mistake, & since then, though I do not enjoy writing “moral tales” for the young, I do it because it pays well.” 

If Miss. Churchill was expecting some rich discourse on the craft of writing and how enthralling it is, she would be disappointed—Louisa wore no such rose-coloured glasses. Writing is not brimming with idealism but is a practical skill that one has to work hard and toil for. Alcott advised her to write not for herself, but to make money so that she will be able to provide for her family. She also gave some publishing advice, even an address. In a letter written to an abolitionist James Redpath, she wrote, of herself: “People mustn’t talk about genius – for I drove that idea years ago…the inspiration of necessity is all I’ve had and it’s a safer help than any other.” Her literary self-criticism reveals a very strong consciousness of her limitations and awareness of her position and priority as a writer. For Alcott, the inspiration is not of divinity, but necessity. When Henry James, a rich male author who had the leisure to pursue subjects like philosophy and theology, panned Alcott’s 1864 novel Moods, she wrote to him, “I can’t afford to starve on praise.” 

Her advice is mature: if you want to write, make sure you make a living out of it. 

In her letters, Alcott expressed serious concerns on the matters of editing, copyrights, and royalties. Reputation and money were as important to her as getting a just reward. She wrote a letter in 1873 to Edward Marston, partner of the English publishers Sampson Low, Marston: “I am constantly hearing from friends abroad that my books are found everywhere, especially every railway book-stall in England, & I am frequently receiving letters from English people about them. I cannot help feeling that if they sell so well they should be more profitable to me.” Bargaining for the copyright and a higher percentage of the profit from the book would make her fabulously wealthy in the future. Ownership over one’s intellectual property is also a theme in Gerwig’s Little Women and is incidentally the film’s tagline—#ownyourstory. In times when artists such as Taylor Swift are fighting to maintain ownership of their work, Alcott’s insistence on copyright comes across as very far-sighted.  

There are as many parallels between Gerwig and Alcott as there are between Alcott and Jo. Coming from her first film Ladybird, Gerwig is telling stories about women that draw from personal experiences, that involve more than a woman’s marriage and death; that demand to be taken seriously. Like so many young girls, Gerwig grew up wanting to be a writer because of Jo March, and thus is forever indebted to Alcott: “As a child, my hero was Jo March. But as an adult, it’s Louisa May Alcott.” Gerwig revealed in an interview with Uproxx that during the film’s production, she had to fight to keep her protagonist from getting married—similar to Alcott, who didn’t want Jo to get married in the end. 

In a letter to a friend in 1869, Alcott wrote, “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.” But Louisa had to do what sells. In the book, Jo has a burning desire to leave home, go to New York, and take up a waged position as a governess and seamstress in a boarding house. For her, it is an opportunity to see what she can make of herself and also improve her writing rather than marry Laurie: “I want something new; I feel restless and anxious to be seeing, doing, and learning more than I am…I shall see and hear new things, get new ideas, and, even if I haven’t much time there, I shall bring home quantities of material for my rubbish.” When her publisher tells her that “Morals don’t sell nowadays”, she begins writing sensationalist novels and increasingly becomes comfortable in writing according to what sells. Women were more likely to be perceived, when talking or thinking about money, as vulgar, greedy, or demanding. Professor Bhaer (a German philosopher who marries Jo in the book) expresses his disappointment in Jo for writing in the genre, telling her how she has “compromised her womanliness.” Jo puts her three months of hard work in the fire, leaves New York City, and gets settled. This liberated girl, who has dreamed about a world beyond her small cottage and has had serious artistic ambitions, returning to the domestic hearth seems forced, almost tragic. Gerwig saw and understood the compromises of Alcott in between the lines and, thus, rewrites the ending to bring to life what was originally part of Louisa’s creative vision. In doing so, we hear Gerwig’s voice as a writer. Jo does not return to the home to get married but instead starts writing a novel. 

The film begins with a copy of Little Women and Alcott written on it. By the end, the author has changed to Jo. In the long concluding sequence, Gerwig gives the audience two endings. She first shows us the supposed happy ending in which Jo patches up with the French professor with a kiss, in the rain, under an umbrella. This is what Mr. Dashwood, her editor, asks her to do. The scene is shot through the warm-toned filter of fantasy. But then comes the real ending: the one in which Jo is confidently negotiating with her publisher for control over her work and watching her book getting printed. 

By giving us the alternate conclusion, the film engages in a self-reflexive critique of the economic and social constraints placed on female creativity. It asks us to reconsider the original ending of the novel and forces us to question, “Do we like Jo because she was married off to some German professor, or was it because of her personality, hopes, struggles, and ambitions?”

After her failure in New York City, Jo returns home frustrated, upset, and confused. She wonders if she should have said yes to Laurie. That moment of indecisiveness is not because she realizes she loves him, but because she is growing tiresome. In a passionate speech, she tells Marmie, “Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. But I’m so alone.” 

Gerwig’s adaptation brings out the essence of Little Women. Jo’s arms are not wrapped around a man but around her book—a result of her sweat, compromise, loneliness, ambition, and genius. This is not a story where the boy gets the girl, it is a story where the girl gets a lot more.

Shanna Jain
Shanna Jain
Shanna is pursuing her Masters in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. In her free time, she is either deconstructing a film or listening to Taylor Swift.