Castles in the Air: A Review of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

Castles in the Air: A Review of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women

Little Women, 2019. L-R: Eliza Scanlen (Beth), Saoirse Ronan (Jo), Emma Watson (Meg), and Florence Pugh (Amy). Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

Impatient for Greta Gerwig’s Little Women to come out, I watched the 1994 movie again to bide my time. Susan Sarandon (Marmee) and Winona Ryder (Jo) steal the show, delivering the movie’s most memorable lines critiquing Victorian gender expectations, such as when Marmee dismisses a neighbor’s concerns about her daughters’ rough-housing with the boys with the comment, “feminine weaknesses and fainting spells are the direct result of our confining young girls to the house, bent over their needlework, and restrictive corsets.” Or when Jo joins a conversation between Friedrich and other self-important professor-types with: “I find it poor logic to say that women should vote because they are good. Men do not vote because they are good; they vote because they are men, and women should vote, not because we are angels and men are animals, but because we are human beings and citizens of this country.” Drop. The. Mic. Jo! Beyond Marmee and Jo, though, the other performances are less memorable.

Little Women, 1994. L-R: Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon and Claire Danes. Credit: Columbia Pictures.

I have loved the 1994 movie since it came out, use it alongside of the novel in my teaching, and shared it with my own children. But in Gerwig’s hands, the lives of the March sisters and their mother come to life in a way that will make it hard to look back. The new film is textured, moving, and devastating in its exploration of what it feels like to grow up in a society that tells girls they can be or do anything and then fails to support women who do.

Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women for nineteenth-century girls who stood at the edge of adulthood. The first part captures the independence enjoyed by middle-class, northern white girls before marriage, a time when they could dream about the future and about what sort of women they wanted to be.[1] In their dreams they grow up to be actors (Meg), pianists (Beth), authors (Jo), and artists (Amy)—”castles in the air” is what Alcott called them. “I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous; that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream,” exclaims Jo.[2] But in Victorian America women had only two paths to adulthood: happy wives or spinsters.

The second part explores the girls’ transition to adulthood. Alexis de Tocqueville commented on “the singular address and happy boldness with which young women in America” thought and spoke; once married, though, they gave up their independence for the “bonds of matrimony.”[3] There were few contemporary examples of marriages that made room for women’s ambitions, their “happy boldness.” Alcott’s parents were iconoclasts, but in the end, Bronson Alcott’s transcendentalism and the family’s abolitionism were sustained by Abigail May Alcott—Louisa’s mother—and her willingness to support her husband’s ambitions, even when they drove the family to poverty.

Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s mother and the inspiration for Marmee. Courtesy of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House.

Because it starts at the end, when the March sisters are grown up, the new film focuses on all of the compromises, big and small, that the girls made as they prepared to leave behind their castles in the air. For Meg, this means forgetting her dream of marrying well, and Amy gives up on her art. But whereas Alcott’s big compromise at the end of the novel was to marry off Jo, her avatar who famously intended to remain a “literary spinster,” Gerwig’s brilliant ending leaves open the possibility that Jo found a way to realize her ambition. Gerwig’s decision to structure the film as a flashback allows each sister to defend the compromises she made to find her way forward. The March sisters do this when they repeat a maxim of nineteenth-century feminism, that marriage is a financial transaction, which sounds as unromantic, unsparing, and accurate today as it did in the 1860s.

Jo’s marriage transaction is in the trailer: Jo, played by Saoirse Ronan, reluctantly agrees to marry off the book’s protagonist for more money and in return for retaining copyright of the book. “If I’m going to sell my heroine into marriage for money,” she says, “I might as well get some of it.” The line is not in the novel, but Alcott surely would have approved. Amy, played by Florence Pugh, delivers the film’s longest and most damning critique of coverture. When Laurie, played by Timothée Chalamet, questions Amy’s determination to marry for money, she responds with:

I’m just a woman, and as a woman, 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.

It’s appropriate that Amy delivers these lines, as next to Jo, she is the character that audiences have the strongest feelings about. Shirley Li in The Atlantic applauds Pugh for rescuing the youngest sister from her reputation as the “brat running around in an outfit made up of hand-me-downs, or the young woman flirting her way into the heart of Jo’s best friend.”[4] Gerwig’s Amy makes the fully rational decision to marry Laurie on her own terms.

Gerwig’s greatest feat may be in giving Meg more depth. It is easy for readers who identify with Jo to dismiss Alcott’s marriage-obsessed Meg, but not so for Emma Watson’s Meg who, on the day of her wedding, looks Jo in the face and says, “Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t make them unimportant.” What woman today enjoying the fruits of second-wave feminism would deny any woman a future of her own choosing, whether it is becoming a “literary spinster” or marrying a poor teacher? Yet Meg reminds viewers of the transactional nature of marriage when she sells the $50 worth of silk she bought to make a dress in order to buy her husband a coat. Kudos to Gerwig for retaining that bit from the novel, as it follows the thread of marriage-as-transaction. The result is a more fully formed Meg, one that maybe we can stop pretending we don’t see a little of ourselves in.

Given Gerwig’s considerable talent, it is unfortunate that Beth is still so insipid, lifeless. It may be Alcott’s fault. Beth’s greatest ambition, her castle in the air, was “to stay home safe with Father and Mother.”[5] In the movie, Beth’s final illness and her death drive the action. As Jo makes her way home to care for Beth, she relives scenes from her childhood, allowing viewers to meet the sisters as girls with big dreams. And, as in the novel, Jo’s grief over Beth’s death reignites her authorial ambitions. But Beth, played by Eliza Scanlen, is disappointing. She exists only to redeem the other characters—that was her very Victorian purpose in the original and it remains so today. Surely, we are ready for a better—or actually, a worse—Beth, one with some flaws.

Laura Dern (Marmee) and Saoirse Ronan (Jo). Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

I was surprised how readily Laura Dern replaced Sarandon in my heart as Marmee. We get to see Abigail Alcott in her, something of her ambition, the compromises she made. Like when Mr. March—recently returned from serving as a chaplain in the Civil War—floats the ludicrous idea of following Friedrich out to California for some new adventure. Marmee, a flash of anger in her eyes, nips the idea in the bud, reminding Mr. March (played by Bob Odenkirk) that he has a family to support. And, as anyone who has not been living under a rock already knows, Dern gets her own drop-the-mic line about controlling her anger when she tells Jo, “‘I’ve been angry every day of my life.’” Giving Marmee back her anger reflects what Greta Gerwig read in Abigail’s letters and locates the film in a moment when the principles of equality that Alcott’s generation wanted for their daughters–and that generations of feminists fought for—cannot be taken for granted.[6]

The Civil War that provides a backdrop to the novel makes a few appearances in the movie, with more time spent on women’s war work than on men’s military service. We see Marmee at the offices of the soldiers’ aid society, one of several scenes intended as a commentary on Alcott family values and to mark the Alcotts as abolitionists and racial egalitarians. (Another one was when Jo sits in the segregated section of the New York theater and then joins in a raucous, integrated, post-show dance.) Muster readers familiar with Alcott’s 1863 Hospital Sketches will recall that Tribulation Periwinkle complained about the hospital work of women of color and accused them of stealing. Marmee’s close working relationship with the woman of color at the aid society appears to have been marred by no such tension. There seems to be less talk of slavery in this film; for instance, Laurie does not chastise Meg for dressing in silk, despite her family’s boycott of slave-produced products—instead he scolds her for drinking champagne. Amy is not forced to defend her family’s abolitionism to her classmates in the new film. In place of these moments that might have reminded viewers about the Civil War and what was at stake in it, Gerwig places the March women in integrated spaces. This is a missed opportunity.

Fortunately, Mrs. Hummel’s wartime service is not overlooked in the film. She does not go to the aid society for blankets or supplies, although her husband is serving in the army—or maybe she did and was turned away by someone suspicious of her claims or dismissive of her lack of respectability. The Hummels’ Civil War was marked by quiet destitution, and Gerwig brings this point home clearly.

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is a superb film exploring the emotional worlds of Victorian girls and women for a new generation of viewers. Hopefully, it moves people to rediscover the novel or turn to it for the first time.

 

[1] A good place to start exploring Victorian girlhood is Steven Mintz’s summary and footnotes in Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004), 84-87.

[2] Louisa May Alcott, “Chapter 13: Castles in the Air,” in Little Women (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1868-1869; New York: Dover Thrift Editions, 2018), 130-8.

[3] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. II, ed. Francis Bowen, trans. Henry Reeve, Esq. (London: Saunders and Otley, 1840; Cambridge, UK: Sever and Francis, 1862), 242, 245.

[4] Shirley Li, “Greta Gerwig’s Little Women Gives Amy March Her Due,” The Atlantic, December 23, 2019, accessed January 4, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/12/greta-gerwigs-little-women-finally-gives-amy-her-due/603886/.

[5] Alcott, Little Women, 135.

[6] For more on Marmee, see Sarah Blackwood, “’Little Women’ and the Marmee Problem,” The New Yorker, December 24, 2019, accessed January 4, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/little-women-and-the-marmee-problem.

 

Judy Giesberg

Judith Giesberg is professor of history at Villanova University and author, most recently, of Sex and the Civil War: Soldiers, Pornography, and the Making of American Morality (UNC, 2017).

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