“Jo, captivated, watches type being set,” observes Greta Gerwig of her protagonist in the final pages of her screenplay for Little Women. It’s a beautiful, stirring moment as Saoirse Ronan’s Jo watches the fruit of her labors take tangible form as a published book thanks to the efforts of artisans and craftspeople. “Her inchoate desire made manifest,” Gerwig later describes the meaning of the moment for Jo. Coupled with the swelling strings of Alexandre Desplat’s score building to a crescendo, all the film’s emotional undercurrents begin to surge. So why was my stomach turning in painful knots?
There’s a kind of resignation, a learned helplessness that you come to develop when engaging with culture as a person who’s single by choice. (At least for now – I’d like to think my current place not as permanent resignation to spinster status, but a comfortable stasis with my position.) You gather from an early age that society views your place in life as a problem to solve and a conflict to address, especially when you have consciously chosen to focus on professional achievement. I cannot even begin to fathom how much worse it is for women, who are constantly bombarded with messages telling them that their career ambitions openly antagonize men with an amorous interest in them. And as you get older, you learn society’s view that marriage is the ideal and natural institution is even enshrined in America’s tax code. It’s inescapable and ever-present.
As a writer who has, like Jo, opted for the thrill of the written word over the tender embrace of another person, I recognized that look as she watched her mental effort take physical form before her eyes. I also knew what emotions most movies would eventually force to accompany her loving gaze: regret, self-doubt and loathing. In standard narratives, one cannot choose their work over human connection without a reminder of the cost. Filmmakers usually portray this decision through the framing of a trade-off, of giving up something precious in the hopes of gaining something more valuable in return. It’s the former part of the equation, what’s lost, that tends to get the attention.
At first, Gerwig’s Little Women appeared to chart a similar trajectory. Jo’s rapturous moment of achievement, a metatextual extrapolation that more closely aligns the character with the author who wrote her as an avatar, plays between the original ending of Louisa May Alcott’s novel. Between snippets of watching her words become tangible, Gerwig intercuts scenes of the more traditional path for Jo: marriage, motherhood, educating, homemaking. With each step in the process of binding her book, the previous ending seems to escape further from her grasp. Each image of domestic bliss, however inauthentic or disappointing a result it represents for Jo, lands with the devastating impact of prospective contentment slipping away. These two outcomes feel as if they are clashing, yet also paradoxically diverging. The montage seemed to head in a direction where Jo cannot ignore an empty void forming in the place formerly occupied by hopes for love.
I kept anticipating, waiting for this moment to arrive with a pit in my stomach. The moment where the bottom falls out, and Jo comes face-to-face with her loneliness. The moment where she looks at the book and recognizes all that she gave up in order to arrive at this place. The moment where a forlorn expression sweeps across her face as she ponders whether the reward merited the price. The moment where the movie, too, issues a judgment from afar on whether the choice was worthwhile.
And … it never came.
Only as the film releases us from its powerful grasp does Gerwig’s intentional refusal to frame Jo’s decision through a sacrificial lens whatsoever become apparent. Especially when considering the cultural context of the 1860s, turning the conclusion of her story into a dialectic battle belittles both her personal and professional accomplishments. It’s here that I realized the crosscutting was not framing Jo’s choice as a contrast with the image of domestic contentment conjured up by Louisa May Alcott’s novel. This is not an either/or scenario where the two scenes contrast each other. Rather, Gerwig intends them as complementary. These are not two outcomes at war with each other. Both are visions of something earned and gained, not forfeited or lost.
“Girls want to see women MARRIED, not CONSISTENT,” barks Dashwood (Tracy Letts), Jo’s publisher, in response to the proposition that Jo remain uncoupled by the end of the text. Gerwig’s construction of Little Women proves both can be valid conclusions for a text, although perhaps not equally satisfying. By granting the two visions of Jo’s future comparable footing, she forces a reckoning with the constructed fiction of the novel’s ending. Gerwig heightens the mawkish emotion of Jo’s romance with Professor Bhaer, ensuring that it stands out tonally from the rest of the film and delineates a clear break for the character. Her screenplay labels the novel’s final scenes as “fiction (?),” an acknowledgement that the ending as known to generations of Little Women fans reflects the economic realities of the era’s publishing industry more than it does the distinct milieu that Alcott conjured on the page.
One need not even seek out extratextual sources to see that Alcott understood this tension between an authentic ending and a satisfying one. Her disembodied, omniscient narrator even makes it explicit in Little Women. “Now, if she [Jo] had been the heroine of a moral storybook, she ought at this period of her life to have become quite saintly, renounced the world, and gone about doing good in a mortified bonnet, with tracts in her pocket,” Alcott wrote. “But you see Jo wasn’t a heroine; she was only a struggling human girl […]” Marriage and consistency might be mutually exclusive outcomes for Jo. Gerwig argues, however, happiness and fulfillment need not be confined to a single one of these endings. For those of us who gravitate towards consistency in our own lives, to see that truth reflected on screen with such compassionate, non-judgmental understanding felt nothing short of revelatory.
Gerwig also manages to achieve this without ignoring or flattening the emotions of Jo. She’s not rendered an automaton with blinders on to everything around her in pursuit of publication. It’s quite the contrast with films of a similar ilk that follow characters in constant turmoil over what they actually want in life. While more cautionary tales than lifestyle advertisements, seminal films in my parallel offscreen/on-screen development like Up in the Air and Whiplash suggest their protagonists are only able to attain a level of excellence in their craft by excising the parts of themselves that feel regret and disappointment. In similar stories for men – the gender primarily afforded the luxury of such a narrative in a society that still undervalues the independence of women – filmmakers often conclude that professional mastery and relationship satisfaction exist in direct opposition to one another.
Zadie Smith refers to this denial of one’s multifaceted nature as an act of violence. “The rope inside us is pulled so taut, strung between such apparently incompatible places, that we feel we must cut it,” she wrote. “We cut that bit out and live in a mutilated way. That is an intimate tragedy.” Gerwig requires no such sentimental self-maiming from Jo in her Little Women. She creates the space for a rigorous emotional self-inventory in the world of her film. Here, Jo can undertake the challenging task of sorting her innate desires from those absorbed by simply living in a society. Adaptation and adjustment make it possible to stall until a crossroads makes it impossible to maintain such a double life.
Gerwig’s ingenious temporal retooling of Little Women makes it so Jo’s biggest reckoning in the film comes not when she refuses the most forceful entreaty of her suitor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). Rather, it’s four years down the line – although positioned immediately afterwards in the screenplay – when she’s reflecting on the experience. The scene finds Jo in a state of emotional inertia, unoccupied with writing in the wake of her sister Beth’s death. Gerwig’s structural gambit makes Jo’s rebuffing Laurie as fresh in our minds as it is in hers, placing us in her headspace as she contemplates her actions. It’s not the typical cinematic moment where a character gives voice to a mounting sensation of guilt or longing. Jo is, instead, openly negotiating with her own values.
“But do you love him?” inquires her mother Marmee (Laura Dern) as Jo furiously deliberates an alternate past. “I know that I care more to be loved,” she replies. In response to the question, Jo finally comes to the realization that her true love lies not in a person but on a page. This is where she wishes to expend the energy, creativity and thoughtfulness of her loving impulses. While she craves the benefits of the relationship with another person, she cannot bring herself to commit to the hard work required to reciprocate their fondness. It’s easy to pine for the things that words on a page can never provide – a warm embrace, an affectionate gesture, true and lasting companionship – and lose sight of the enlightenment and contentment they can bring. Prioritizing a love of intrinsic origins proves tough when everything around you reinforces that even the contemplation of surviving on it alone makes you an aberrant case.
Jo gets to express this frustration in a centerpiece feminist monologue where she rails against a society intent on judging her worth only through marital status. “I’m sick of being told that love is all a woman is fit for,” Jo vehemently declares to Marmee. “But,” she adds before a pause, “I’m so lonely.” The plaintive diatribe represents both the clearest elucidation of Jo’s values as well as a crushing admission that she cannot fully embody them. Gerwig recognizes that no person can live as an ideal. There’s a natural process of compromise we must make as humans attempting to navigate the complications of reality. This Little Women sagely acknowledges the loneliness Jo feels can be simply an externality of the pull she feels to prioritize writing – not its defining characteristic.
And in the film’s closing montage, Jo’s look as she watches her book sewn together reflects the journey of this moment. It’s not a disavowal of emotion altogether. She is not a hollowed-out shell with a single-minded agenda. Ronan conveys the kind of giddiness writers recognize from an idea taking its final, published form. Gerwig guides her towards the expression of a truth I’ve found rings true for many a dedicated author. It is not a denial of feeling to consciously dedicate ourselves to the love of craft. Often, it’s a commitment to feel everything all the more acutely. To experience it emotionally, process it intellectually and communicate the thought with the proper set of words is not a sign of retreating from the world. It’s engaging with it in the most meaningful way we know.
As the book nears completion, Jo’s gaze becomes more measured and less openly elated. It’s informed by what she’s foregone but not circumscribed by it altogether. No sense of sacrifice taints her triumph. The brief questioning moment passes, and Little Women ends on her smiling. She has what she’s accepted as her true desire all along: her independence, her book, her full self.
“Writing doesn’t confer importance, it reflects it,” Jo argues late in the film as she downplays the significance of her story. Her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) retorts that the very act of writing might make her subject matter important. Amy is right, and not just about the chosen subject of a writer. The very act of writing about one’s own experience, of wrangling its vagaries and complexities into the logic of prose, also confers importance to that writer’s life. Perhaps her words cannot save her sister Beth, as Jo laments shortly after her death. But through writing, Jo saves herself – as do countless others who have found a vessel into which they can pour all the boundless love they keep stored up inside.
“Little Women” is out tomorrow on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD.