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Jo March – The Universal Woman

I’ve been having something of a Little Women-fest on this blog for the past week and a half, but before I allow the book to rest, there is one more thing that has been teasing me that I wanted to explore. As I canvassed the internet and read the differing opinions of fans, I was struck by the intensity and implacability of opinion regarding who Jo March should have married and I began to wonder why that was. I am always intrigued when opinion is evenly split. It can mean that both sides have a good case, but neither has an overwhelming one. Does that mean there is a fault in how Louisa May Alcott set up her story? It could be, but I wonder if there is another reason, too.

When we read novels, we find characters we feel inherently in sympathy with, characters we understand or want to be like or especially feel invested in. When that happens, we say that we “identify” with that character and nowhere have I found a character more identified with than Josephine March (though with heady competition from Elizabeth Bennett). I have read it, heard it, and met many people who have told me that they grew up reading the book feeling a special kinship with Jo.

When I first read Little Women, though, I did not identify with her. I was a child and couldn’t see past some of Jo’s more glaring personality traits, like her temper, her impetuosity, her quirky and stubborn moods; traits I did not share. But when I read it again, I could see the common ground. Her childhood dreams of writing, the childhood dream that anything is possible and that money and fame are just waiting for you, her love of life and disinclination for and awkwardness in society, her desire to travel, her reading habits, her tom-boyishness, her warm love of her sisters, her fear of losing her sisters, her discovery that childhood dreams are not always to be, or even what we want as we grow and change – I could understand these things. She’s a dreamer and a bit of a social misfit and a writer. And she’s not considered conventionally attractive (we women can be insecure about our own appearance and I have not heard nearly as many women identifying with overtly beautiful female characters). Jo’s very modern, then, in her personality, but she has been loved in every generation since her creation in 1868.

In Jo March, Louisa May Alcott seems to have created the universal woman; we can all see something of ourselves in her. She’s complex and doesn’t stay the same, which also means we can see ourselves in different stages of her life. Perhaps we are more like she was when she was fifteen, or perhaps more like her when she is twenty-five.

My theory is that because we can project ourselves on Jo, it makes it very personal who Jo marries. It is no longer a question of who we think Jo should marry, but who we would rather marry. If you can’t imagine marrying a stuffy old professor, then you would hate it if Jo married him. But if, instead, you cannot imagine marrying an immature boy, then you would be appalled if Jo were to have accepted Laurie (I am, admittedly, being unfair in my descriptions of both Laurie and Professor Bhaer for dramatic affect). Her journey, her dreams, are the journey and dreams of so many women; it’s difficult not to take her ultimate destination personally.

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2015 in Fiction, Literary Thoughts

 

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Love, But Not As We Know It

Love, But Not As We Know It

Andrea Lundgren and I have come to the end of our blog debate and I want to thank her for participating! I had a wonderful time writing and reading and found her thoughts extremely thought provoking. In closing the debate, she has written a post summing up her conclusions, both on Jo’s choice of husband and on the nature of marriage and love.

Andrea Lundgren

I’ve been thinking about Little Women and Jo March’s romance all weekend, and I think the difference of reader opinion about who she should’ve married–Laurie Laurence or Professor Bhaer–is rooted in our own perspectives on love and marriage. The two men represent very different kinds of relationships, and our response to them is largely determined, I think, by which sort of marriage we like, want, or have.

Laurie’s Kind of Marriage

Being married to a person like Laurie would be an adventure. He’d want you along for all his schemes, helping him get in and out of trouble. You’d be his best friend, and, for it to work well, he’d have to be yours. He’d share everything with you: his worries, frustrations, struggles, successes, striving for your approval, looking to you for comfort. You would be everything to him, and for the marriage to work, he’d have to be everything…

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Posted by on January 19, 2015 in Fiction, Literary Thoughts

 

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Laurie vs. Professor Bhaer – A Debate with Andrea Lundgren

Last December my cousin, Andrea Lundgren, and I read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. We had a wonderful time discussing it with each other, but became aware that on one point we differed. Who should Jo have married: Professor Bhaer or Laurie? It is a debate that has engaged Jo March fans for over a century. We thought we would offer our opinions in a Professor Bhaer and Laurie blog debate!

Andrea has written the first volley, arguing that Laurie and Jo were each other’s best friends and that if Louisa May Alcott had not interfered in the story, they would naturally have fallen in love. As Andrea points out, Little Women has two parts, published separately, so it is possible the story was headed one direction in the first half and Alcott redirected it in the second half. Andrea has also written a wonderful post on how an author can successfully redirect a romance in a novel, from one part to another.

In my rebuttal post, I attempt to make the case for Professor Bhaer.

movies_christian_bale_career_gallery_3Jo and Laurie

Jo was Laurie’s best friend, but I am not sure Laurie was Jo’s best friend. She was also extremely close to her sisters. Laurie was lonely and bored when he met Jo, but Jo was not. They spend a lot of time together, but she doesn’t share her heart with him, as she does with Marmee, and the secrets he does know he worms out of her through teasing. I agree that in the first half of the book, Laurie is already falling in love with Jo – he likes her more than anyone else and he kisses her and tells her to hug him anytime – but Jo’s affections are less engaged and when the first half of the book ends, I believe it is open-ended enough for Jo to not fall in love with Laurie.

My main problem with Laurie is that he is less mature than Jo. Jo mothers him and he is always trying to live up to her, such as when he does well at college to earn her approval, rather than for his own sake or the sake of his grandfather. Jo also frequently calls him her boy, a phrase that brings to mind a later book by Alcott, Jo’s Boys. Laurie can be seen as the first of Jo’s boys. She loves boys, she gets along with boys, she understands boys. She never had much in common with other girls, not being interested in dresses or the usual things girls talk about. She and Laurie have a similar sense of humor and high energy and are very good friends, but she does not ever respect him as a man.

My other thought about Laurie is that he doesn’t have the personal resources that Jo has (in terms of finding amusement or employment for himself). He would want to be with Jo a lot and that would annoy Jo, who needs to be able to go off on her own to write and such.

0164Jo and Professor Bhaer

On the other hand, Professor Bhaer is often seen as the staid alternative to the passionate Laurie. The professor is less openly impetuous than Laurie, but it does not follow that he feels less deeply or intensely. He reveals depth of emotion on several occasions, when he is thinking that he can never have Jo and when he is defending ideals he believes in.

And Jo, as a reader with an inquiring mind, finds in the Professor an intellectual soul-mate, as well as a romantic one. She respects his judgment and his opinions on her writing. She is full of admiration when he passionately defends religion to a philosopher. He challenges her to maintain her writing integrity and seems to understand her without speaking about things.

Andrea makes the parallel between Professor Bhaer and Jo’s largely absent-from-the-book father, which was a great observation and really got me thinking. However, I think that actually makes Jo’s love of Professor Bhaer more likely. Professor Bhaer has a lot in common with her father and Jo has a lot in common with her mother. Jo and Marmee talk together frequently, they understand each other, both have tempers, both deeply care for people, struggle the least with self-absorption, and both are attracted to intellectual men who are also rocks of solidity who can temper their wive’s more fiery impulses and both are men not moved by social conventions, happily pursuing their own way in life while staying true to their convictions (as Mr. March does when he goes to war).

We don’t ever see Marmee and her husband together, but that does not preclude devotion to each other, when other people are not watching. That could be because Alcott has a more difficult time writing about married life. Her romances never seemed to me to be her strong suit. But because she does not show people in an intimate marriage, doesn’t mean they don’t have one.

Jo can still mother Professor Bhaer (she needs to mother people: Laurie, Beth, children) by darning his socks and sewing on his buttons and she will bring tremendous energy and sparkle into his life, but he will be able to support her as she flings herself into her projects and through life. But I believe it is the very things that make him so different from her – the gentleness (which Louisa May Alcott Is My Passion argues reminds Jo of Beth), the education and knowledge, the patience – that is attractive to her.

 
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Posted by on January 16, 2015 in Literary Thoughts

 

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