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.
Jo 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.
Jo 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.