The Marriage Plot and Its Discontents

Saoirse Ronan in Greta Gerwig's LITTLE WOMEN.

So I have to confess: I’m not one of the lifelong Little Women stans who have been looking forward to the latest adaptation for years. I’m that kind of fan for the upcoming Emma movie, because my parents named their new dog Lizzie Bennet and my flirtation style is just archly remarking, “I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not wounded mine” and “my good opinion once lost, is lost forever.” But from the moment I saw the first trailer of Saoirse Ronan running through the woods I was pretty much here for it–the next time I went out for a brisk walk on the moors I took a copy of Little Women with me to read while surreptitiously strolling through my torrid love interest’s sprawling estate.

As you may know, Jane Austen books are typically about the main characters (and usually everyone else they know) getting married, and from the beginning of Little Women, it seemed pretty clear this would be another thing Austen and Alcott’s work would have in common. From the snappy feminist Twitter bait lines in the trailer to my half-rememberance of my mother trash-talking the book during my childhood when someone suggested she get it for me (to her credit, I definitely wouldn’t let a child read this book without a lot of guidance re: the gender roles). In true conformity to the traditional marriage plot Little Women ends with all its female characters either married, or dead. (In case you thought that line in the trailer was just for laughs, that’s literally how books worked back then.) I went into Little Women prepared for a lot of sexism, if only for it to be refuted – as it is in Austen. 

Aside from the fact that every character uncritically repeats some variant of “it’s a woman’s job to serve a man,” the values expressed in Little Women appealed to me. It’s a book about 19th century hippies who, unlike their materialistic Aunt March or their party-girl neighbor Theodore Lawrence, choose to make relationships and community the centerpiece of their lives. In fact, as a leftist working to fight consumerism and disconnection in the 21st century, much of the ideas in Little Women ring true to me. When Meg learns that all her rich friends’ nice clothes don’t give them family lives as happy as hers, or when the girls give up their Christmas brunch to feed their starving immigrant neighbors, the story is about a love much deeper than that of a marriage plot. These are not women who care only about getting married; they care about a whole lot more than that. This is a book about charity, integrity, civic duty, and a rejection of materialism that warms my communist heart. 

Once I had finished the book, I then entered The Discourse™ around Little Women and its characters’ endings. Mostly it centers around Jo, the quote-unquote tomboy character who pledges never to get married for the whole book–she of course gets married by the end, or she would die instead. Louisa May Alcott herself (I read in a supplementary essay included with my edition) didn’t want to marry Jo off, and just wrote her funny old Professor Bhaer as a joke. Some people are angry not that she was forced to marry but rather that she didn’t marry Laurie, the boy next door who’s been pining for her the whole book. Others hate Amy, the sister who marries Laurie in the end and who burns a copy of Jo’s first manuscript when they’re both kids.

As preparation for my critique of Little Women, I even revisited a couple episodes each of Sex and the City and HBO’s Girls, two modern shows that share the book’s storyline of a group of four girls figuring out the world. While I was never much of a Sex and the City fan, I did watch HBO’s Girls pretty enthusiastically from the ages 18-24, aka the entirety of its run and the most formative chapters of my “young adulthood.” As a little human, I noticed that despite the total disconnect of values between the characters in Girls and Little Women, Girls did indeed try to offer millennials a view of the different paths they could take in adulthood. Hannah, self-centered but true to herself as well; Marnie, accomplished in a pointless profession and forced to reckon with being a failure in everything else; Jessa, who refuses to take responsibility for herself or any other person for that matter; and Shoshanna, a bundle of anxiety manically climbing the social ladder, the career ladder, and every other ladder she can find. It’s not just through their Little Women style successes we learn from these girls, but from their much more common failures to be the people they want to be. In the end though, both stories are about being a girl in the midst of a society that demands so much from girls.

With all this in mind, my sister and I, along with a larger crowd than I’d seen at a movie in a long time, walked into a screening of Little Women the day after Christmas.

Reader, when Professor Bhaer turned up in the film I was prepared for the worst. But then I dared to hope, when Professor Bhaer ended up not staying in Concord to woo Jo but leaving from his first time meeting the Marches to go directly to the train station, leaving Concord for good. Was Gerwig giving a nod to Bhaer in her film without going down the same road as Alcott? But then alas, the other three March sisters crowd around Jo as soon as he leaves and all announce, “YOU LOVE HIM!” prompting the traditional “why….I do love him! I love him!!” and a race through the rain to catch Bhaer before he leaves for California. I had been slowly sliding down in my seat at the theater, when just before Jo reaches Bhaer the film abruptly cuts to a scene of Jo in her publisher’s office. 

“So who does she marry again?” the publisher asks, leafing through the pages of her manuscript. Jo then argues for leaving her protagonist (a spunky young girl with dreams of being a novelist) unmarried, but the publisher balks, saying the book will never sell if she doesn’t marry off all the women characters by the end (or kill them). Jo replies “She’s been saying she doesn’t want to get married the whole book!” Some people looked over at us when I hissed “yessssssssss!” After some prodding about the financial end of the publishing business, Jo muses: “marriage has always been an economic proposition,” recalling what her sister Amy said to Laurie when he criticized her for wanting a husband who could support her financially. (Women weren’t allowed to work for a living at that time, so I certainly hope Laurie can support Amy financially!). In the end, Jo decides to get that cash and write her book-self a husband–outlining a sappy chapter entitled “Under The Umbrella” to make the lowest common denominator buy the book. As she pitches the chapter to her publisher, we see the rom-com version of Jo and Bhaer’s ending, and then the pages of the book that will become Little Women being published as Jo looks on.

After this flurry of action subsides, we see the house formerly inhabited by Meryl Streep in its new form as Jo’s school–for both boys and girls. (Girls couldn’t get a quality education most of the time in this time period, so this change by Gerwig packs in a lot of significance). At this point, I was learning forward in my seat, watching the camera float around the house behind Jo as she one by one encounters each member of her family in their new role at the school. Hardly daring to hope, I narrowed my eyes as she walked by Bhaer teaching some kids how to paint (or something?), but all she does is nod to him briefly and keep walking. In the final shot where her whole family are together on the lawn, I don’t think Bhaer is even there.

I was pretty invested in the idea of Jo not being married, as Louisa May Alcott had been before me. I was used to stories in the 21st century being more like Greta Gerwig’s previous film, Lady Bird, in which the main character does not stay with her high school boyfriend and instead goes on to college alone. Even stories that do involve female characters getting married often relegate their love lives to subplots these days, such as The Hunger Games, to name a popular example. Sex and the City doesn’t get out of this mold, since the show is literally just about the characters’ love lives, but Girls ends with Lena Dunham’s character Hannah and her best friend Marnie both unmarried and unattached. Shoshanna, who could be the Beth of the group, is engaged at the end of the show, while Jessa, the Amy, ends up in a long term relationship with the show’s approximation of Laurie (blow up the comments on that one). That’s a 50-50 split, and the characters who arguably get more attention from the show are the unmarried ones. 

Not all our stories have broken with the marriage plot, and even works like Jane Austen novels Little Women mostly lampshade it. Tellingly, Little Women was snubbed in the Oscar nominations recently, perhaps because the “economic propositions” that dominate womens’ lives are still not considered important enough to be Art. 

Maybe those of us who feel a kinship with the characters of Little Women can abandon the Oscars the same way Meg abandons her love of frivolous clothes, or Jo abandons the sensationalist pulp writing that doesn’t creatively fulfill her. The Oscars were built by men to reward men; they literally have a male name, after all. For women both big and little to be given their due we might need to create spaces like the ones Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott have created within literature. These may not be spaces that are recognized by everyone, but if we literary feminists can create an artistic community with even half the support, love, and acceptance of the March household, we’ll still have done perfectly well.


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