Generally, I defend authors as being the most likely candidates to get a storyline right. They should know their characters better than anyone else, and their insights are very valuable—never to be discounted. Sometimes, though, I think an author’s prejudice or personal opinions can skew their understanding of their characters, and one major instance of this is in Little Women, in the relationship between Jo March and Laurie Laurence.
Supposedly, Ms. Alcott never wanted Jo to marry anyone, remaining single throughout the books, as she herself was in real life, but the clamor of the fans and probably the pressure of her publisher made her go a different route. (Perhaps she did it to spite her fans?) But I don’t feel like the first volume supported the second volume, and I think Jo would’ve fallen for Laurie, if the author hadn’t interfered.
First of all, there are plenty of textual examples of how much she cares for him. She was the one who longed to know him in the first place. She was the one who knew how to manage him, and while they had quarrels, they both shared the same interests. She defends him against anyone’s comments to the contrary, and considers him “her boy.” She flies at him to thank him for summoning her mother home, and he gives her a few kisses in exchange. And she doesn’t repulse them, just backs away, flustered, into the kitchen—exactly the kind of reception she’d have towards any young man she admired.
And while he thinks Meg is the most beautiful of the sisters, Jo is the one he likes the best. She manages to talk him out of his craziest schemes while participating in the more sane ones. They plot together for his inclusion in the Pickwick Club and in Beth’s Christmas present after she recovers. They share secrets with each other, and despite what she says about him and her writing when he proposes in the second volume, (that he would hate her “scribbling”), he does support her writing. When he first finds out that she’s submitted a story for publication, he rejoices and calls her “the celebrated American authoress.”
And, though he is rich, he is a bit eccentric. He doesn’t seem to go in for society anymore than Jo does (when she meets him, they are both trying to hide out in the same back room at a party, and proceed to dance down an empty hall). His elegance makes Jo want to rise to his level (she wishes her gloves were as nice as his, at one point) and her “freaks” keep him from being bored. And the narrator hinted that the post office set between her house and his would contain love letters in future days.
All this points to a perfect setup for Jo and Laurie to become a wonderfully passionate, happy couple. They are each other’s best friends, and while their temperaments are similar, in a big house, it really wouldn’t matter. They’d be able to get away from each other long enough to cool down and realize they both needed to apologize to the other (as they did at one point in the story, after Jo gets fidgety from too little work). While I think Jo and Professor Bhaer work—especially if we are looking at a conservative model of marriage, as was common for the time period—I think it isn’t as wonderful as Jo and Laurie could’ve been.
And the sequels seem to agree. In Good Wives (the second part of Little Women), Laurie thinks that only Amy could take Jo’s place, and we never see him and Amy and Jo together for any kind of duration after Amy and Laurie are a couple. When they are together, we see Jo and Laurie teasing each other, just as they always have done, and Amy just melts into the background. And it seems to get worse in Little Men and Jo’s Boys, the two other books in the series. Laurie and Jo have chats about how the boys are coming along, and he brings his daughter out to Jo’s school for a visit, leaving Amy behind. When he wants to share his thoughts about the growing family, he takes Jo around in the middle of the party, showing her the various groups and tableau.
I think Jo probably would’ve refused Laurie’s first proposal, if he went about it as he does in Good Wives, but I think he would’ve known that. I think it’s far more likely that he’d pull a Mr. Rochester and pretend to be interested in marrying someone else so that she would, in turn, realize how much he meant to her and fall in love.
In some ways, I feel that Professor Bhaer really just fills the role of father in Jo’s life, since her real father is nonexistent in the first volume of Little Women and only seems to come into his own once Demi, his grandson, shows up as a little philosopher.
All this isn’t to say that I hate the ending, as it is written. Jo and Professor Bhaer have a good relationship, and they seem be a solid couple. They just aren’t best friends. He seems to be the voice of wisdom and patience in her life—and not the love of her life.
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren Photo by markgraf, Creative Commons