Dreams and Determination

The story of Little Women has caused me frustration at two significant points in life now.

My first review of the book, delivered around age ten to my mother, who had assigned it to me: “This book would’ve saved a LOT of time if they would’ve figured out who they loved in the first place!” It’s ironic that this story has come back around to be so impactful again, and I’ve been wondering why this is the case. How does a story so far removed from my situation take such hold of my soul?

There are so many reasons. The fairly lengthy book is homey, compelling, sentimental, and passionate in all the right ways; Greta Gerwig’s recent film adaptation captures its essence with some wise and novel tweaks. On the silver screen, Little Women is portrayed artfully, often against peaceful Massachusetts landscapes. The unfolding of plot through back-and-forth time jumps kept the pace up without the audience getting worn out (although this method may have been more valuable for those already familiar with the story – one poor man in our theater, after that sequence with Beth, whispered with relief, “Oh, she just dreamt all that.”) Even the soundtrack is beautiful; I’m listening as I write this! But the characters, as they should in any good story, drew me in most of all.

In another December blockbuster, Rey *redacted* and Ben Solo form “a dyad in the Force” – whatever that means. Josephine March (Jo) and Theodore Laurence (Laurie) have a similarly dyadic relationship (though with fewer laser swords, regrettably). In watching Gerwig’s adaptation and subsequently rereading Alcott’s novel, I found myself captivated against my better judgment by the intertwining of their particular stories. Each is a strong personality to begin with, sharply contrasting and complementing the other when side-by-side.

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“I’ve got the key to my castle in the air; but whether I can unlock the door, remains to be seen,’ observed Jo, mysteriously.”

Since Jo’s role is the most prominent, the reader (or watcher) quickly becomes acquainted with her energetic spirit, uncontrollable bursts of creative inspiration, and longing for freedom. Her determination to “make her own way in the world” is an admirable and inspirational hope even today, when some of the limitations she operated under have (debatably) decreased. As she grows, learning to navigate anger, jealousy, and love (thanks to Marmee!), a levelheaded leader is revealed within her.

“When Laurie first went to college, he fell in love about once a month; but these small flames were as brief as ardent, did no damage, and much amused Jo, who took great interest in the alternations of hope, despair, and resignation, which were confided to her in their weekly conferences.”

Laurie’s brotherly kindness, furtive mood swings, and boyish dreaming make him an endearing character, even if he is a little dramatic. (His protests against learning Latin are exceedingly relatable, thanks again to my mother’s assignments during our homeschool era.) He may be half a step behind Jo in terms of maturity, but he makes up for it with his protectiveness of the March sisters. It would take at least one of the sisters’ strong hands to help him grow up a bit, anyway.

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Curious exploration (or a chance meeting at a dance, in the film) led Jo and Laurie to each other, and their gravity pulls them closer and closer as the story progresses. Their characters’ similarities allowed them to become hopelessly tangled in friendship. Unfortunately, Laurie “was growing up very fast, and, in spite of his indolent ways, had a young man’s hatred of subjection – a young man’s restless longing to try the world for himself.” This restlessness led to that fateful conversation on the hillside.

Now, before someone feels the need to inform me, I know that the romance is not the sole point of this story. (Maybe I’ll turn this into a series of blogs extrapolating morals from Little Women.) But my love for each of these fictional people makes their relationship in particular so engrossing. I don’t know if I want to be friends with them or be them (or what the difference is)!

Jo and Laurie’s entanglement, coupled with their individual dreams, brings them to this denouement. Laurie cannot contain himself any longer, and even Jo resignedly knows the conversation must be had out (though she is reluctant to admit it). Gerwig’s Laurie comes to this breaking point after Meg’s wedding, and who can blame him? Blood runs hot at celebrations of that sort. The audience leans in with bated breath to see if the two will finally come together or be flung out of each other’s orbit. This inevitable change in their friendship dynamic builds the tension of this turning point – and Laurie’s proclamation of intense passion is met with Jo’s measured response of deliberate solitude.

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Laurie’s shattered orbit slings him out of the country, where he is eventually course-corrected by none other than Amy March, who provides some much-needed structure for his wandering spirit. At home, it’s Jo’s turn to be restless, “and the old feeling came again, not bitter as it once was, but a sorrowfully patient wonder…. the natural craving for affection was strong, and Amy’s happiness woke the hungry longing for some one to ‘love with heart and soul, and cling to, while God let them be together.’” Gerwig translates this desperation to Jo’s impassioned attic speech in the film – still holding the same inspirational determination, in the process of developing that quiet leadership, but admitting, concisely, “I’m so lonely!”

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Jo and Laurie collide again briefly after Jo’s admission to Marmee and Laurie’s marriage to Amy, showing the maturity time has taught, bringing closure before they “put it away forever.” They seem to try to convince themselves that they made the right choice, as if there was one.

In the end, I don’t think I actually wish their relationship had turned out differently. The frustration of their love and the angst of their continued friendship are valuable aspects of this story. Jo may smile with a pang of loneliness when she observes Laurie with Amy, and Laurie might still boyishly wonder from time to time what might have been, had the hillside conversation gone differently.

Gerwig’s movie, and the thoughtful way she interpreted the ending of Jo’s story in particular, communicate the truth that “resolution” does not necessarily mean the end of frustration. Jo’s resolution came in the form of a book, the culmination of her dreams and determination. The end of the movie forces the audience to ask: would she have written her story if she had accepted Laurie’s proposal? (Or the professor’s, for that matter. Sorry, Friedrich fans.)

The book is not an answer to her loneliness, but that is not its goal. It’s possible to be satisfied with frustration (and maybe here I am revealing who I’m more like, at least this morning). In a conversation with her sisters near the end of the film, Jo states “Writing doesn’t confer importance; it reflects it.” Her book reflects the importance of her familial relationships, of a life simply and faithfully lived. But what importance is refracted by writing a blog about a book about a writer? The importance of friendships, of loneliness, and of romance (even – perhaps especially – the unrequited kind). Of this story, and of all stories that reveal pieces of who we are, and of relationships that make up stories of our own.

So write about your story, as cliché as it sounds, or write about a story that resonates with something in you. Write to figure it out why it does that. This story left me with too much to let it go unwritten.

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Little Women hot takes: - Amy is a great character. (I may eventually write a whole post for her.) - Friedrich was unnecessary. (See blog above.) - Jo = 4w5. Laurie = 4w3. Tell me what you think of these takes, or submit your own!

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