The Case for Jo Laurence: An Analysis of the Relationships in “Little Women”
I have to confess that the last time I watched the 1994 version of Little Women, starring Winona Ryder, I felt very much like a three-year-old wanting to pitch a grand fit on the living room floor. Why? you ask. Because I have personally come to the irrevocable conclusion that Jo Bhaer should have been Jo Laurence, and I can’t resist explaining my opinion with the following 10 reasons:
1) First of all, Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne) is a good and gentle and wise man, a mentor and a listener, and it’s obvious he connects well with Jo on a paternal level, filling some of the cracks in her that were left empty and unsteady by her biological father’s long absence during the Civil War. He enjoys Jo’s company, he’s lonely, and he’s the only man in New York Jo isn’t petrified of. He’s not afraid to chide her for writing rubbish. But . . . with all of this having been said, do Bhaer and Jo really, deep-down, connect and aid and support one another on a matrimonial-worthy level? He tells her “Your heart understood mine” but does she really understand him–and does he understand who she truly is? Jo’s characteristic fiery spirit (which is in need of definite direction but not total subduing) seems to flop like a wilted nosegay whenever she’s around Bhaer. It’s a deep part of herself that she never shows him in New York. Instead, shy and overwhelmed and scarred from panicking at the idea of marriage and refusing her best friend Laurie (the fabulous Christian Bale), she grows quickly dependent on him like a daughter or a niece. Then, before we know it, he takes her to a romantic opera and plants a kiss, and then . . . Say what?
2) The age difference is too much for me. Call me a hypocrite (because I love Jane Eyre which involves just as much of an age difference) but I don’t like it one bit in this film. And I must say that a commendable difference between Jane and Rochester and Jo and Bhaer exists, though; it’s a complicated matter of deep bonding, deeper mutual understanding of fundamental flaws and quirks, a protracted time of acquaintanceship, and shared suffering on the part of Jane and Rochester–and these are rather absent between Jo and Bhaer.
3) She and Laurie meet much too perfectly! Come on, anyone who remotely knows anything about a successful romance film knows the first meeting has to be charmingly memorable and wonderfully unique, and Jo and Laurie’s first meeting at the New Year’s Eve ball had all the perfect earmarks: in the midst of frantic backpedaling she practically collapses on him, then starts jabbering helplessly, but then before long she’s eating his pudding and divulging all her best-kept secret desires about pursuing the stage . . . and he’s loving all of it! We’re half in love with the idea of them being in love before they’ve even exchanged coherent sentences. And then their friendship progresses so beautifully from that point on–they’re so open and natural and trusting with each other, it’s brilliant. They know the other’s nuances. To contrast with this, four years later, Jo is sitting nervously in Mrs. Kirk’s NY boarding house during breakfast, and she happens to meet a kind professor’s eyes, and he nods at her. Then he slams into her and scatters her writing all over the dirty street (but quite apologetically helps her gather it again). Eventually, after a week or so, he hands her an orange. Ta-da. (Sigh . . . I’m sorry.)
4) Laurie loves and respects Jo’s family–he’s a part of her family. Not that Bhaer could help not knowing Jo’s family, but when one thinks about the plays Laurie acted with the “Pickwick Society,” of the years he spent growing up with the March girls, how he helped rescue Amy from drowning, how he laughed at Jo’s desperate haircut and burned dress, and arranged for Mrs. March to return home to a critically ill Beth, etc. etc. how can Jo proceed to “fall in love” with a stranger twice her age in a large city with none of her family present–no matter how kind Bhaer is? How can that resonate emotionally any better than her and Laurie overcoming personal difficulties and realizing they truly are soulmates?
5) Your spouse has to be your best friend. While the old axiom often rings true in “opposites attract” and both Jo and Laurie are boisterous and passionate, when it comes to deciding between Bhaer and Laurie as to who’s the better friend . . . Laurie wins every time. It’s a no-brainer. And while in the movie, Jo claims “neither of us can keep our temper!”, do we ever really see Laurie lose his temper in the movie proper?
6) My most nagging peeve with the entire film is how unsavorily Laurie changes once Jo refuses his marriage proposal. Left adrift without Jo’s spontaneous, enthusiastic innocence and friendship, he goes abroad and becomes little more than a careless (and embittered) womanizer. When he finally encounters a grown-up Amy (Samantha Mathis), we don’t see love light his eyes . . . at, least, not the best and truest kind of love. As my father keenly pointed out once, “He is settling and conquering.” Since he can’t have Jo for his wife, and is forever scarred because of it, he suddenly claims to Amy “I envy (Jo’s) happiness . . . (but) I have always known I should be part of the March family.” Along with Amy, we rather sputter at this, because he’s making it apparent that as long as he can have a March girl, he’ll be happy . . . only, he’s never showcased this particular ambition before, and it comes across as a very obvious change of personal tactics in the hopes that simply marrying a March girl will make him less miserable than he already is. To make this even more evident, after his argument with Amy under the tree, he unexpectedly sends her a most eloquent and passionate letter, stating “It is you I want, and not your family . . .” In essence, he’s utilizing all his romantic powers and conquering her away from Fred Vaughn. But when has he loved Amy more than any other of the March girls? What remarkable traits has she exhibited to make him fall in love with her? I’m sorry, but I’m not buying it.
7) The lack of true resolution between Laurie and Jo misses out on marvelous “coming of age story” potential. Maybe life happens this way, but it doesn’t mean I have to enjoy it in Little Women! If Laurie and Jo could have reunited by film’s end, wiser and more mature yet still realizing they were meant for each other–especially Jo, seeing as how her initial refusal set up this whole problem to begin with–how wonderful would that have been? Wouldn’t their marriage have made a beautiful full circle of the tale? But such as it is, the film seems to lose much of its focus towards the middle of the second half with newly introduced characters and budding relationships, and then expects us to be content with a rather rapidly-patched- up denouement.
8) A different ending would have spared us the frankly awkward reunion between Laurie and Jo after Laurie returns home, wedded to Amy. Both he and Jo are fighting to be enthusiastic, trying their best to resume their old friendship as though nothing had happened between them, and assuring one another (and Amy) that they don’t mind at all about their new romantic developments. “It’s good to hear you call me Teddy again” from Laurie, with Jo saying, “Now we’re all family, as we always should have been.” But I simply find it extremely difficult to feel happy for anyone!
9) What’s preventing Jo from letting Laurie read her fiction, and Laurie subsequently giving her wholesome (that is, painful) advice on it? What’s preventing Laurie from saying, as Bhaer does in the film, “There is nothing in here of the young woman I am privileged to know”? Certainly Laurie knows Jo better than Professor Bhaer does. And, in the famous tradition of Anne of Green Gables, Jo at last being able to write her autobiographical novel and realize who she truly is as a writer could have also helped her to see into her heart, and at last notice Laurie within it . . . to borrow a line from BBC’s Emma: “Never, I fear, to be removed.”
10) A final point: Jo is ever able to keep Laurie blunt and natural, which are some of his best and most loveable attributes in his youth—attributes Amy finds sorely wanting in their grown-up reunion. And, it has to be admitted, these are attributes he really doesn’t regain by the film’s close. And, remembering how Jo is no longer her natural self when she meets Bhaer, it can be argued that Laurie and Jo are constantly able to be themselves around the other . . . so why not have them marry?
Now, this is not to say I despise the story of Little Women (many parts of the ’94 version are so beautifully done!), but I am personally not left happy by how the two main relationships ultimately resolve. Jo and Laurie formed too close and beautiful a bond to be snapped and then only timidly regrown by the end.
So . . . what is your own personal vote? Jo Bhaer or Jo Laurence?
By Mary Faustina
Little Women is available for purchase on DVD at Amazon.com