Part 1: Facts & Fiction in Little Women
Updated: Oct 23, 2022
“If I was a girl in a book this would all be so easy,” Jo March tells her mother in the newest adaptation of Little Women, released on Christmas Day 2019. And it’s tongue-in-cheek, of course, because Jo March is a girl in a book. Except that for generations of readers, she has always been more than that. She has always been real to them. And for director and writer Greta Gerwig, Jo March was so real that she decided to incorporate large pieces of Louisa May Alcott’s biography into the story, as if they belonged to Jo.
We live in a time when we are challenging the difference between fact and fiction. The “fake news” era has us questioning genre and subverting the stories we think we know. Can news really be trusted? What about fiction--can that be true?
This is what Greta Gerwig takes on in the newest version of Little Women, the first version to incorporate many of the Alcott family’s biographical details into its script.
We see Jo, tiring out her right hand and switching to her left, as Louisa May Alcott taught herself to do in order to write longer hours.
Marmee March speaks a line that Abigail Alcott once wrote to Louisa in her journal: “There are some natures too noble to curb and too lofty to bend.”
Jo proclaims, “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe,” which was written by Louisa May Alcott, but about herself rather than about Jo.
In the school scene, one of the girls says that Mr. March cares more for "Mr. Freedman's children" than his own, a direct reference to Mr. Alcott's Temple School, and having nothing to do with Mr. March.
For those of us who have spent pretty much every day thinking about the Alcotts for many years, these little references were full of joy. They bring you in on a secret, like you’re part of a club. As a fan, I found them enchanting. The details that mimicked Orchard House especially brought tears to my eyes, like the glimpse of the owl on the fireplace or May's white lilies on the wall behind Jo's head.
But as a scholar of the Alcotts, I began to wonder if I agreed with the blatant incorporation of the author’s life into her text. There is no question that Gerwig’s film is also a piece of art, in its own right. But it borrows heavily from outside of the fiction; how do we know when to stop?
Let’s take the climax of the film: the writing of Little Women.
The film contains two parallel narrative lines. One begins with Jo in New York, selling a story to the Weekly Volcano, and follows Jo and the rest of the Marches through the publication of Little Women. The second narrative line begins somewhat near the beginning of the book (although the first scenes are out of order compared to the novel) and continues through Jo's rejection of Laurie. It is unclear if the second narrative is a dream, as there are at least three incidences of Jo falling asleep to the flashback, or if Jo is telling the story to herself as she creates her book. The second narrative is golden, bathed in nostalgic light. Are we to believe things were really this good? Are these earlier scenes “real,” or are they simply the flawed memory of a fictional character named Jo March?
When we read the novel, we have no such question, because it is written by an omniscient narrator and told to us in linear time. But in the film, we are meant to question whether the earlier storyline is as real as the storyline unfolding in grittier color, the one whereby Beth dies and Laurie is lazy and Jo March is lonely as hell.
And then, Jo March takes up her pen and begins to write. This is an extraordinary sequence. Jo, after insisting she won't write anymore, dons her coat and picks up her pen and goes back to her desk. We see her tiring out one hand and switching her pen to the other to continue writing. We see her too exhausted to eat. She spreads her papers across the floor and examines them, reorders them. While Amy has already admitted she is only "middling talent" and not a genius, we see that genius does, in fact, burn in Jo.
This is the paragraph as it appears in Little Women:
An hour afterward her mother peeped in and there she was, scratching away, with her black pinafore on, and an absorbed expression, which caused Mrs. March to smile and slip away, well pleased with the success of her suggestion. Jo never knew how it happened, but something got into that story that went straight to the hearts of those who read it, for when her family had laughed and cried over it, her father sent it, much against her will, to one of the popular magazines, and to her utter surprise, it was not only paid for, but others requested. Letters from several persons, whose praise was honor, followed the appearance of the little story, newspapers copied it, and strangers as well as friends admired it. For a small thing it was a great success, and Jo was more astonished than when her novel was commended and condemned all at once.
The film, however, goes on to include multiple interactions with Mr. Dashwood, Jo’s publisher. This is where the real publication of Little Women takes over the story. Jo quotes Louisa when she says the story may prove interesting, “though I doubt it.”
Mr. Dashwood agrees. But then, he is sitting at home with his wife, and three little girls come running up to him and demand the rest of the story. “What happens to the little women?” They represent Alcott's publisher's niece, who loved the story and convinced him to publish it.
Then, Jo March negotiates with Mr. Dashwood and shrewdly decides to keep her copyright, which we understand will pay her royalties for years to come and finally lift the Marches out of poverty.
I am interested in why Gerwig thought it was so important to include anecdotes and quotations from the Alcotts’ lives without giving the Alcotts a place in the film.
We have always compared the life of the Alcotts to the Marches. Even though we know that real scholarship never assumes its author’s intention, we still like to show the parallels and the changes that Louisa May Alcott made when she took her story to the fiction form. This helps us feel that we understand her intention or process better, whether we have or not.
But comparing is not conflation. From an article in the LA Times: “Everyone wants ‘Little Women’ to be about the Alcotts,” says Eve LaPlante, author of “Marmee and Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother.” “Even Louisa wanted it to be about the Alcotts. But it wasn’t. It glosses over too much, which may be why we love it so much. She had a very hard life; there was a lot of pain.”
We are greeted by this fact at the very beginning of Gerwig's film: "I've had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales," the quotation reads, as an epigraph. Yet in some ways, this film seems to disregard those real troubles, instead choosing the easier Little Women as a vehicle for Louisa May Alcott’s real life. I actually liked the use of Fruitlands as the backdrop for Jo's rejection of Laurie (dark and foreboding, isn’t it?), but as the background for Meg and John moving into the Dovecote, it was jarring. The image of the house for me only evokes fear, sadness, freezing cold and hunger. For Alcott scholars, the red house is the symbol of Bronson's ultimate failure of his family. Not exactly a happy image for two newlyweds.
So when Jo March says, "If I was a girl in a book this would all be so easy," we are meant to laugh. Jo March isn't just a girl in a book; she's a girl, in a book, in a movie. She is doubly fictitious, and she doesn't even know it.
Except this Jo March is so headstrong and insistent that she might believe she really is Louisa May Alcott. She might, in fact, be confused. She has so many of Louisa May Alcott's characteristics, habits, and quotes that she could be Louisa, after all. Are we meant to believe that Jo March is Louisa May Alcott? That Saoirse Ronan is cast as both women? That these are two different women, or one and the same?
Consider when Mr. Dashwood convinces Jo to marry off her heroine. We see the flashback of Jo chasing Bhaer into the rain. Mr. Dashwood leans back and says, "I like it." It's as if Jo has written the scene in front of his eyes, rather than lived it. We don't know if we are supposed to believe this is what happened in Jo's story, in Jo's life, or in Louisa May Alcott's story. Is Jo March the creator of everything in the film?
Louisa May Alcott experienced the bizarre world of fame in her lifetime. She was asked to stand on a stage and turn in a complete circle for her adoring audience. Fans caught grasshoppers out on her lawn as souvenirs. But when she answered the door, she disappointed her readers. She was not Jo March; she was not spry or youthful. When Jo lamented, "I can't get over my disappointment in not being a boy," because she wanted to go to war, we have to realize that Louisa May Alcott did go to war, and in the end, it cost her her life. In fact, her own father said that if he had known the cost, he would never have let her go.
I do not think Louisa May Alcott could have appreciated the film industry, the extent to which her name would be viewed on thousands of screens, for millions of people across the world. And to think that her private writing, and details of her life, would be mingled into the fiction of Little Women is exceptionally far-reaching. Her private writings, lines from letters and journals, on the big screen, would have been unfathomable. To what extent do we violate her art when we include so much of her life in it?
I can think of many ways to represent Alcott in the film and keeping her separate from Jo. I can imagine a narrative voice, hands writing in a cold house. Maybe that wasn't the story Gerwig meant to tell, yet she included so many of the details of the Alcotts own lives, that it seems she wanted to.
Are we really not ready to face the fact that Louisa May Alcott's life was incredibly difficult? That Little Women is sugar-coated and watered-down? Why do we feel that we can take an author's private writings and infuse them into her art? Do we do this to male authors? Do we need to do this at all?
I wonder if any of this helps us understand Little Women any better. Little Women can stand alone as art, without Louisa's life (and the other lives of the Alcotts) as a crutch. I’m not saying I disagree with the use of some Alcott details—like the owl on the fireplace, or May’s lilies painted on the wall—but I am interested in where we draw the line, in how and why we want to mislead the audience into a blurry line between life and fiction.
It is also important to note that we will never be dealing with Louisa May Alcott as a real-life person. Instead, we struggle to separate her from the legend that has grown around her family in the years since the publication of the book. The details of the Marches that have crept backwards, into the Alcotts' lives, are also important. The question of "What is an author?" remains relevant as ever.
At the end of Little Women (2019), I am left wondering whether this interpretation helps or hinders us understand fake news, whether it forces us to become more careful and watchful audiences, or whether it blurs fact and fiction beyond all useful notion and, in fact, contributes to the problem. Will we start to lose hold on the idea of fiction and non-fiction as we’ve always known it? Do we still hold this distinction as important? As of 2019, I do. I like to think the Alcotts would too.