Part 2: Subverting Our Memories of Little Women
Updated: May 13, 2020
The girls next to me in the first showing of Little Women were chatting all through the previews. But I knew they had read the book, because one of their moms is in my gardening group (this is a small town), and she was there too. “Their book club read it three years ago,” she told me, before we entered the theater, when we were the first few people in line.
The opening scene of the film is disorienting because we expect to find ourselves somewhere familiar: Orchard House, with Jo lying on the rug, lamenting her lack of Christmas presents. Instead, we are in New York, and running through the city, with life whirring by all around.
We were all quiet for a while, waiting to understand. But a few minutes into the film, after we’d glimpsed Amy and Aunt March in their carriage in Paris, we returned to New York, and one of the girls next to me whispered to her friend, “Which one is that? Is it Jo?”
The friend stammered a little. I had been leaned forward, elbows on my knees, and I turned to give them a thumbs up.
Over the course of the film, I listened to the girls piece together their memories of the book, which they had read a few years ago, seemingly an eternity in their short lives.
When the Marches arrived with Christmas breakfast at the Hummels’ cottage, one of the girls whispered, “This is where she gets sick!”
Technically, it's where Beth gets sick, but not when. Yet seeing the cottage helped jog the memory of what lies ahead, where Beth’s illness will come to dominate her storyline and define her character. It’s a type of foreshadowing that assumes the viewer knows this story already, that the story is present somewhere deep in the recesses of our childhoods, or perhaps only learned through osmosis of living in a world where Little Women has always been deeply engrained in our culture.
The narrative structure of the film, which overlaps two coinciding story lines, helps us to more easily draw these types of parallels between events in the book. It relies heavily on not just our knowledge of Little Women but on our memory of reading the book itself, our experience of reading it. And sometimes, the memory of that experience is faulty—and the film relies on that, too.
A book like Little Women exists for many of us in the past. When I worked at Orchard House, every day we welcomed visitors who loved the book but admittedly didn’t remember all of it. Some visitors didn’t remember that Amy marries Laurie, and some didn’t remember Professor Bhaer at all. Our memories are not always reliable, especially when we are delving into the far reaches of the past.
Where other film versions have set out to tell us a story of four young women coming of age during the Civil War, Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation tells the story of Jo March—author—creating not just a book but a memoir, a story from her own life. In this universe, Jo March is the author of Little Women, and uses the names and personalities of her sisters and friends as her characters. The flashbacks take on a new meaning in this light. They are her own memories and part of her story.
As memories, the earlier scenes are warmer and happier. They were hard times, sure, but having survived them in the present, they look rosier. Jo has always tended to glorify the life they had when all the sisters lived at home, easily forgetting how miserable she was going to Aunt March’s every day. It’s part of her character that she romanticizes the past, or she would never have been able to write Little Women.
The viewer, too, romanticizes the past regarding Little Women. We remember reading Little Women when we were too small to properly hold a book, especially one so large. We tended to gloss over or forget the more difficult parts of this story: that it’s actually a war story, and it’s really about class and economics and how difficult it is to be poor, especially when you’re obligated by gentility to keep up appearances. When you reread it as an adult, you don’t “remember” this part of the novel; you learn it for the first time. One of my students described this experience two weeks ago in class. She had read it as a child, but only coming back to the book as an adult did she realize its depth. In this way, the difficulties are not remembered, but appreciated and understood as new.
There are difficulties we remember vividly: Amy burns Jo’s manuscript. Meg is humiliated at Sally Moffat’s. Beth dies.
Beth’s storyline is perhaps where this faulty memory becomes most obvious and most important. There is a scene on the TV show Friends—a favorite among Little Women fans—where Joey is blindsided by the recurrence of Beth’s illness, which he, like so many Little Women readers, assumed was put-to-bed when she recovered the first time. When Beth recovers, we feel that we have lived through something terrible and managed to see the other side.
But in Part II, of course, we learn that Beth really never did recover, not fully, not as Jo hoped. If we’re living in Jo’s memory, it’s easy to imagine that she would dismiss any evidence that Beth was unwell. In the novel, when Beth finally tells Jo her real secret—that she knows she won’t get well again—Jo is defiant:
"It shall be stopped, your tide must not turn so soon, nineteen is too young, Beth. I can't let you go. I'll work and pray and fight against it. I'll keep you in spite of everything. There must be ways, it can't be too late. God won't be so cruel as to take you from me," cried poor Jo rebelliously, for her spirit was far less piously submissive than Beth’s.
Right until the end, it’s difficult for Jo to accept that her sister will truly die. In Gerwig’s adaptation, Beth’s death is muddled with flashback, with hope. The distinguishing factor between the two scenes, which take place is the same room, is Jo’s hair. In the earlier timeline, Jo’s hair is cropped short because she has just sold it to earn the money to send Marmee to Washington. In the later timeline, the one where Beth dies and the one that is definitive in this film version, Jo’s hair is long.
There are other factors. The earlier timeline is sunnier, showing its hopefulness. The later one is grim and gray. But it takes a person who knows the story well to make these distinctions on the first watch.
Almost all of my nineteen students had seen the new film and many of them spoke about this sequence with uncertainty, unsure whether Beth’s death was taking place in a dream or in real time. In the first viewing, they could not make sense of which story line was truly taking place.
As in the novel, it is a slow and difficult realization that this is not a dream, and that Beth is not coming back this time.
This is all part of what the film shows us about the nature of memory. This back-and-forth structure of the film calls the viewer to remember the story in pieces, the way we remember a book we read long ago.
Even for someone as obsessed with Little Women as I am, I was surprised to revisit the novel and find so many of the lines I found “too modern” in the script right there in the mouths of the Marches.
“I despise you,” Amy tells Laurie. “"Because, with every chance for being good, useful, and happy, you are faulty, lazy, and miserable.” Who truly remembers Amy chewing him out like this? Yet it’s there, in plain text, for all to see.
The legend of Little Women outsizes the book itself. In culture, the book has a reputation for being a book for girls, a book about putting on plays and romping around with your sisters and going ice skating or to parties and dancing. This is the story of little women—that is our collective memory of the book.
But when we call into question memory itself, we also subvert all our preconceived and taken-for-granted ideas about Little Women as a novel, about the legend of its author, and about why it matters. This is a story that has long been a part of American culture, but the truth is that we remember it wrong, or out of order. The shuffling of the story in Gerwig’s film helps us to slowly watch the story we know unfold, and to remember it in the process. We are invited to recall the experience of reading it as we watch.
At the end of the film, Amy tells Jo, “Writing doesn’t confer importance. It reflects it.”
Jo asks, “When did you get so wise?”
Amy replies, “I always have been, you were just too busy noticing my faults.”
Gerwig reminds us that we’ve been misremembering Amy all this time too—characterizing her as something she isn’t. And it’s time to revisit that memory and call it into question, too.
But that is a post for another day.