Part 3: Amy in Reverse
Not everyone is a Jo or even wants to be one. There are plenty of Jos out there: strong-willed women who love to climb trees, who would happily challenge a boy to a foot race. I was not a Jo, though I loved books and writing. Even now, when I read Little Women, I identify with Amy.
As an Amy, I have always found myself drawn toward creating things, to making art, and yet I find my pragmatism getting in the way. For Jo, genius burns, and Amy is jealous of it, but as she gets older she accepts that genius doesn't burn for all of us. Some of us are of middling talent, and we work hard for what we make.
Phillip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials, tells us that the protagonist is always the person we start with. So when we open a story with a burglar robbing a house, and suddenly we see the headlights in the window as the family pulls into the driveway, we start to think, Hurry! Hurry! because the burglar is our protagonist. It’s easy, Pullman says: we started with him.
In Little Women, naturally, we start with Jo. Despite a more equal distribution of story-time devoted to each of the sisters in the novel (as opposed to the films, which tend to give Jo a character arc and little else to the other sisters), Jo is the first to speak in the book. She is our protagonist; we started with her.
In Gerwig’s new film, Jo is not only our protagonist but the author of the story: all the flashbacks come from her own memory. Could it be possible that these memories are biased in her own favor? That she omits something crucial when telling the story of how Amy burned her book?
I avoided all possible spoilers about the new film. The most I knew going into the first screening on Christmas was that one critic called it a “brave new structure,” but other than that, I was a blank slate. I was grateful to see the first scene open in New York, because starting with the ending gives Amy a fighting chance to be seen as more than—at best—an annoying kid sister, and—at worst—an arch-nemesis set on destroying the product of her sister’s genius and stealing her love interest.
We first meet Amy as she is riding in a carriage with the Arc de Triomphe in the background. She is noisy, a little precocious. We sense Aunt March’s mild annoyance with her behavior as she shouts in her American accent across the park at Laurie. But she is charming, and we know nothing yet of Jo’s disappointment when Amy is chosen to go to Europe, so we have no grudges against her.
It helps that Florence Pugh is just brilliant. Her big smile and unabashed laugh make her instantly charming. She establishes herself as a new brand of Amy with the juxtaposition of certain classic lines. In an early flashback, we hear the echo of Kirsten Dunst’s tiny voice saying, “What a strange smell, like burnt feathers,” when Pugh delivers a nearly identical line in the new version. Except, we know from her intonation that this is not your grandmother’s Amy—her expression is forthcoming and straightforward. She says what she thinks. And I, for one, think she is excellent.
So much of my interest in Amy as a character is tied to my obsessive interest in the life of May Alcott Nieriker, the real-life youngest Alcott, that I want to defend Amy. I am not going to delve into May’s life here, but I have long known that the legacy of the Alcotts is inextricable from the legacy of the Marches, and that insults and derisive comments toward Amy affect May’s story as well.
But mostly my affection for Amy comes from feeling like her. We both like France. We both like art but struggle to find if it is our true calling. And Amy, like me—and quite unlike Jo—is interested in boys, and finding love, and wanting to be loved. This was something that always separated me from Jo, even when I was young.
The second time we meet the adult Amy in Gerwig’s film, we watch her put Laurie in his place. It’s when she tells him straight, “I feel sorry for you, I really do, but I wish you’d bear it better.”
When Laurie protests and asks what she would do if she had been rejected, Amy tells him, “I’d be respected if I couldn’t be loved.” The novel tells us she says this “with the decision of one who knew nothing about it,” but Pugh is convincing. She is a confident Amy, one who makes the decision and knows herself.
Amy is, as always, meant to play Jo’s opposite. You can read Jane Smiley’s intelligent essay “I Am Your Prudent Amy” to see how they both operate as feminists, with Jo as a rebel and Amy as the political operative. Yet in Gerwig’s version, they aren’t always at odds. It is Amy (not Meg, as in the book, or Beth, as in the 1994 version) who comforts Jo after she cuts her hair, and this time, Pugh says, “I would feel the same way,” which we know to be deeply, almost painfully true. It may be the first time they’ve ever agreed on anything.
The new film makes clear why Aunt March favors Amy and believes that Amy is the right companion to take to Europe. And it is the right choice, because Amy will cater to her aunt, will play the political operative in her quest to marry well. Aunt March tried to approach the subject of marriage with Jo and was rebuffed. Amy listened to her and took her message to heart. "You are your family's hope, now," her aunt says, and Amy knows it to be true. Yet we see Amy make the hard choice—not marrying Fred, who is “wealthier than [Laurie], even”—because she “doesn’t love him as she should.”
My very favorite exchange in Gerwig’s film takes place after Amy has delivered her speech about genius and giving up on her art. This is after she has told Laurie that marriage is an economic proposition and showed us just how strategic is her thinking about marriage. We might be tempted to think of her as so strategic that the emotion has gone out of it. That is, until she is sketching Laurie (he has requested to be her last portrait, but we get the sense that Amy has been sketching so often and so long that she doesn’t quite know what else she would do with her hands) and he tells her not to marry Fred, insinuating his feelings for her.
“No,” she says. “You’re being mean.”
She tells Laurie, “I have been second to Jo my whole life, in everything, and I will not be the person you settle for just because you cannot have her. I won’t do it, not when, not when I’ve spent my entire life loving you.”
And she tosses down her sketch and walks away.
We have seen glimpses of Amy’s crush on Laurie. When he first enters the Marches’ home, for example, Amy is making herself cheap by the door, smiling up at him. But this is the first time she ever speaks it aloud.
We have never really been privy to Amy’s own heartache as she spent her early teenage years watching her older sister spend so much time with her secret crush. Finally, we can see how painful that was for her. And we can root for Laurie to fall for her, because it was always meant to be this way. In the novel, Laurie says, “I think it was meant to be so, and would have come about naturally, if I had waited.” In the film, he says, “I think it was meant this way.”
When Jo hugs Amy, both with tears brimming, even Jo admits with bittersweetness, “It was meant to be.”
There is a sense among some people that Amy had it too easy. “Amy has always had a talent for getting out of the hard parts of life,” Jo says begrudgingly. But Amy took a different path than Jo, and when we see it in reverse, we can understand her motivations better. We can understand the woman she grew up to be. After all, we started with this woman.
It was brave for Gerwig to let Amy be her own feminist. It was brave of her not to take the cheap and easy way out by making Amy into the antagonist to the ever-celebrated Jo. For those of us who love Amy, it feels sweet, like vindication, and expansive, like redemption.