Spoilers for Little Women abound in this post! Read ahead at your own risk!
Jo’s rebuttal of Laurie’s marriage proposal in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has upset generations of readers. The best of friends, the two seem meant for each other. Instead, Alcott weds Jo to a man twice her age and matches Laurie with Amy, as if being denied one sister meant he would just have to try another. (Amy, of course, gets Laurie’s money.) For many, the pairings are deeply unsatisfying. Personally, I never could accept Laurie and Amy, but I have always loved Jo and Professor Bhaer.
Alcott’s choice to wed Jo to a non-traditional hero was quite deliberate. In the late 1860s, she wrote to a friend, “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please any one.” Her original plan was to leave Jo single–or wedded to her work, if you prefer. However, her publisher insisted that Little Women would not sell if Jo remained unmarried. The middle-aged Professor Bhaer is Alcott’s attempt to subvert traditional gender roles. If Jo must marry, it will be on her own terms–not to the young, handsome, and wealthy boy readers expect.
Although I can easily imagine an alternate world in which Jo does marry Laurie, I respect Alcott’s decision to subvert readers’ expectations. So often teenage characters fall in love and immediately find “The One.” But real life does not work that way. Real life is messy. Most individuals will probably date more than one person, before they find the one they marry. I like that Little Women reflects this, that Little Women says it is okay to fall in love, but also to fall in love again.
I also like that Alcott basically responded to her publisher’s (sexist) demands with her own wicked twist. She gave her publisher a marriage, but not necessarily a romantic one. Professor Bhaer disapproves of Jo’s sensationalist stories, which, for many readers, makes him instantly unlikable. (Personally, I choose to read his disapproval as true concern for someone he cares about.) Their romance proceeds, not smoothly, but with awkwardness and misunderstandings. It ends in the mud and in the rain, under an umbrella. Prince Charming Professor Bhaer is not–indeed he seems the very opposite of the smooth, polished Laurie, who woos Amy at balls and on foreign lakes. So Alcott gets the last laugh. There is a marriage, but probably not the one her publisher wanted.
The ending is, to me, however, profoundly romantic–and that is one of the key reasons I would never wish it changed. I love that Alcott took an “ordinary” woman whose only good feature is ostensibly her hair and an “ordinary” middle-aged man who seems a bit grumpy at times and gave them a love story. I love that she took two awkward people and threw them together in a bunch of awkward moments–and that could not change how they felt about each other. I love that they profess their love to each other messy and uncomfortable in the rain. They are nothing like a fairy tale couple. They are better, because they seem real. And so Little Women tells us love is possible for everyone, not just the charming or the young or the beautiful or the rich.
In light of Alcott’s views on her characters, the news that Margaret Stohl and Melissa de la Cruz will release a retelling of Little Women called Jo & Laurie in which Jo ends up with Laurie has not resonated well with all fans. The current Goodreads reviews show a number of readers upset that reimagining the ending of Little Women is an insult to Alcott’s feminist vision. For my own part, I agree that (obviously) Jo and Laurie marrying each other is not what Alcott wanted. It is, in fact, not what I want, either, so I probably will not read this new book.
However, I see no harm in fans of Little Women releasing an alternate version of the story. That is what fans do. They take a story and they make it their own. They try out different story lines and different endings. Alcott may not have wanted Jo and Laurie married, but plenty of fans throughout the years have disagreed with her. Releasing a retelling will not take away Little Women from us. Those of us who ship Jo and Professor Bhaer will still have Alcott’s vision to delight and move us.