Little Women Shows Timelessness of “Coming of Age”

Greta Gerwig further establishes herself as one of Hollywood’s most capable filmmakers with Little Women. The movie is based on Louisa May Alcott’s coming of age novel about four sisters growing up in Civil War-era New England. In the film, Gerwig has given new currency and relevance to the 19th-century novel without uprooting its themes or insights into family dynamics. 

The publication of Alcott’s novel in 1868 was a sensation in itself. Nineteenth-century America provided few opportunities for women. They could not vote. Personal wealth became the property of husbands at marriage. Husbands even had legal control over their children. Disempowered by culture and the legal system, women aspired to marry a good man with wealth. Love and romance were a luxury. Alcott’s novel took on all of those issues, and more while staying grounded in the complexities of life where dreams do not always meet practical reality.

Little Women’s publication was groundbreaking. Alcott was already an accomplished writer, but the book filled a desperate niche. Alcott was among the few writers who put young girls and their aspirations at the center of a story. Interestingly, Alcott had to be coaxed into writing the novel. She was a suffragist and raised in a political family. She was unsure she could write a story that would specifically cater to the imaginations of young girls. She did it by drawing so deeply into her own upbringing scholars consider Little Women as semi-autobiographical.

The simmering demand for a story about girls coming of age made Little Women (and its sequels) into bestsellers. Notably, and much to the chagrin of some modern-day feminist critics, Little Women did not eschew or eviscerate the male-dominated and -privileged culture of the time. Men were treated with respect in the story, even if women were second-class citizens in the broader culture. Each of the sisters forged her own path (modeled on Alcott’s own life in New England). 

This practical grounding may well be the foundation that Gerwig drew on to give the story a more contemporary flavor. Alcott’s respect for the individual journeys of her characters is honored in Gerwig’s movie version. In fact, Gerwig may inject a bit more “girl power” by using the plot and scenes to emphasize the choices made by the characters, even though they differ.

Yet, Gerwig’s version is unsparing in how it depicts the constraints of the times. Women were not treated as equals, and these constraints weave into the story as important plot points. The movie is also squarely focused on Jo March (Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird, Hanna, Atonement), the tomboy sister who speaks her mind. She is completely willing to abandon marriage prospects in order to make her way as a published author. 

But Jo’s choice is not necessarily the same choice, or the best choice, for her sisters. As they grow older and mature, Jo clashes with her sister Meg (Emma Watson, Harry Potter film series, Beauty and the Beast, Perks of Being a Wallflower), who has different visions for her future. As she gets older, Meg finds herself drawn to a settled married life with children rather than the aspiring actress of her youth. Similarly, sister Amy (Florence Pugh, Fighting With My Family, Midsommer) commits to being a painter. Unlike Jo, she must confront the hard realities of her own talent despite the support she gets from her sisters. 

The tension between the sisters, however, is only one layer of the conflict that drives the story. The children must also grapple with the push and pull of teenage self-centeredness versus recognizing their role in a larger community. Gerwig ensures their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) provides a supportive, guiding hand that balances self-interest against the importance of helping others. In contrast to Marmee, Aunt March (Meryl Streep) who continues to push her children to accept the highly circumscribed role that society and the law have prescribed for them. 

Little Women benefits from uniformly strong performances by the ensemble cast. In addition to top-shelf acting by Ronan, Streep, and Dern, central roles by Watson, Pugh, Eliza Scanlen as their sister Beth, and Timothee Chalmet (Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird, Beautiful Boy) as friend and neighbor Theodore “Laurie” Laurence keep the sparks flying. 

On a side note, an important sub-theme is Jo’s struggle to get her stories published. The resistance from the publisher is not because the novel focuses on women. Rather, the editor balks because he is looking for what sells. In the immediate aftermath of the war, he believes readers want an escape and prefer the romantic roles women were expected to take when they got married rather than pursue careers. A telling bit of dialogue in the movie focuses on whether women truly want the life they’ve been given or whether publishing stories about their aspirations and hopes would actually validate those that are there, or perhaps encourage girls to set their sights higher. 

Overall, Little Women remains true to the aspirations of individual spirits and drive. Each of the March women takes a different path, and each journey has its own trials and tribulations. As in real life, choices are made about passions, life’s trade-offs, and love. While women have made real progress in 21st century America, the trade-offs and choices are still real. The conflicts between dreams, vision, and reality remain defining, and, at times, daunting. Gerwig’s version of Little Women shows that the uncertainty and anxiety of coming of age is timeless. 

Gerwig won academy award nominations for Best Director and Original Screenplay for Lady Bird (2017). She may well get nods for her direction and adapted screenplay for Little Women.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., is director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center, a market-oriented think tank in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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