What Greta Gerwig’s movie adaptation of Little Women gets right about the book

I recently saw Greta Gerwig’s new version of Little Women in the theater and really enjoyed it. (Some spoilers ahead: yes, you’ve had 150 years to read the book, but not as long to see the movie, which does differ from the book in a few ways, good ways, I’d argue.) Seeing it reminded me of a paper I wrote on the composition and publication history of Little Women more than twenty years ago for Steve Railton’s graduate seminar on popular 19th- and 20th-century American novels at UVA that I revised to give as a conference paper at the annual meeting of the Popular Culture Association in San Diego. I searched for the file and found it in my 1999 archives in some crazy early version of Word, which my current version of Word on my Mac wouldn’t open (back then, I think Mac and PC files were still incompatible!), so I hauled out my mother’s HP notebook and managed to tweak the Word settings on that so that I could open it. I proofread it and posted a PDF in the Humanities Commons CORE repository at hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:28389/ as well as uploading it here.


For those of you who were not in academia in 1999, please note that at that time it was not at all common to create slides for one’s talks: we wrote out our talks and then stood at the front of the room and read aloud from the paper. I still find that mode useful on some occasions, and when I adopt it, I do at least try to write with the rhythms of speech and to speak with flair. No monotones! Ugh. I had a great time at the conference, which was huge: I went to a talk on Nancy Drew, I met a South African academic and played backgammon with him in the hotel bar as he told me about protesting to end apartheid, I ate oysters and banished all thought of my credit card bill. The panel I was assigned to had plenty of people in the audience, and my paper was well-received.

The paper holds up, I think, perhaps less as an argument than as a piece of research. I for one tend to think of novels, especially highly successful novels, as having been painstakingly planned and crafted and revised and re-revised before publication, and as being the best possible expression of the author’s most personal beliefs and worldview, but such was decidedly not the case for Little Women. Alcott wrote it quickly, just to earn some money by cranking out a fairly basic and typical morality tale for girls, society then as now being ravenous for improving and inspirational stories that would help the youngsters shape up and fly right. Those scenes in the movie (and the book) of Jo in the publisher’s office flogging him some throwaway “content” for a few bucks? Little Women was just such a piece of content at first, but in the moral mode instead of in the horror mode.

Most importantly, it was published in two parts: what we now think of as the book Little Women actually came out as two separate books published six months apart in October of 1868 and April of 1869. And even the first part was written in two parts: originally, the book ended exactly one year after it began, at Christmas, with Mr. March having returned and the girls finally getting some Christmas presents as a reward for their “pilgrim’s progress” in overcoming their various character flaws. It was only at the behest of her publisher that Alcott appended an extra chapter to the first book in which Meg and John Brooke get engaged, and she wrote that chapter without any effort to blend it in with what she’d written so far — she didn’t even have a copy of her own manuscript to consult. In the paper I do some close reading of the novel to highlight how suddenly the addition of that chapter to Part One shoves the story out of its moral improvement plot into a romantic marriage plot. Which, of course, Alcott then rebelled against in a number of ways in Part Two.

Gerwig’s adaptation of the novel does a couple of things that are unlike any previous film version of Little Women, and both show that Gerwig is highly aware of the contradictions in the book that arise from its having been written and published piecemeal. First, brilliantly, she starts with the second half of the book. That’s the part that everyone loves! That’s the part where Jo really comes into her own as a writer, and that’s the part where she flat-out refuses to marry Laurie. Can you imagine if Little Women had ended with its strong hints in Chapter 23 that Jo will marry Laurie? They’re there, make no mistake. Because it’s told in flashback, the first part is made important only as grounding for the girls’ adulthood. Secondly, Gerwig introduces a lot of “meta” commentary on the writing of Little Women, even going so far as to show an image of a book with the title Little Women on it with the author’s name shown as “Jo March.” I thought that went a little too far, actually, but it made its point: Jo is a figure for Louisa May Alcott. That’s clearly true in the book as well, even though to a lesser extent. Gerwig also suggests that, hey, Jo didn’t even need to marry Professor Bhaer: that was an authorial decision that could well have been driven by exactly the kind of influence that the real Thomas Niles exerted on Alcott to add a chapter “in which allusions might be made to something in the future,” such as whom the girls will marry.

In any case, I beg your indulgence for posting here one of my grad student papers. Just thought it might be interesting for anyone who enjoyed Gerwig’s film as much as I did. Cheers!