The Eternal Woman in ‘Little Women’

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– By Maria Andress –

Greta Gerwig’s recent adaption of Little Women raised both expectancy and a few eyebrows with the promise of good screenplay and the questions of why we needed a fifth Little Women film and whether it would be faithful to Louisa May Alcott with its stellar though decidedly third wave feminist cast. Delightfully, it was neither a paean to the post-modern feminist fight over rights nor a stagnant retelling. Instead it resembles a mature theme on the value and full symbolism of woman that German author Gertrud von le Fort addresses in her metaphysical exploration in The Eternal Woman when she addresses the three stages of woman – virgin, bride, and mother.

In Meg, of course, the womanly sacredness of motherhood is neatly wrapped up almost immediately – indeed it is the easiest to summarize, though often the most profound, because it’s the one almost every age except our own has universally agreed upon. Although Jo begs Meg on her wedding day, “We can leave, right now. I’ll sell stories…You should be an actress, and you should have a life on stage,” Greta Gerwig delicately defends the nobility of marriage and motherhood in Meg’s reply: “Jo! Just because my dreams are different than yours, it doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.” With her own battles and triumphs, Meg goes on to adore her husband and to master the often hidden domesticity of motherhood and family. For the other three March sisters, though, the journey is much more twisted and often tragic.

As Saoirse Ronan playing Jo March so aptly puts it in one of the most tearful scenes of the new film: “Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it! But I’m so lonely.”

The whole film has wrestled with this question up until Jo cries to Marmee. Rightfully heartsick, Jo and Amy despise the lack of opportunities there are for girls to pursue such ambitions as painting, writing, teaching and travel unless undertaken in pursuit of a husband. Set against the backdrop of the American Civil War when half a generation of young men were killed or mangled, an Eternal Woman quote of Gertrud von le Fort after World War One provides insight. For them, she would say: “Beside the mother stands the single woman. That the majority of women who cannot become mothers today belong to the generation that has suffered from war is also symbolic…The war brings out more strongly what has always and everywhere been the case…The inner weight of the question does not bear upon the mother, but upon the unmarried woman. That our time avoids coming to terms with her is understandable. It entertains the naive conviction that the significance of the unmarried woman comes to the fore in the bride.”

She goes on to argue: “The one whom we negatively call the unmarried woman is in a positive sense the virgin. Obviously she is not the only aspect of the unmarried woman, but she is her most natural expression. In other times a virgin held a definite position of dignity…Thus from dogma, history, saga, and art, the idea of virginity emerges, not as a condition or tragedy, but as a value and power.”

That statement embodies the spirit Jo March would espouse. Through most of the story Jo, who could be likened in personality to figures such as Joan of Arc, and also the much gentler Beth, who’s hidden existence had she been Catholic and not died of heart failure might easily have culminated in the cloistered religious life, highlight two examples of such virginity. Beth’s of course is cut short by death at the age of twenty-two, but her gift is such that Amy states: “Beth was the best of us.”

Jo on the other hand marches on with all the bumps and bruises to prove again with Gertrud von le Fort: “Virginity, therefore, denotes in a special manner a capacity for action. Thus the woman whose forces are unfettered by the duties of generation, who feels herself impelled to use her power for the purpose of cooperating in the historical and cultural life of her people, finds a profound justification.”

It’s so strange how the view of women’s worth could reverse in such a short time (150 years) to despise the mother and parade the career. Yet deep down the problem is still the same – recognizing the full worth and gift of woman rather than merely one separated aspect.

Amy and Jo’s journeys in that light become much more faceted. Amy, while becoming an accomplished painter (as did her namesake May Alcott in real life), wrestles with the place of woman in society. She wants to be something of her own but seems to end her ambitions by finding fulfillment as a bride.

Jo’s archetypal personality that could be equated with the spirits of Antigone and Catherine of Siena has unmarried ambitions that persist almost to the point of despair before they find outlet in the gift of her writing and in nurturing young students. Jo is a driving force who continuously steps into the breach to support her family, Beth’s health, and even Amy’s dreams much as Louisa May Alcott did in real life by buying the real Meg’s family home, raising Amy’s daughter, etc.

In the end though, what keeps this film’s focus from becoming feminist garble is that Jo too achieves union with Mr. Baehr. Each of the living March girls fulfills her quest for womanhood by progressing from virgin to bride to mother. Again Gertrud von le Fort lends clarity: “The independent advance of woman into the cultural field is, therefore, always significant. Hereupon the face of the eternal woman becomes visible for a moment, above the woman in time, for woman coming to the rescue means, in its strictest sense, that her action is not activity in itself but surrender, which is but another form of the womanly, ‘Be it done unto me.’ From this it follows that the activity of woman withdraws of its own accord, when the need for it no longer exists.”

The exceptional glory of Jo that Saoirse Ronan so aptly portrays and Greta Gerwig so thoughtfully pulls to the forefront is that Jo March lost none of her ambitions along the way and achieves a life worthy of her personality with the blessing of Mr. Baehr, who from the day she met him helped bring all her writing and teaching dreams to life. The trick that Jo masters with the help of Marmee and her sisters — and of which young women today should take note — is that despite being a tomboy and while keeping her own styles, Jo remains a woman. Over time she learns traits of virtue, poise, social skills, and empathy without becoming bitter, severe, or twisted into something other than the feminine genius in the process.

One other distinction made in the film is through the personality of grim old Aunt March. “Girls are only good for marrying rich” is her mantra which is proven decidedly false. Women too must be aware of nurturing each other’s dreams. Just as Jo learns to value Meg’s dear simple dreams while Meg never shuns or belittles Jo’s lofty ones. Just as Amy and Jo learn that life is not a competition and each little woman has her own place. Just so this film begs that the little white flowers of one girlhood not despise the strong thorny roses of another girlhood and the fragrant slender rose not scorn the lowly delicate beauty of the little flower.

Viewers will benefit most from being already familiar with the story of Little Women; however, even those with no previous acquaintance will enjoy the depth of the non linear storyline with which Greta Gerwig imbues the film. Seeing every childhood memory of the March girls through the eyes of the women they’ve become keeps this film from becoming a repeat of previous Little Women releases; the raw emotion, beauty, and visuals make it an excellent experience.


About the Author

Maria Andress is a film production and acting alumna from JPCatholic (Class of ’17) who hails from the proud green and gold state of Wisconsin. She is currently working in film producing, and pursuing a career in period film production. She is also a travel enthusiast always on the lookout for a fascinating idea or historical tidbit that she can translate to story through the many mediums of art.

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