– By Sam Hendrian –
As someone who enjoyed reading Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel Little Women, and as an admirer of Greta Gerwig’s directorial talents, I went to see the latest cinematic adaptation of the classic story and enjoyed it immensely. Of course, when people are constantly questioning whether Hollywood still has a bone of originality left in it, another version of Alcott’s story initially seems grossly redundant. What more layers of this simple domestic tale could possibly be unraveled? Yet Greta Gerwig manages to poignantly explore the raw humanity and complex simplicity of each main character, and in doing so, she reveals why we need Little Women more than ever before.
Therese Martin, the French nun and author who is honored by the Catholic Church as a great saint, breathed a new definition into the word “little.” It is a definition fueled by paradoxes: powerful powerlessness, shrouded radiance, and perfect imperfection. In short, it is synonymous with authentic, self-forgetful love. This definition of “little” is also at the crux of Alcott’s story and Gerwig’s film. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are, along with their mother “Marmee”, paragons of paradoxes. They are powerful in their powerlessness and poverty; radiant in their shrouded lives and tiny acts of virtue; and perfect in their constantly upwards-moving imperfection.
Jo, the story’s central protagonist, has quite a fiery personality. While kind and compassionate, she is also headstrong and imposingly idealistic, woken up every morning by a restless dream of what happiness looks like for her. A talented writer, she vows to make her own way in the world during an era when most women were expected to marry and lay their financial welfare at the feet of their husbands. Her even more highly-opinionated Aunt March believes she is quite foolish for being such a paradigm-buster, but Jo does not care what anybody thinks of her, which is both her greatest strength and most difficult weakness.
In my favorite scene from the film, Jo has a soul-baring conversation with Marmee after Amy falls into the ice while chasing after Jo and her pal Laurie. Amy is going to be okay, but Jo blames herself for the accident, as she was purposefully trying to avoid her often-annoying little sister, and she shudders at the thought of what might have happened had they not rescued her. She confesses that despite all her resolutions and fervent desire to be a good person, she still struggles constantly with anger and fears she will actually hurt somebody in the future if her rage reaches a breaking point.
To Jo’s surprise, her trademarkedly gentle mother calmly replies with something like this:
“I’m angry almost every day of my life… I’m not a patient person by nature. It’s taken me forty years of hard effort to be the person I am.”
And with a just a few words, Marmee perfectly explains what it truly means to be “little.” She is not afraid to admit that she is far from perfect, that she is a wounded warrior of a daily interior battle. In no way does she pretend to be a great or saintly person, which ultimately makes her a greater and saintlier person than many. Like the loaves and fish spoken of in the Gospels, her littleness multiplies into hearty meals that nourish countless souls.
Of course, Marmee and Jo are not the only characters who learn and exhibit the magic of littleness. While attending a debutante ball, oldest daughter Meg encounters the transcendent beauty of accepting herself exactly as she is and not shape-shifting to fit societal expectations. Quiet, magnificently tender-hearted Beth consistently seeks out small ways to bring joy to others, ultimately sacrificing her own life after tragically contracting scarlet fever from an impoverished family she frequently revisits. And youngest daughter Amy, who frequently corroborates a reputation as being vain and temperamental, experiences a gradual process of spiritual maturity that awakens her to her vices and inspires her to put smiles rather than frowns on the faces around her.
So if you have a chance, go see Greta Gerwig’s film and read Louisa May Alcott’s book. By doing so, I think you will discover a treasure trove of entertainment, consolation, and inspiration. We need little women more than ever before. We need little men too. We need people who openly recognize themselves as imperfect yet precious children of God, called to be vehicles of divine love. Greatness is only achieved in littleness. So let us all strive to be little.
Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.
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