Gillian Armstrong’s adaptation of Little Women was perhaps the first that was true to the spirit of Louisa May Alcott’s original novel. Instead of treating it as a children’s story, Armstrong instead films the March family saga as a work of American transcendentalism – and a challenge to the transcendental philosophies of the late nineteenth-century. The story opens in Concord, Massachusetts, heart of the American transcendental movement, and home of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Yet instead of seeing this town, and movement, through the eyes of these philosophers, we experience it through the March family – mother Marmie, played by Susan Sarandon, and her daughters Jo, played by Winona Ryder, Beth, played by Claire Danes, Meg, played by Trini Alvarado and Amy, played by Kirsten Dunst in the first part of the film, and Samantha Mathis in the second part of the film. We gradually learn that the Marches are a radical family – “temperance people” – and are anti-slavery, anti-child labor and pro-universal suffrage. They are nominally led by Mr. March, a reformer, philosopher and school teacher, but he is away fighting in the Civil War for the first act of the film, leaving them in Concord to bond and grow as a family of women.
From the very outset, then, Little Women is devoid of a philosophical patriarch who might function as a cipher for Thoreau, Emerson or any of the other sages of the transcendental movement. Instead, it is Jo, the second eldest March daughter, who takes on this philosophical outlook, in her longing for education, knowledge and emotional experience. Throughout the first part of the film, Jo is perpetually poised on the brink of a spiritual epiphany, and keenly alive to the mutability of the world around her, along with the ways it reflects and enacts her own dynamic mind: “Change will come, as sure as the seasons and twice as quick.” Faced with a world in transition, Jo cultivates restlessness – intellectual, cultural, social, emotional – as a way of life, continually reconfiguring the family structure around her in the name of an imminent and collective revelation that can only be barely articulated at any one moment in time: “I gave myself up to it, longing for transformation.”
This places Little Women in stark contrast to the major strand of transcendental philosophy, which was typically focused on the spiritual encounter between individual men and the natural world. Philosophers like Thoreau and Emerson advocated that men go into the woods in order to transcend the constrictions of society, and so envisage a new kind of future for humanity. By contrast, Alcott and Armstrong suggest that society can only ever be transcended from within, and that the key to escaping institutions is to transform them from the inside. If anything, the individualism of Thoreau and Emerson is presented as an impediment to this project, most pointedly when Amy briefly detaches herself from the March family, and then pays for her selfishness by almost drowning in Walden Pond. Rather than seeking out the natural world as a source of education, Little Women is more pragmatic in suggesting that the institutions of education need to be rectified in order to allow women, working people and non-white people equal access to knowledge and experience. Through the figure of Jo, Alcott, and Armstrong acutely evoke the melancholy of intelligent women, in particular, who were forced to watch men go off to study courses that they couldn’t hope to enrol in themselves, or to attend in any socially sanctioned situation.
Transcendentalism is therefore connected, here, to women’s education. Both the March parents are defined in relation to women’s education, since before the war Mr. March ran a mixed-gender school, while Marmie’s first big gesture as a mother is to withdraw Amy from the local finishing school after she is beaten with a cane, and then instruct Jo to home school her instead. When Jo does eventually marry, and moves into an enormous house that is left to her by her aunt, she reimagines its aristocratic spaces by transforming them into a radical school, anxious to use up every piece of redundant space for the purpose of education. All of these educational projects culminate with Jo writing Little Women itself – and Armstrong’s adaptation is perhaps the first to fully grasp that Alcott’s body of work was designed to function as a new kind of literary canon, one that could be used in precisely the radical education institutions that Little Women both describes and demands into existence.
In other words, Little Women plays as a spiritual sequel to My Brilliant Career, once again allegorizing Armstrong’s own position within the Australian film industry, and once again situating her position as Australia’s first female auteur within legacies of radical feminist thought that stretch back to the late nineteenth-century. Yet Little Women isn’t merely a manifesto, or tract, but an embodiment of the collective spirit that Alcott perceives as so vital for a radical future. Time and again, the film suggests that transcendental philosophy can only overcome a patriarchal society – and the patriarchal agendas of transcendentalism itself – by turning the female heart and hearth of the family into the blueprint for a new kind of collective ethos. In Alcott and Armstrong’s hands, the sorority, solidarity and warmth of the March family becomes a kind of affective socialism, an alternative to the individualism and capitalism of late nineteenth-century America. Whenever the women in the family come together, some new way of being trembles on the threshold of perception – the sense that some kind of transcendental epiphany, or collective metamorphosis, is imminent, burnishing all their daily experiences with a revelatory prescience and potential.
To that end, Armstrong crafts the first part of the film so that nearly every scene at the March house involves every member of the family, producing a network of glances and gazes that quickly becomes more than the sum of its parts, as if the March women were witnessing, through each other, a new collective possibility that exceeds them as individuals, and exceeds them as an individual family. Each scene thrives with intellectual purpose, collapsing the distinction between Armstrong and the women she is filming, and turning her camera into another participant in, and witness to, this transcendent camaraderie. For that reason, it was fantastic to hear Armstrong discuss the way in which she built this interlocking sense of purpose during her recent conversation at Palace Verona in Sydney, on the twenty-fifth anniversary screening of the film. Not only did Armstrong encourages lots of bonding and group activities behind the scenes, but her research into Alcott’s context made her realise that “no woman would ever be doing nothing in a scene” at this point in time. Accordingly, she taught the women in the cast to knit, darn, cook and engage in a whole range of other nineteenth-century skill sets, so that they would never be divested of this sense of purpose and focus. Not all of these activities appeared in the film, but their presence and possibility infuses all of the actresses with the prolific energy that is so central to the appearance of the film, and the gusto with which it propels us from scene to scene.
This collective futurity is perhaps strongest in the March attic, where the girls have established a theatrical society, and perform roles in a fictional world of their own. While these worlds involve all kinds of fantastic elements, they all involve stories that allow the girls to occupy roles normally held by men. So thoroughly do they identify with these roles that, when Mr. March returns from the Civil War, it is almost an anticlimax. In fact, the return of Mr. March from the South to Concord is the closest that Little Women comes to the traditional transcendental trope of an individual man venturing into the wilderness, turning his return into a cipher for all the patriarchal fantasies that Alcott and Armstrong are keen to traverse. While the March women may be thoroughly animated by Mr. March’s return, then, he quickly fades into the background, signaling the end of this sorority only through the wave of marriage proposals, romantic trysts and prospective suitors that follow.
This produces the most unusual and original aspect of Little Women – the way in which the three daughters are paired with their romantic partners, during and after the prolonged illness that leads to Beth passing away in the later part of the film. Most dramatically, Alcott and Armstrong deflect what initially seems to be the romantic trajectory of the story – Jo’s relationship with Laurie, a neighbour of the Marches, played by Christian Bale. Initially, Jo pursues Laurie, while Laurie is fixated by the Marches, their sorority, and their radical visions of the future, both as they are articulated formally and as they are more playfully performed in their theatrical society. It seems predetermined that Joe should end up with Laurie, but it is precisely that romantic determinism that prompts her to reject him. In the most tender romantic scene in the film, Jo turns down his marriage proposal, deep in the woods, and yet this is a rejection that bonds them more closely than an acceptance ever could, since it keeps them both on a line of flight from the marital and patriarchal structures that the March sisters, and Laurie’s love for them, were so deft at eluding to begin with.
This is the pivotal scene in Little Women, and sets up the second act of the film, which takes Jo and Laurie on two very different journeys, both of which displace Concord, and the March family bosom, as the focus of the story. Laurie heads to Europe, where he descends into a life of decadence and debaucherie, moving from party to party, in an effort to find a substitute for Jo. Jo moves to New York, where she rents a room in a boarding house run by a single woman. In these two spaces, two unusual romances blossom, both of which test the first act’s vision of sorority against the wider world of society. During this part of the film, too, Mr. March vanishes as a point of reference. After returning from the war, he never really appears again, and it’s not really clear whether he’s alive or dead. There’s no drama about his absence either, but more of an indifference on the part of the film and its characters. Meanwhile, the site in the woods where Jo rejected Laurie becomes the epicentre of all the film’s transcendental dreams – the place where Jo flees after Beth dies, and the place where she realises that she needs Laurie to return home; not as a lover, but as a witness to the family as it once stood, and to its sororal and collective dream of the future.
This return to Concord, and reunion of the family, marks the point at which Jo and Laurie reveal their new relationships to one another. Both of these relationships are highly unusual, given the first part of the film, but their strangeness doesn’t fully ramify until Jo and Laurie come into contact once again. On the one hand, Laurie has met up with Amy in Europe, and romantically pursued her, eventually becoming engaged to her. This is strange partly because Laurie knew Amy as a little girl, and in fact promised to give her her first kiss when she was of age, while he was transporting her to her aunt’s place to escape Beth’s scarlet fever. Given that he and Amy are now returning for the first time since Beth died from later complications of scarlet fever, it’s hard not to recall this earlier scene between Laurie and Amy, along with the unsettling transition from a big brother-little sister relationship to a husband-wife relationship. The marriage is all the more unusual in that Laurie clearly still loves Jo, despite his – totally implausible – assurance to Amy that he has always loved only her, even when he was courting Jo, and when Amy was only a small child.
On the other hand, Jo has become intimate with Friedrich Bhaer, a much older man, and an expatriated professor of German philosophy who lives in her boarding house. Friedrich left his country because “the land of Goethe and Schiller is no more,” and provides Jo with a point of contact between continental and American transcendental traditions (“if only we could transcend ourselves without perfection, like your poet Walt Whitman”), as well as a mentor for her writing. Ironically, Friedrich encourages Jo to move away from Gothic fiction towards the more American prose style that will culminate with the publication of Little Women, which is here presented as the first and most significant consummation of their love. Only by taking on Friedrich’s romantic and professional advice, the film suggests, can Jo adapt the transcendental movement to fit her own more radical and feminist authorship.
Instead of ending up with each other, and a marriage of equals, Laurie therefore opts for a daughter-figure, whereas Jo opts for a father-figure. When I first saw the film, I was disappointed by what I saw as a conservative choice by both Jo and Laurie, but my feelings about it have changed over time. Watching it now, it feels like Jo and Laurie approach marriage, and patriarchy, in an oblique way, looking awry at which initially seems to be an inevitable consummation between themselves precisely so that the March sisterhood remains alive as a collective potential that can’t be consummated or contained. After Beth dies, Jo asks “will we never be together again?,” but the lack of any neat romantic ending means that this insatiable longing for togetherness – for the collective ethos of the first act – is never satisfied. Instead of coming to a symmetrical romantic conclusion, Little Women encourages the viewer both to find that collectivity in their own world, and to compulsively watch the film over and over again, immersing themselves deeper in its affective treasures.
Put bluntly, then, Jo and Laurie’s romances seem to be deliberately anticlimactic. They can’t possibly consume their whole worlds, but that also leaves room for the March sorority to retain its world-shaping power. Instead of settling down to a self-contained marriage in a self-contained house, Jo and Friedrich are unable to totally satisfy each other in the same way that Jo and Laurie might, meaning that the house needs to be remade as a radical school in order for their relationship to be contoured and textured in the right kind of way. By the end, Jo can say to Laurie “you must tell me the truth, as a relation that is stronger than marriage,” but more importantly, the film can both end with marriage and concede that collective relations exist that exceed marriage and patriarchy. In these final moments, Armstrong beautifully captures the tone of Alcott’s book – the shifting, evanescent, bittersweet yearning for a society and a female identity that can’t be fully grasped or articulated within her own time, save through the thwarted romantic trajectory that makes the final act of the film and book so resonant and evocative. And that restless longing for the future what makes Little Women such a perfect companion piece to My Brilliant Career: “I so wish that I could give my girls a more just world – I know you’ll make it a better place.”