Setting the stage for a major disappointment

Louisa knew she was about to inflict a major blow on her fans. Countless girls had implored and demanded that Jo and Laurie be married, but the stubborn author refused to give in. She never wanted Jo to marry in the first place but figured she’d create a “funny match for her” instead (see my post on “Louisa creates the perfect man for Jo (and herself?“). I went along for the ride and felt pretty good about Professor Bhaer as her impending spouse, and felt he was a good match for her.

So it caught me by surprise as I read chapter 35, Heartache, and found myself weeping as Laurie desperately declared his love for Jo since I knew it would lead to nowhere happy nor good. I didn’t realize how vested I was in the character of Laurie and his love of Jo. Although I still feel Professor Bhaer is the best match for her, I couldn’t help but think that Jo worked a little too hard to push him away as if she had to convince herself that loving him in that way wasn’t right for her.

This is the one place in Little Women where the logic of the story fails. In the author’s real life, there were many good reasons why she feared marriage and fiercely remained a spinster. Louisa had witnessed her mother’s suffering over the years being married to her immensely impractical and self-absorbed father (and no, I don’t hate Bronson Alcott, he had many stellar qualities along with as many fatal flaws). She nursed feelings of betrayal when her father nearly abandoned her mother and family after the Fruitlands debacle. This was after the family suffered incredible poverty, nearly starving and freezing to death because her father and other members of the community wouldn’t or couldn’t do the labor required to make Fruitlands work. Louisa suffered real trauma as a result of Fruitlands, and that was only one of many incidents that shaped her view of marriage. To Louisa, marriage was slavery – the end of her independence, which meant more to her than love.

She infuses this aversion of marriage into Jo but without the experiences of life that shaped that aversion. Jo, for all intents and purposes, grew up in a very happy home where the marriage of her mother and father was sound and good. There’s no reason offered for Jo’s aversion to marriage except that she was “odd” – a rebellious, passionate and fiercely independent girl. There’s no premise for the thought that marriage to Laurie (or any man) would entail loss of freedom. For example, I always found her reaction to Meg’s engagement and marriage as unnatural.  At one point she even wished she could “marry” Meg to keep her in the family! Quite a strong, and odd, reaction in my view.

So it’s no wonder that her contemporary readers cried “foul” at the pairing of Jo and Professor Bhaer even though Louisa laid out a good case for it in chapters 33 and 34. But the logic of her lawyer-like argument could not blunt the blow. After all, everyone loved Laurie. He also seemed perfect for Jo – dear trusted friend, handsome, charming, intelligent and good, yet high spirited like her. It was the dearest wish to see the two of them married and living happily ever after.

I guess through my tears I was crying “foul” too, despite myself. But I must admit, it makes the story a lot more compelling in the long run.

Louisa creates the perfect man for Jo (and herself?)

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12 Replies to “Setting the stage for a major disappointment”

  1. I don’t know. If Jo was particularly independent, and marriage in the 19th century meant the death of that independence — I think she reacted very naturally. Laurie was money; Jo was violence. Jo wanted to march off to war, and she knew that, as Laurie’s wife, she’d have to be ‘proper.’ She wouldn’t have wanted to impede his career with her natural (very improper, at the time) personality. He wouldn’t have intended to turn her ‘into a girl,’ but he would have. In time, he would have. That’s why Amy was his better match; she was prepared to be the wife his career would have required.

    It really wasn’t a good match, with Jo. She knew it. He was a brother. She loved him, but she didn’t love him as a wife. She didn’t want to rob either of them of that sort of love.

    I think she shows good sense in the Laurie passage. If she’s convincing herself, it’s because she can’t stand hurting him. Some part of her probably wanted to marry him, simply to sustain the closeness that was lost for a while, when she told him ‘no.’

  2. True, marriage did mean the death of independence. And while I agree somewhat that Jo would have had to become more ladylike, I think that comes with age. I recall myself in my late teens and early 20s and now I’m nearly saintly.

    However, Laurie could have given Jo so many things. He could have given her the freedom to write. He could have allowed her to have a school. He only straightened himself out for Amy. After all, Laurie had goals too. He wanted to be a musician, but manned up and took on the responsibilities he had been running from.

    Jo and Lauire could have had an interesting marriage romping around Europe as May and her husband did

    And yes I still hate Prof. Bhaer.

    I never will get over the disappointment of Jo not marrying Laurie.

    1. Yes, I would have loved to see Jo and Laurie’s together in Europe as a married couple! Oh and there’s a delightful bit in Little Men where Laurie describes his trip to Egypt to the boys at Plumfield:

      “he went on to tell about the Egyptians, and the strange and splendid ruins they have left behind them the Nile, and how he sailed up the mighty river, with the handsome dark men to work his boat; how he shot alligators, saw wonderful beasts and birds; and afterwards crossed the desert on a camel, who pitched him about like a ship in a storm.”

      I just love it (well except the shooting alligators part)…Can you imagine Jo and Laurie in Egypt together? They would have had such crazy adventures and loved every bit of it! Both are so spirited and yearn to experience life to the fullest…In contrast, I don’t see a hint of Amy in this description…I wonder if she went with him on the trip. Even if she did such activities likely wouldn’t have fit with her role as a proper society housewife…

      1. I confess I haven’t read any of the sequels to Little Women (yet) but I can’t imagine Amy going on a trip like that. Glad Laurie didn’t remain “dull” however. 🙂 Although, you have to wonder if he embellished the story ….

      2. Good point! Laurie was telling a story to the boys, who loved it and said something like Uncle Teddy tells stories as well as grandpa…So yes, he likely did embelish his adventures a bit 🙂

  3. Louisa herself said that Laurie was modeled after Laddie. And that romance with Laddie was something that “couldn’t be.” In the book she made Laurie a “brotherlike lover.” Jo and Laurie were growing up together, they were the same age. But when you think of real life people Louisa and Laddie and why that couldn’t work, then you can get an idea why she didn’t want to marry Jo to Laurie.

    When they met in Europe in 1865, that was after the Civil War. I’m thinking of how she felt, after experiencing real life horrors, 100 times worse than her sensation thrilers. She almost died of typhoid fever. Her health was permanently impaired. But she recovered enough to be fit for a trip to another world and her hair, her “one beauty” grew back. (Thank you so much Harriet Reisen for resolving that dilemma if her hair grew back, I’m so happy that there is a portrait proving it did.) I imagine she had a newfound appreciation for life.

    At age of 32 – 33, far away from home, family and duty, she could let herself be just herself. To be just Louisa, not an Alcott. There it was possible to spend so much time together with an attractive young man, a decade younger than herself, to dine with him, to drink wine unsupervised. To fall in love with a romantic foreigner. I believe that she was in a stage where she “just wanted live while she was alive.” Now we can only speculate whether something happened between them or not. ( I hope it did. :))

    But she had to go back home, and in her old world their romance, or whatever it was with Laddie “couldn’t be.” Louisa became rich and paid out her family debts only after she published the second part of Little Women. She had duty to her family, she was their breadwinner. Laddie was just establishing himself in the business world and there was that unconventional age difference between them, they didn’t really have good prospects for their future together. By the time Louisa started writing Little Women, Laddie was probably involved with another woman. So, Louisa didn’t want to marry Jo to Laurie “to please anyone,” because Louisa herself couldn’t marry Laddie to please herself.

  4. I totally agree with Jillian. At 10, of course, I was devastated. I wanted Jo to marry Laurie but now I understand why it can not be. I hate what they did to him in the 1994 movie though. My personal belief is that Laurie just wanted to be part of the March family. He didn’t really love Jo in a romantic way. The girls were growing up and leaving him and he clung to the last life line of his happy childhood. By marrying Jo, he could stay the same forever.

    1. Now that’s a really interesting insight! I think he thought he loved Jo but as he matured, realized she wasn’t right for him and preferred to love her in a sisterly fashion. Jo brought out the boy, but Amy brought out the man.

  5. I’ll admit that as a Jo and Laurie fan, the chapter Heartache really tore me apart and after all these years I still find it so difficult to read.

    I always wondered why Louisa decided to build up their relationship as she did in Part 11. After being upset by the fangirls who wanted only to know when Jo and Laurie were getting married, and deciding that would never happen, why she did she decide to make Laurie fall so deeply in love with Jo? She could easily have continued their platonic relationship and had them fall for others while confiding in each other what they thought of each others romantic prospects. Or Laurie could had just a passing crush on Jo and then moved on…

    But I guess she did it to cause us Jo/Laurie fan girls much pain, heh…I did think the proposal scene felt more adult compared to much of the other parts of the novel (with lots of moral preaching) and maybe it was a chance for Louisa to write a chapter more in line with her adult works which have the reputation for being passionate and dramatic…whatever the reason, I thought th chapter was brilliant…

    And as difficult as it is to read, I think it made the whole novel much stronger and I definitely wouldn’t have loved the book as much without it…

  6. Sigh, I guess…I wonder whether Louisa went through something similar in her life…The proposal scene was so raw and realistic, I wonder if she had to turn someone down in such a painful way herself? Maybe not because she is such a gifted writer, but something about the scene makes me think she might have experienced a bit of it…but I guess we’ll never know b/c I read somewhere that she burned most of her truly personal letters/journals before she died…

    1. It is true that there is a large chunk of her personal writings that were destroyed. Julian Hawthorne once commented that someone as passionate as Louisa must have been in love once. It’s stuff like that that spawned “The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott.” She did apparently turn down a marriage proposal but she wanted nothing to do with the guy. The whole Laddie thing is very tantalizing, really hard to tell what the nature of the relationship was. She obviously did care but some biographers say that the age difference made the relationship “safe” (meaning it didn’t have to end in marriage or even be sexual). Then again, May also had such a relationship and it did end in marriage. So who knows?

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