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.