Why Friedrich is poor/ Little Women explained
One of the things that I come across over and over again as someone who studies Little Women, is that a lot of people don´t understand why Louisa May Alcott married Jo to a man who was poor. This question is followed by mentioning Laurie´s wealth. Even Little Women script writers have asked this, which always surprises me.
What if I would tell you that Louisa marrying Jo to a poor character who Jo loves and not to a rich character who she is not in love with is one of the most feminist aspects of Little Women.
Louisa May Alcott was born into New England´s transcendentalist movement. Transcendentalism was religious philosophical movement that was based on German philosophy. One of the main thesis of the transcendentalism was the importance of self-reliance. A belief that a person should be able to take care of themselves and others. Rooted to the idea that no matter the circumstances you were born into, you can still make something of yourself. Leave a mark to this world.
One of Louisa´s favorite writers was the German poet Goethe. Goethe was born into great wealth, which eventually led him to a quest to find himself. In away being born as a rich man caused emptiness. Some readers might notice that this is down to a T, Laurie´s character arc in the book, but it has never been adapted.
Goethe finds writing to be his calling and he recommends work as the best remedy for the broken heart. In Little Women when Laurie is in Vienna after he has been rejected by Jo and has been lectured by Amy, he is writing an opera which would ”horrow Jo´s soul and melt her heart” but he just keeps seeing Jo in her most unflattering ways and Jo is replaced by a beautiful ghost that looks like Amy and Laurie sees himself as a romantic prince.
He is flirting with this ghost for a while but then he stops and for the first time in his life Laurie realizes that what he is doing is silly, and he remembers Amy´s words. She took his hand and said that it was white and soft as a woman, and had never done any real work. Only picked flowers for ladies and wore Jouvin´s best gloves.
As a result of this Laurie goes to work for his grandfather. Laurie´s character arc in Little Women is not about Amy or Jo. Laurie´s character arc is about how Laurie becomes a man. In Louisa May Alcott´s world the only acceptable wealthy people are the philanthropists. Marches are friends with older Mr Lawrence not because he is rich but because he uses his wealth to do good. Laurie gets his redemption arc because Amy gets him to support his philanthropist projects.
Self reliance was a big part of Goethe´s philosophy but if we go back into the history of Germany and many other European countries that were protestant, and this is a big part of American history as well, one part of spirituality was the idea that work is beautified by faith and that work, even the most mundane work has a higher meaning. We live in a very secular world but understanding the Christian aspect of the novel can make it easier to understand it.
Transcendentalism has a mixed reputation these days. Unfortunately a lot of that has been spread by the Little Women film makers, who say it is preachy and anti-feminist. It is very ironic because the transcendentalists were an important part of the first wave of feminism because they believed that women had the right to work. Louisa, her sisters May, Anna and Lizzie, they were all working girls, Louisa´s mother Abba was one of the first American social workers.
In Little Women the Marchs´s they used to be on a higher place in the society. In the novel aunt March is the sister of Jo´s father and her husband died and they had a child together, and she died as well. That would make any person bitter. So aunt March is wealthy but she is not happy.
Jo describes uncle March being one of her favorite people. He was kind and he liked to play with kids and that he had a great library. Uncle March actually sounds a lot like Friedrich.
Why did Greta Gerwig decided that it was a great idea to make aunt March a rich spinster who never wanted to marry (where did she get the money, film doesn´t explain that, who is she related to?) Reminds my what Little Women fan- Melodie Ellison said ”Greta Gerwig decided to put herself above everyone else, Louisa May Alcott included".
The Marches they used to have more money but when their father allowed a black child to enter his school , he lost his position and that is when the Marches became poor. In reality the Alcott´s were poorer than the Marches.
Jo is never romantically interested about Laurie in the novel, and in part 2 Jo is actually criticizing Laurie because he doesn´t take his education seriously,and this is a big deal for Jo because she would like to study and go to university. When Jo returns after an eventful year in New York and Laurie proposes her, she sees that he is still not at all interested to find a job. He basically tells her (Jo) to be the one who tells him what to do with his life. It is not Jo´s job to raise him.
One of the re-occurring themes in Little Women is that Laurie is constantly unaware that he is privileged. One example is chapter ”Laurie makes mischief and Jo makes peace” where he is 15 and was pretending to be his tutor John Brooke and send Meg letters in his name.
There was already a rumour going on that Meg and Laurie were an item, and that Marmee was trying to marry Meg to Laurie. This started in the chapter ”Meg goes to vanity fair”. Of course Marmee hated this rumor and so did Meg, but Laurie seemed to be completely unaware of this and that he nearly ruined Meg´s reputations and his tutors reputation.
There are lot of this type of instances in Little Women. In part 2 Laurie is often questioned for buying nice clothes and then he gives worthless gifts to his friends.
Friedrich and Jo are on the same social level, they are both poor and they what it is like to be poor. Jo´s family were not rich, but they were living quite comfortably before. Friedrich had the same experience. In Berlin he was a respected professor. He would get his monthly paycheck. He lived alone so his expenses were less. Then his sister got ill. He moved to New York to take care of her. She died and he adopted his nephews. Now he can only find a job as a language tutor.
What Jo falls in love with in Friedrich is that he is self-reliant and hardworking and that he supports Jo and her desire to work and make her own money. In the chapter friend which is terribly adapted in most adaptations, Friedrich sees that Jo is struggling to write for Weekly Volcano. The stories that she was asked to write forced her to look material that caused her depression and anxiety.
One of the methods that the transcendentalists used as a method to ”transcend” was that they ”scanned” themselves. They would look at the situation from multiple different angles and see if there was something that needed to be changed. Louisa did this all her life. In Little Women Amy, Jo, Laurie and Friedrich they all have these moments of clarity.
When Friedrich tells Jo that the sensational stories can corrupt person´s mind, Jo agrees with him because these sensational stories have been already corrupting her mind. Louisa did the same as Jo, she wrote sensational stories and then she had a moment of clarity. We could compare this to a person who is working for a company. Payment is small, they get not appreciation and they are asked to produce content that goes against their own values.
Friedrich helps Jo to see all that and by doing that she gets her self worth back. Her writing also improves because after this Friedrich gives Jo a set of Shakespeare´s novels and Jo begins to search her own literal style.
The Amazing thing is that Jo does exactly the same to Friedrich. Fritz is described to be very friendly, extroverted person but the narrator also mentions that he feels quite isolated. He is not in a place in his life where he would like to be. He is in a job that doesn´t give him professional satisfaction. The narrator (Louisa) mentions that he dreams about falling in love and starting a family. He loves his nephews but he is also painfully aware that it would be difficult to find a person who would accept the boys to their life as well. Louisa also points out that Friedrich has experienced discrimination for being German and that makes it difficult for him to find a job.
The best adaptation that shows this is Little Women musical. It even has a line where Friedrich tells Jo that ever since he started to fall for her his students told him that he is much happier and smiles all the time. In the novel it is the night before Jo is leaving. Fritz gets his moment of clarity ”Oh my god. I´m so in love with this woman. What should I do”.
The reason why Jo goes back home is not because they argue like in the films. It´s because Beth gets ill and Friedrich lost a sister. He knows what that is like. Jo does the same to Friedrich what he has done for her. She inspires him to take life by the balls. He starts to look for another job so he could provide both Jo and his nephews and when Jo accepts his proposal and they begin to turn Plumfield into a school Jo returns him his previous status as a professor and he simultaneously supports her career as a writer.
This is how Jo addressed her family about her plans: “Now, my dear people," continued Jo earnestly, "just understand that this isn't a new idea of mine, but a long cherished plan. Before my Fritz came, I used to think how, when I'd made my fortune, and no-one needed me at home, I'd hire a big house, and pick up some poor, forlorn little lads who hadn't any mothers, and take care of them, and make life jolly for them before it was too late. I see so many going to ruin for want of help at the right minute, I love so to do anything for them, I seem to feel their wants, and sympathize with their troubles, and oh, I should so like to be a mother to them! …I told my plan to Fritz once, and he said it was just what he would like, and agreed to try it when we got rich. Bless his dear heart, he's been doing it all his life – helping poor boys, I mean, not getting rich, that he'll never be. Money doesn't stay in his pocket long enough to lay up any. But now, thanks to my good old aunt, who loved me better than I ever deserved, I'm rich, at least I feel so, and we can live at Plumfield perfectly well, if we have a flourishing school. It's just the place for boys, the house is big, and the furniture strong and plain. There's plenty of room for dozens inside, and splendid grounds outside. They could help in the garden and orchard. Such work is healthy, isn't it, sir? Then Fritz could train and teach in his own way, and Father will help him. I can feed and nurse and pet and scold them, and Mother will be my stand-by. I've always longed for lots of boys, and never had enough, now I can fill the house full and revel in the little dears to my heart's content. Think what luxury – Plumfield my own, and a wilderness of boys to enjoy it with me."’
Philosopher Waldo Emerson was Louisa’s friend and neighbor; I will read you a quote from his book Self-Reliance: ‘What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.’
What Waldo is saying there is that trusting your own instincts is always the best path to take, and it is also the more difficult one, because there are always people who try to convince you to go against what you know is right.
Here is a quote from Louisa’s early novel The Lady and the Woman, where she discusses her ideas of marriage. Eligible Edward Windsor claims that the style of woman he most admires are those who ‘claim our protection and support, giving us in return affection and obedience, beautiful and tender creatures submissive to our will, confident in our judgment and lenient to our faults, to be cherished in sunshine and sheltered in storms.’
Kate Loring, a young woman of 24, with no pretensions to beauty, who has raised her four orphaned brothers, replies ‘You have given your idol a heart but no head; I would have her humble though self-reliant, gentle, man’s companion not his plaything, able and willing to face storms as well as sunshine, and to share life’s burdens as they come.’ Louisa was part of the women’s movement that developed into the first wave of feminism. Whilst the moving power of this movement was to encourage people to marry for love instead of money, most marriages of the time were because of financial reasons. In Little Woman Marmee says to the sisters that she would rather see them married to poor men and be happy than unhappily to rich men. All the marriages in Little Women, in one way or another, are wrapped around this idea that love is connected to self-reliance. It is a very Christian idea of marriage, the idea that you build something better together with your significant other. I usually try to avoid politics and religion in all of my podcasts, but because Louisa May Alcott was a Christian and it had a big impact on her work, this is one of the things where I make an exception.
When Louisa was in her early 20s, she considered marrying for money to help out her family; in Little Women this element is given to Amy, and a lot of people think that this makes Amy a social climber: I don’t think that was Louisa’s intention. In the book Amy considers marrying Fred Vaughan because she wants to lift her family away from poverty. She’s not thrilled about the idea; she sees it as her duty. Sometimes I wonder if the people who criticize Amy for marrying Laurie, who is rich but not as rich as Fred but still wealthy – would they be as quick to criticize Jo if she had married Laurie? The cause of the whole argument is the lack of Laurie’s character arc in the adaptations.
In the nineteenth century, despite the desire to work, women’s work areas were limited. There was some factory work, but often women would work as maids or governesses or tutors. Amy writes in her letters that if the artistic career doesn’t take off, one of the options is to come back home to Concord and work as an art teacher.
Both Jo and Amy had very similar ideas about wanting to become wealthy, for the wrong reasons. Marrying a rich man, and to support your family that way, seems almost too easy, but in the long run that kind of thing could ruin your life. Jo thought that writing sensational stories would be easy money, and almost cost her her mental health. Amy’s moment of clarity comes when Laurie reminds her that she should not sacrifice her own happiness, and that her family would definitely not support that kind of decision, and the truth is that Amy is reminded of her values and the way she was raised.
I have talked about Laddie Wisniewski who was one of the models for Laurie. Louisa met Laddie in Switzerland, when she was working there. It is still a bit unclear why he was there in the first place – maybe he was taking care of his health. According to Louisa, he had tuberculosis and she was nursing him; he was very flirtatious with Louisa, then he allegedly proposed to Louisa’s employer, [? 19.52 Anna Weld?], who did not react well, and Laddie was kicked out of the premises. Anna Weld was a very wealthy woman, which has led some Alcott scholars to speculate that Ladislas was after her money.
For the angry Laurie fans, who are listening to this, I think the part of Laurie chasing Jo is what comes from this encounter with Laddie Wisniewski, and the rest of it probably comes from Goethe, but continues after the publication of Little Women. Louisa’s publisher had sent a check to Laddie Wisniewski; Louisa and Ladislas had not met each other after they had met in Europe. Why was Louisa giving him money? These are all theories. Ladislas had got married, and he had children, and he needed the money to support them; Louisa loved kids, and she was happy to help. Second scenario: he was blackmailing money from Louisa, threatening to go to the press and tell about their time together in Europe; Laddie was 10-11 years younger than Louisa, and that would have been quite a scandal. I don’t know which scenario is the truth, but I do know that Louisa’s sister May also knew Laddie and they had actually lived in Paris at the same time; but May wasn’t a huge fan of him, and it seems that Louisa got fed up with him as well. They described him as boring, and said that he never paid back his debts for money that Louisa gave him. Maybe May had also given him money that he never paid back.
Whilst the biggest crime that the adaptations do is to make it seem that Amy and Jo are always arguing over Laurie, in the book Jo never wants him, and Amy doesn’t want him either when he is being lazy and unproductive. In an article called ‘Happy Women’ which Louisa wrote about a year after Little Women was published, Louisa writes that accepting a false idea of love just because you are lonely is self-deceiving. Isn’t this what happens in Little Women? Jo considers Laurie’s proposal because she is lonely; perhaps the reason why Louisa rejected Laddie Wisniewski was because she was still in love with Henry Thoreau.
Henry, like all the Transcendentalists, believed in self-reliance; I think the best way to describe Henry’s relationship with money is that he was a minimalist; he also came from the working class – his father had a pencil factory where Henry worked from time to time. He was also a teacher and occasionally a gardener, a hunter and a naturalist – and a writer; and of course Henry was a Transcendentalist philosopher like Friedrich. In Little Women’s saga Henry is constantly present, specially in Little Men where Louisa describes his love for simplicity, when she writes about Friedrich’s love for the natural world.
In the 19th century some religious organizations considered the Transcendentalists heretic, because they almost had a pantheistic belief that Nature was the most perfect expression of God. One of my observant book-readers said that it really was based on someone who Louisa was in love with, and that explains why Louisa was frustrated by the fans who were demanding that she married Jo to Laurie.
Louisa never really liked Little Women; she considered it as one of her worst novels. I think the observant book-reader is right that Louisa wrote a lot about herself, and therefore the success of Little Women would create very conflicted feelings. I and my friend Emily talked about this in our ‘Laurie’ episode; in the 19th century Laurie was a super-popular character, and perhaps one part of that popularity was because he was wealthy. Every time that Louisa was asked about the real-life Laurie, she would always speak very highly about Laddie to the public; but then in her private letters she was not so happy with him.
So why is Friedrich poor? He is poor because he is Jo’s equal, and therefore they shared their similar views on self-reliance and can build their life together. This is what Louisa writes in the ‘Umbrella’ chapter; Friedrich says “I could not find the heart to take you from that so happy home until I could haf a prospect of one to gif you, after much time, perhaps, and hard work. How could I ask you to gif up so much for a poor old fellow, who has no fortune but a little learning?" "I'm glad you are poor. I couldn't bear a rich husband," said Jo decidedly, adding in a softer tone, "Don't fear poverty. I've known it long enough to lose my dread and be happy working for those I love, and don't call yourself old – forty is the prime of life. I couldn't help loving you if you were seventy!"
n Jo´s boys, which is the last little women book, Jo and Friedrich are making out, and he is seventy!
The book that was Louisa’s personal favorite was ‘Moods’, a story that she began to write when she was 17, and she revisited it several times during her life. If you want to read about Louisa’s love life and relationships, ‘Moods’ is pretty explicit, and Jo’s and Friedrich’s age difference in the book is 16 years, which is also Louisa and Henry’s age difference. When it comes to the adaptations, they don’t usually pay much attention to wealth and class; Laurie’s missing character arc is a prime example of that.
That Fritz is poor or not is often pretty vague – same with him being an immigrant, for example in Greta Gerwig’s film there was an earlier script where Friedrich was written to be German and Jo’s father gives a speech about the USA being built upon immigrants, which is true, but then in the final script, and then in the final film, Friedrich is vaguely European and the part about immigrants was turned into a joke. The only film where Friedrich is clearly poor is the 1994 film. Gabriel Byrne´s clothes; in the film they look really nice but they don’t look new. The 1978 series is the only adaptation which shows that Friedrich is applying for jobs after Jo has returned to Concord, and there is a scene where he gets the job and he is building courage to travel to Concord and tell about it to Jo. But the musical is probably the best when it shows that not only does Fritz has a good effect on Jo and her writing, but she has a positive effect on him and his life, in a wider sense.
I will read you a quote from Henry’s poem called ‘Friendship’:
When under kindred shape, like loves and hates
And a kindred nature,
Proclaim us to be mates,
Exposed to equal fates
And each may other help, and service do,
Drawing Love's bands more tight,
Service he ne'er shall rue
While one and one make two,
And two are one;
In such case only doth man fully prove
Fully as man can do,
What power there is in Love
His inmost soul to move
Based on Louisa´s diary markings from the time when she was in her early 20s, it would seem that one of her dreams was to start a school with Henry, where she would be the boys’ mother and he would be the teacher. Henry passed away in 1862; quite soon after that, Louisa registered to work as a nurse in the war; we can fairly say that these events are connected. The idea of school reappears in Little Women. One of Louisa’s friends, Elizabeth Powell and her husband, seem to have been models for Jo and Friedrich; like Jo and Fritz, they even had two sons together. Elizabeth also became one of the first female deans of a university.
Another model for Jo and Fritz were a couple who Louisa greatly admired, Eliza and Charles Follen. Now Charles Follen was a German immigrant; he was really good friends with Louisa’s uncle, Samuel May, and one of the early figures of Transcendentalism. Charles died in an accident, and Eliza wrote a book about him and their marriage. You don’t only see this couple’s influence on Little Women, but also in countless other Louisa May Alcott novels.
Louisa had the habit of inserting herself and people she knew into the books that she wrote. Charles was almost a legendary figure among the Transcendentalists; Louisa basically grew up hearing stories about him. Charles was a hardcore Abolitionist, a revolutionist educator, and he was from – you guessed it – Berlin. Charles was a political refugee. When I now read Little Women, a part of me believes that Friedrich was a political refugee who was fighting against the oppressors. May I tell you, Little Women fans who like to spend their time meditating on Friedrich’s character (like yours truly) are often interested in the different philosophical movements of the past.
I have a few friends who sometimes talk about Friedrich’s childhood and his past relationships before he met Jo. If we think about Henry Thoreau and then Charles Follen – I don’t know if they ever met, but Henry would have known about him because all Transcendentalists knew about Charles Follen. They were both intellectuals, but they both had a rebellious side and a very strong sense of social justice; both Amy and Jo grew up in a family where both parents were always happy to help the poor, and both sisters knew what it was like to be poor. Laurie can never be Jo’s partner because he doesn’t have the mental capacity to support her writing career; it doesn’t mean that Laurie is stupid – it’s just not something that he’s interested in or that he knows a lot about. He is not very grounded, so he can’t really run a school with Jo, but everything works out great for him as Amy is very grounded. When Jo sees him [Friedrich] for the first time, he’s helping this little servant girl, who is carrying a heavy bucket of coal. One of the better parts of the 2017 series is the line where Fritz says that it pains his heart to see a child suffer. Beside their love of books and Goethe and philosophy, Jo and Friedrich also share similar views on anti-slavery and child labor, and also on education, and when we think about all these people who Louisa inserted into Jo’s and Friedrich’s characters – Charles, Eliza, Henry, Louisa herself – they are all connected by this level of rebellion-ism and their refusal to conform to the regulations of society. How amazing is that! Thank you for listening.
Transcripted by Jill Goulder.
Louisa May Alcott, the germanophile
Poet Ezra Pound said that literature does not exist in a vacuum, and semi biographical novels are exactly that, semi biographical. A work of fiction strongly influence by events in an author's life.
Writer Janet Manley describes Fritz Bhaer as a perfect mystery, a perfect crush, he is the perfect text, a space offering up multiple interpretations. In the spirit, I explore Frederic's historical and cinematic evolution through gender studies, his and Jo's relationship, and the development of their romance, and how it correlated with Louisa May Alcott's own life, Louisa's adoration towards Germany and German culture.
I will touch the fan culture as well and how certain themes that have been repeated in the movies again and again affect the way people see Jo and Friedrich. The key ingredient in understanding Friedrich's character lies within Louisa May Alcott's love for Germany, German people, German language, German philosophy, and most importantly German literature. We might even refer Louisa May Alcott as a Germanophile, a person who has a great deal of interest towards German culture. Make sure to give a like to this video and subscribe to my channel, Small Umbrella In The Rain, for in-depth Little Women content.
There are multiple references to Germany in Little Women. On the very first chapter of Little Women, Jo receives a copy of Undine and Sintram as a Christmas present. Undine and Sintram is a collection of Scandinavian and Germanic fables written by a French-German author, Friedrich de la Motte Foque.
Beth catches the scarlet fever, which is terrible, but the Marches never blame the Hummels. Epidemic disease were rather common back then, and Louisa always writes about the Hummels with a great sympathy.
In the chapter Camp Lawrence, John Brooke translates a German song for Meg, and reads her parts from Mary Stuart, which is a play that was written by German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller. On Meg's and John's wedding, Laurie suggests that they dance like the Germans do.
When Jo stays in New York, her hostess in the boarding house, Mrs. Kirk. Kirk is an anglicized last name for German word Kirche, meaning church. When it comes to 19th century German culture and the influences of German immigration into American culture, Little Women saga is consistently favorable towards it.
Friedrich as Goethe
One of Louisa's favorite authors was the German poet Goethe. Goethe was one of the models for Friedrich's character. In Little Women, on her grand tour in Europe with Aunt March, Amy visits Goethe's house and writes home and tells about it.
On her first trip to Europe, Louisa herself made a pilgrimage to Goethe's house. Went to Wiesbaden first, a pleasant, gay place full of people. Saw the gambling hall and people playing, the fine grounds and drives. And then went to Frankfurt. Here I saw and enjoyed a good deal. The statues of Goethe, Schiller, Faust, Gutenberg, and Schaeffer, are in the squares. Goethe's house is a tall, plain building with each story projecting over the lower, and a Dutch roof. A marble slab over the front door recording the date of Goethe's birth. I took a look at it and wanted to go in, as it was empty. But there was no time.
The most obvious and most important German influence in Little Women is, of course, the love of Jo's life, Friedrich Bhaer. Little Women takes place in the feminine sphere, which is one of the biggest reasons why I and millions of other readers love it.
When it comes to main three male character, Laurie, Fritz, and John, Louisa did not write explicit backgrounds stories to any of them. To explore Friedrich's character and to get better understanding of him, we need to explore Louisa. Her personal life, philosophy, values, and of course her love for Germany.
Friedrich is introduced quite early on in the second novel, and Jo is curious about him from the moment she sees him. And she finds him to be a kindred spirit.
As I went downstairs soon after, I saw something I liked. The flights are very long in this tall house and as I stood waiting at the head of the third one, for a little servant girl to lumber up, I saw a gentleman come along behind her, take her heavy load of coal out of her hand, carry it all the way up, put it down at a door nearby, and walk away. Saying with a kind note and a foreign accent, "It goes better so. The little back is too young to have such heaviness."
Wasn't it good of him? I like such things. For as Father says, trifles show character. When I mentioned it to Mrs. K that evening, she laughed and said, "That must have been Professor Bhaer. He is always doing things of that sort."
Mrs. K told me he was from Berlin, very learned and good. But poor as a church mouse and gives lessons to support himself, and two little orphan nephews who he is educating here. According to the wishes of his sister, who married an American.
A Man from Berlin
Not a very romantic story, but it interested me, and I was glad to hear that Mrs. lends him her parlor for some of this scholars. There's a glass door between it and the nursery, and I meant to peep at him and then I'll tell you how he looks. He's almost 40, so it's no harm, Marmee.
Fritz is about 16 years older than Jo, which would mean that Friedrich is somewhere between 37 and 39 when they meet. There is a reason why Fritz is 16 years older than Jo. Louisa had a professor of her own and we'll get into that later on. In Little Women musical, Fritz is slightly younger. When he goes to court Jo, we find out that he has just had his 35th birthday. In the book, Friedrich returns to Jo's life during the springtime, some months after Beth's passing.
If we compare the two, we can make an assumption that Fritz was born in the spring. If Fritz is almost 40 after the American Civil War, this means that he was born some time between 1825 and 1827.
Fritz is very extroverted. He enjoys lively conversations, makes friends easily, sees beyond cultural boundaries. He's deeply religious, honest, cultured, but also quite a romantic. It is not a coincidence that Friedrich is from Berlin.
By the time Alcott wrote Little Women, Berlin was gaining more importance and would become the capital of the new German Empire in 1871. While being born and living Berlin, Fritz would have absorbed all that the city had to offer. Architecture, literature, churches, philosophy circles, symposiums, markets, and Biergartens.
It is mentioned in the book that Fritz speaks several languages, and in the books he speaks French a few times. Berlin was one of the most multicultural German cities in the 19th century, and there was a large French speaking immigrant population.
The fact that Fritz speaks several languages indicates that he has done some traveling, and is in that sense as much of a cosmopolitan as Amy and Laurie are.
We learn that Friedrich used to be a respected professor in Berlin and this only increases Jo's interest towards him.
Jo valued goodness highly but she also possessed a most feminine respect for intellect and a little discovery which she made about the professor added much to her regard for him. He never spoke of himself and no one ever knew that in his native city, he had been a man much honored for learning and integrity, till a countryman came to see him.
He never spoke of himself and in a conversation with Miss Norton divulged the pleasing fact. From her, Jo learned it and liked it all the better because Mr. Bhaer had never told it. She felt proud to know that he was an honored professor in Berlin, though only a poor language-master in America, and his homely, hardworking life was much beautified by the spice of romance which this discovery gave it.
Friedrich´s Journey to America
It is very likely that Louisa had Humboldt University in her mind. During the time when Louisa did her first visit to Germany, it was known as the University of Berlin. University was established in 1809, which makes it only fitting that Friedrich would have studied and worked as a professor there. University is known for producing some of the most well known German thinkers and philosophers.
We are not told a lot about Friedrich's family. We find out that he had a sister, Minna, who married an American and on her deathbed, she asked Fritz to take care of his nephews and raise them in America. It is not part of the canon, but I have read a couple fan fics where Minna's husband was an American journalists who abandoned his family and Minna was also quite possibly a journalist. This would explain why Friedrich does his best to look after the boys, wants to be a good role model, and someone who never abandons them. Book does imply that Friedrich and Minna were very close. This is a common narrative pattern in Louisa May Alcott's novels. In Work Story of Experience, the protagonist's love interest, David, has lost a connection with his sister. In Moods, the character of Jeffrey Moore takes care of his ill sister until she passes away. Of course, the loss of a sister is something that also bonds Jo and Fritz.
In the 19th century, German immigrants were the second biggest group of immigrants in the US, only surpassed by Irish immigrants. March family and the Alcotts in real life were descendants of Irish immigrants.
Between 1847 and 1855, German immigrants came to US in large numbers. Many came in the hopes of better way of life, others because of individual curiosity, economic hardships, political struggles, or religious persecutions. Many escaped the crop failure and famine.
When we first meet Friedrich, we find out that he has been living in New York for five years, which means that he arrived in 1860. In the early 1860s, many transportation across the Atlantic was made with sails and the trip could last one to three months. This would mean that Fritz would have arrived with a sailing ship that was designed for a cargo carriage. These ships were quite hazardous and accommodation were small and dark. The second wave of German immigrants arrived in the end of the 1860s, escaping the German wars. Friedrich's reasons for leaving his home country are family related. There are a couple occasions in Little Women that do give an impression that Fritz has faced oppression and discrimination, and Jo does make a note to herself that he must have had a hard life.
It is not a coincidence that Jo and Friedrich meet in New York, of all places. Many of the German immigrants moved into the cities in north, like New York, which already had established German communities. These communities were tight, and Friedrich comes to visit Jo in Concord, the reader finds out that he has German friends there. Louisa very intentionally included messages of social justice to her works. A lot of the details of Friedrich's backstory are not included in the movies and TV adaptations because of the screenwriters personal biases, xenophobia, and ignorance over the source material. Yes, this is going to be a video about Louisa May Alcott's inter-sectional feminism.
Louisa May Alcott was born into New England's transcendentalist movement. Transcendentalism was very much an American movement, but its roots were within German philosophy and romanticism. Especially in the transnational ideas of Immanuel Kant and his new ethic of universal hospitality. There are a couple basic principles within transcendentalist philosophy. Human beings are inherently good and pure. Nature was the ultimate mediator and expression of God was present all around. Self-reflection and being true to one's self was encouraged.
From a very early age, Louisa practice self-reflection and observance. And from her novels, Little Women and Old-Fashioned Girl, have biggest transcendentalist influences. Little Women film from 1994 is one of the rare adaptations with clear references to transcendentalism. When Jo meets Fritz, they talk about German philosophy. Jo mentions that her parents were part of a rather unusual circle in Concord, and she mentions that she adores Goethe. Friedrich quotes a poem from another transcendentalist, Walt Whitman, and Jo joins him.
Transcendentalists believe that it was through the observation and appreciation of nature that the human soul was enlightened. The idea of being true, authentic self becomes part of their conversation. Transcendentalist love for nature can be seen in the movie in the presence of flowers and plants in the outdoors and indoors. Proposal scene in the movie movie and in the book takes place in nature and it correlates the way in the book Friedrich has kept Jo's poem. Be worthy of love and love will come in the falling of summer rain. Louisa May Alcott was surrounded by the greatest thinkers of her time. Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Father Bronson Alcott showed her an idealistic and ultimately unworkable version of the movement.
Throughout Louisa's childhood, Bronson pursued philosophical ideas by establishing The Temple School, where he sought to teach children according to his transcendental ideas. Some of Bronson's ideas were too radical for the parents and eventually he was forced to resign when he took a black child as a student. Soon after the closing of The Temple School, the family moved to farmstead to establish a utopian society called Fruitlands. There they attempted to live off the land, follow a strict vegetarian diet, and more fully implement the ideas that Bronson deemed important.Fruitlands was a terrible failure. The Alcotts were subjected to backbreaking work, but barely survived the winter. After a little less than a year on the homestead, they left. Although Louisa had seen her father's transcendentalist projects fail, she still believed in the philosophy as much as he did, and blamed the setbacks on poor planning and execution.It was after this that they moved to Concord, where the transcendentalist movement started to take shape. Emerson was good friend of Bronson and Louisa frequently borrowed books from Emerson's library and learned about nature from Henry David Thoreau.
Margaret Fuller made an everlasting impression on Louisa with her philosophy and feminist ideas. It was unusual for the time for mother to work outside the home, but Abba Alcott did. Bronson had determination to give his daughters proper education, also unusual for the time. Abba had less interest towards the ideological side of transcendentalism, but more in what practical tools transcendentalism offered. Louisa had mixed emotions about transcendentalism. Intrigued and inspired by the ideal of self-reliance, she still knew from firsthand experience that self-reliance really meant reliance on others and required the self-sacrifice of family members. Louisa wanted to tie the two opposite knots of her parents ideas. This drew her to Ralph Waldo Emerson's theories and ideas, as the represented a more complete way of living out of the transcendental philosophy. Her journals illustrate her love for his philosophies, calling him the man who has helped me most by his life, his books, his society. Emerson's philosophy on how good deeds bring happiness and satisfaction to one's life deeply affected Louisa and her written works. Louisa was as well heavily affected by Goethe's ideas of self-reliance. Topic of self-reliance is a constant theme in Little Women and is essentially important when getting to know the characters.
Blogger Katie Rhone points out "As a German immigrant, Professor Bhaer understands and experiences hard work and struggle. He bears in mind the responsibility he has in caring for a woman, if he is to marry. He is more grounded and stable than Laurie, whose idealized hopes of marriage remind me of Louisa's own description of her imprudent father." Quote, "He was a man in a balloon, with his family holding the ropes trying to hold him down to earth."
Here's a quote from Little Women.
"In a minute, a hand came down over the page so that she could not draw, and Laurie's voice said, with a droll imitation of a penitent child, "I will be good. Oh I will be good."
"But Amy did not laugh, for she was in earnest and tapping on the opposite hand with her pencil, said soberly, "Aren't you ashamed of a hand like that? It's as soft and white as a woman's and looks as if it never did anything but wear Jouvin's best gloves and pick flowers for ladies."
Amy, being a working class girl, she doesn't have any problems reminding Laurie that he has not worked a day in his life.
Many Alcott scholars believe that the poor nutrition in Fruitlands might have affected on Louisa's hormonal balance. Same as Jo, Louisa was a tomboy. Louisa was very protective of her mother, who she adored, and her love for her family was fierce. From very early on, she took the role of the provider, or the way Jo describes herself as the man of the house.
Anna Alcott was 11 years older than her little counterpart, Meg March, when she married. Same way as Jo grieved Meg marrying, so did Louisa. Not because John, the real and the fictional one, was a bad person, but because it meant the change in the family dynamics.
In the book, Jo says that she'd rather marry Meg herself, which has led many to believe that Jo is a lesbian. But with Jo there is no context for her fear because Jo's childhood was quite safe and idyllic, whereas Louisa's was more unstable and turbulent. Family went through a lot together.
Louisa was upset when Anna announced that she was getting married. Anna was 28 at the time and Louisa was 27. It happened only three weeks after they had lost their sister Lizzie. Louisa wished to keep the family together and fear of losing it is understandable. If you do research on transcendentalist, you will soon find out that there was a great deal of gender fluidity. I would highly recommend Susan Bailey's article on the 19th century female relationship in Little Women. I'll add the link to the description.
We live in a culture in which it is common not to try and understand what the other says and means. In this case, the author. But to assume it is some preconceived idea or trope we have in our heads, we love something, that we hate, we love, or we want to think that we are. It is a pity that it is so, because when we erase the fragility and faults of characters, we deprive ourselves from seeing the reflection of our own in them, and learn and grow. Masculinity and femininity are social structures made of biological and culture factors. Jo struggles to find a balance between the two, during the time that the world between man and woman was separated. There's a stereotype that Jo is quite adventurous. Is she? She's quite adventurous inside her head and she's good at making up stories and likes acting. Writing is a safe escape to live vicariously, because she can do that from a safe place. With Laurie, she can live on boy's world through his masculine energy.
Jo likes to speak about sports and such, but because of her gender she's prevented to join any teams. In the first book, after Laurie pretended to be John Brooke and catfished Meg with letters and deeply hurt her, which is not never included in any movie adaptations, he asks Jo to go to Washington with him and surprise Mr. Brooke. Jo is tempted by the idea, but she sees that such a trip is Laurie's way of getting away from his grandfather.
Jo likes to dream but she knows that reality will be completely different, and Laurie never grows if he doesn't learn from his mistakes. Louisa's attempt, however, is not to make certain habits in a person clearly masculine or feminine, but to blur the lines. Jo is good at sewing and in fact she's a good dressmaker, likes to knit and mend clothes. Louisa herself liked sewing. We see all the girls sewing together in the beginning of the 1933 film, and the 1949 film Jo sews and knits. In the book, Jo sees that Mr. Bhaer is mending his own socks and she's both surprised and impressed about it. She's impressed how self-reliant he is.
Some readers have found it odd how Jo wants to start a school for boys. When Jo sees the hungry look in Laurie's eyes when he looks at her family, she practically adopts him. Louisa in her personal life was devoted to charity work and she worked as a nurse. Taking care of others was something that came naturally to her.
Gender fluidity continues in the sequels. Character of Nat is very sensitive, musical, and a lot like Laurie. Dan is almost too masculine and doesn't want to show his vulnerability. In Little Men, Jo's niece Daisy complains how boys won't include her into their games, and Jo privately thinks that in the house that is filled with boys the only girl is the most difficult to please.
She gets Daisy a small toy stove and teaches her to cook, while turning it into a play. This is not the 15 year old Jo who thinks that everyone should be like her. Instead, she supports Daisy's individuality. Daisy's femininity is balanced by Nan, who is another tomboy. Even her name is a mixture between Nan and Dan.Jo doesn't like to go to parties or social events, like Meg and Amy do. She'd rather stays at home and writes. Jo doesn't fit well to Concord or the traditional female role. She's allowed to be herself in her home. She does compare herself to Meg and the way she's treated differently for being traditionally feminine.
Same happens with Amy in the second book. Jealousy Jo sometimes feels is caused by the fact that her sisters are better accepted than she is because of her nonconformity, and this causes Jo feelings of isolation. In chapter Calls, she rather speaks to pets and plays with the children of the house then talks with the adults. Jo makes the assumption that the aunts take her to Europe, even after when she has blurted to Aunt Carol that she hates French. Neither she seemed to have put much effort to study languages, which would be quite important if she would have seriously wanted to go to Europe with the aunts.
Jo dreams about the foreign, but if she was abroad, especially with people like Aunt March who she had difficult relationship with, Jo would be rather homesick.
In New York, Jo hesitates in the door of the newspaper quite a while when she tries to sell her first story. She rather spends time with Friedrich than goes to see new acquaintances. And in her letters to Marmee and Beth, she writes that she feels shy among strangers.
Friedrich is based on several people in Louisa's life, and I have traced Friedrich to five different men and I intend to talk about all of them in these essays. I agree with many Alcott scholars that philosopher Henry David Thoreau was the real life Friedrich. I have made an entire video about his and Louisa's relationship. Check it out after you have finished this one.
I am now going to read you some passages from Little Women and Walter Harding's Thoreau biography.
Thoreau invited the Alcotts in for the Sunday dinner. Thoreau quickly realized that Alcott provided a very different intellectual fare than did even the most stimulating Concord farmer. The two found much in common to talk about and Alcott often read to Thoreau from his correspondence with his English disciples on theories of education. While the rest of the world was denouncing Bronson Alcott as an impractical dreamer, Thoreau was able to overlook his faults and foibles, of which there were unquestionably meany.
Little Women, chapter Surprises. Mr. Bhaer's face had lost the absentminded expression and looked all alive with interest in the present moment. Actually young and handsome, she thought, forgetting to compare him with Laurie as she usually did with strange men.
Then he seemed quite inspired, though the burial customs of the ancients, to which the conversation had strayed, might not be considered an exhilarating topic. Jo quite glowed with the triumph when Teddy got quenched in an argument, and thought to herself as she watched her father's absorbed face, how he would enjoy such a man as my professor to talk with every day.
This part reminded me the way Jo notices how Friedrich is helping the servant girl.
Even the household maids were delighted, for Thoreau was already ready and willing to mend what was broken, even before they would call them to his attention.
Henry appears in multiple disguises in Louisa's novels. He's Friedrich in Little Women, Dan Kean in Little Men and Jo's Boys, Adam Warwick in Moods, David in Work Story of Experience, and Mack in Rose In Bloom, just to name a few.
Many of Louisa's diary markings about Henry are censored. Still, 160 years ago people had right to their privacy.
Thank you for watching, guys. Next video is going to be all about the umbrella and the way Jo wishes that she would have someone to help her with her writings, much before she travels to New York. Make sure to tune back for it.
You can find my full Friedrich Bhaer research here.
sMALL UMBRELLA IN THE RAIN
Small Umbrella In The Rain is an on-going series of video essays, articles and podcast episodes that examines the different intersections in Louisa May Alcott´s Little Women.