Wide Wide World appeared around the time when Louisa May Alcott began to write Moods, one of her personal favourite novels which (once again) described her love for philosopher Henry Thoreau.
Little Women: Louisa May Alcott´s Views On Romantic Love (Umbrella Chapter Analyzed)
Three stages of 19th century courtship
Welcome to a deep dive in the world of Louisa may Alcott. Everything I share in these video essays is based on multiple studies made by Alcott scholars. You can find all the links from the description. To explore the development of Jo´s and Friedrich´s romantic relationship in the book I am going to use historian Karen Lystra´s studies from the 19th century romantic love and courtship as a comparison. There are three stages of 19th century courtship 1. Love comes by multitude of reasons 2. Shared looks enact mutual transaction of interior lives. This leads to identification of selves and mutual recognition of persons.
Jo´s sexual awakening
Jo spends quite a long time in New York, about 8 months. When she sees Friedrich for the first time she is immediately attracted to him. In fact, she checks him out multiple times during her stay at Mrs Kirk.
"When the parlor door opened and shut someone began to hum ”Kennst du das land” like a big bumblebee it was dreadfully improper I know, but I could´t resist the temptation and lifting one end of the curtain before the glass door I peeped in. Professor Bhaer was there and while he arranged his books, I took a good look at him. A regular German, rather stout, with brown hair stumbled all over his head, bushy beard, good nose, the kindest eyes I ever saw, and a splendid big voice that does one´s ears good after our sharp or slipshered American gabble. His clothes were rusty, his hands were large, and he hadn´t a really handsome feature in his face. Except his beautiful teeth yet I liked him. For he had a fine head, his linen was very nice and he looked like a gentleman".
Based on Jo´s first impression on Friedrich she seems to be completely enthralled by him. This is what Little Women fan Melodie Ellison has to say about Friedrich´s looks
”I think part of why people act like Friedrich is not attractive is because of the well known Louisa May Alcott quote about intentionally making a funny match for Jo. ”I wouldn´t be at all surprised if she didn´t quite mean that. Laurie was conventionally attractive. There are men in our current times, that fall in to the same category. Men like Zac Efron. For example if you were to ask me what i think of Zac Efron I´´ll tell you that he is handsome but I am not personally attracted to him. Like Jo I prefer my men bearded and a little stout but most importantly intelligent, hardworking and kind. I think folks who can´t accept an older less hot version of professor fail to understand his and Jo´s relationship. She respected him and he her and for her that was the ultimate sexiness”.
One of the biggest misconceptions about little women is that Jo is only based on Louisa. Louisa wrote Jo to be an idealized version of herself and there are elements in Jo that come from women who Louisa admired. I would argue that Louisa´s friend Elizabeth Powell was the true model for the 15 year old Jo. Based to the letter exchange between Elizabeth and Louisa, Elizabeth wasn´t too keen on the idea of marriage which is understandable since she was only 16. Elizabeth did fell in love and married 10 years later and it would seem that she continued being a model for Jo. First for Jo March and then for Jo Bhaer. Her life was still very similar to the book Jo.
Louisa was complete opposite. Louisa had a huge crush on her father´s best friend philosopher Waldo Emerson. Louisa wrote love letters to him but she never sent them and she used to sit under his window siniging Migon´s song. Mignon´s song is a song from Goethe´s novel, Wilhelm Meister´s apprenticeship. Which was one of Louisa´s favorite books. Emerson was one of the many models for Friedrich. Main model was philosopher Henry Thoreau who merited Louisa´s life long affection. When Jo meets Friedrich for the first time he is singing Mignon´s song.
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When Jo writes her letter home she says that the letter is rather ”bhaery” and that she is always interested from odd people. We can interpret this that Jo is fascinated by Friedrich´s eccentric-ism and this is where Jo finds her kindred spirit because all of her life she has considered herself as odd and not fitting.
One of the reasons why Jo´s and Laurie´s relationship, can never be a relationship between equals was that Laurie was looking for a mother figure in Jo, and Friedrich being older and more mature than Laurie is a paradox of that.
”I was in our parkour last evening and Mr. Bhaer came in. With some newspapers for Mrs. Kirk, she wasn´t there, but Minnie who is a little old woman, introduced me very prettily.
”This is Mama´s friend Miss March”
”Yes, and she is jolly and we like her lots” added Kitty, who is an ”enfant térrible”.
We both bowed and then we laughed, for the prim introduction and the blunt addition were a rather comical contrast.
Like their creator, Jo and Friedrich share their love for children. Already in the first novel, Jo escaped the female society and ran out to play with boys. In New York Jo is more interested from the doings of Franz and Emil, than her female-charges, Kitty and Minnie.
The more time Jo spends in New York, more attractive Friedrich becomes, both physically and intellectually.
When spring arrives, she makes notice on the ”pleasant curves around his mouth”, ”his eyes that were never cold or hard”, ”his big hands that had a warm, long grasp that was more expressive than words”.
Symposium / Mutual Interests
Before Jo goes to New York she has been quite frustrated from the way Laurie is not interested from his studies. Jo can not attend university because of her gender. Friedrich sees Jo as his intellectual equal. 1994 film captures the meeting of the minds perfectly. BPS series is so far the only adaptation that has included symposium, leaving the symposium. There is another reference to transcendentalism when Friedrich and Jo talk about Kant´s theories.
In the book Friedrich and Jo attend a symposium together. It is very important part in the books because the reader finds out that Jo´s and Friedrich´s morals go together. In the symposium Jo meets famous poets, writers and philosophers. Some who she has put on a pedestal but her opinions are about to change.
”Her reverence for genius received a severe shock that night and it took sometime for her to recover from the discovery that the great creatures were only men and women after all. Turning as from a fallen idol she made other discoveries which rapidly dispelled her romantic illusions. Imagine her dismay on stealing a glance of timid admiration at the poet who´s lines suggested ethereal being fed on spirit, fire and dew to behold him derringer his supper with an order which flushed his intellectual countenance.
Already in the first part of Little Women we find out that Jo doesn´t always enjoy the higher class social gatherings. Now that she is in the circles of writers, poets and intellectuals which is the world where she longs to be part of she is disappointed by her own illusions that she has created about that world.
”Before the evening was half over. Jo felt so dis-disillusioned that she sat down in a corner to recover herself. Mr Bhaer soon joined her looking rather out of his element and presently several of the philosophers each mounted on his hobby came baling up to hold an intellectual tournament in the recess.
Friedrich also seems to feel that he is in a wrong place. Jo becomes distressed when she is following the debate and one of the young philosophers puts intellect above god. After some hesitation Friedrich keeps his speech defending religion. Speech leaves an ever lasting impression on Jo and I would even argue that this is when Jo starts to realize that her feelings for Friedrich are more than friendship.
”She began to see that character is better possession than money, rank, intellect or beauty and feel that if greatness is what a wise man has to find it to be truth, reverence and good will, then her friend Friedrich Bhaer was not only good, but great”.
Jo´s journey as a writer (never in the films)
Little Women is a Bildungsroman. Bildungsroman is a literally genre that originates from Germany. English translation could be ”coming of age” novel.
The focus of a Bildungsroman is in the moral and psychological development of the character.
In movies and in all tv adaptations so far, scene where Fritz expressed his opinions about sensational literature has been turned into a conflict. I guess it is suppose to create more drama, but this is not the way things go in the book because Jo has already labelled her sensational writings as ”rubbish”.
Way before she even thinks of traveling to New York. She has assured herself that her intentions are good because she would use the money to help her family. This inner conflict that Jo has begins in chapter 27. Literally lessons.
In this chapter Jo attends to a lecture about pyramids. There she pumps into a young man who is reading a thrilling story written by Mrs Nordbury.
Jo is amused by the boys admiration of the ”trash” that is how Jo calls this type of literature which emphasizes her wish to detach herself from those stories. So Jo´s negative views towards sensational stories is clearly identified. When Jo hears how much Mrs Nordbury makes with her Stress and Thunder tales Jo begins to change her mind and soon starts to write them herself.
Stress and Thunder tales originate from Goethe. In German this genre is called ”Sturm und Drang”. It sounds way more cooler in German. Drang refers into deep emotional stress. Sturm und Drang was a movement in literature and music in late 18th century Germany and was largely influenced by Goethe´s writings and plays. There is a great emphasis on the faith of the individual and the movement was highly influenced by Shakespeare. Goethe´s Sturm und Drang plays were about very masculine Teutonic heroes which is probably what fascinated Louisa as an author. Jo´s first stories are poor attempts to capture the spirit of Sturm und Drang.
”Her story was full of desperation and despair as her limited acquaintance of those uncomfortable emotions enabled her to make it. Jo takes in consideration all the advice she gets from everyone around her instead of seeking advice from someone who could help her to improve as a writer. She goes against her own judgement when she knows that some of the advice she receives does not improve the story.
”So with Spartan firmness the young authoress laid her first-born on the table and chopped it up as ruthlessly as any ogre. In the hope of pleasing everyone she took everyone advice and like the old man and his donkey in the fable, it suited nobody. After submitting to bunch of magazines
Jo writes her first novel, which is a romance and it receives mixed reviews. Jo appreciates the feedback and learns from it.
”Her family and friends, administered, comfort and accommodation liberally, yet it was a hard time for sensitive high-spirited Jo, who meant so well and had apparently done so ill but it did her good, for those whose opinions had real value, gave her criticism which is author´s best education and when the first sourness was over, she could laugh at the poor little book, yet believe in it still, and feel herself yet wiser and stronger for the buffeting she had received”.
In chapter 34 when Jo enters to the publishing world in New York, she enters to the world that is male-dominated. Her sensational story is cut from third of it´s original length. Jo is frustrated the way Mr Dashwood wants to cut out all the morals away from the story and the morals are what Jo wishes to keep.
Eventually Jo agrees to these alternations to be made. Despite of her masculine shield, Jo is quite emotional internally even though she doesn´t like to show it and writing thrilling tales becomes distressing.
”She was living in a bad society, and imaginary thought it was, it´s influence effected, for she was feeding hard and fancy on dangerous and unsubstantial food and was fast brushing the innocent bloom from her nature, by a premature quittance of the darker side of life. Which comes soon enough to all of us.”
Fritz knows that Jo writes and he is curious about it but Jo is ashamed of her writings. She is adamant about using a pseudonym and she doesn´t tell anyone at home what she is doing and neither she has shown her stories to Fritz. Friedrich never criticisms Jo as a writer. He is criticizing the genre. Friedrich is honest.
He wants Jo to take herself seriously as a writer. The book Jo does not shout or argue with Fritz, unlike the movie Jo does because Friedrich expresses what Jo has been thinking all long.
As a result Jo burns her trashy novels, then the book Jo tries to write for children. It doesn´t feel right. Then she writes stories that only has moralities, that doesn´t feel right either. She jumps from one literal genre to another. Experimenting.
Friedrich does turn out to be a friend. He encourages Jo to study real-life people so she can develop her characters, and as a Christmas gift, he gives her a set of Shakespeare´s novels. Goethe, Louisa´s idol, would have had similar thoughts towards sensational stories that Friedrich had. Here is a quote from Megan Armknecht who has done some extensive research between Friedrich´s character and Goethe.
”Bhaer is trying to help Jo to become a genuine writer, instead of one who catered, to the whips of the crowd. This is something Goethe would have done. He disliked superficiality in people and in art and was through life frequently offended by the shallow pretensions, the false aims, writers who because they had some poetic sensibility and some gift of expression”.
Louisa credited Goethe being the one author who has thought me the most about creating and understanding characters. In the 1994 film Jo argues with Friedrich about her writings. Film kind of portrays Jo as an ultra-feminist when Jo says that too bad her writings are not good enough for Friedrich´s high morals, this is complete opposite to the book Jo, because book Jo and Friedrich, they have always shared the same morals. Some viewers of the 1994 film, have taken Jo´s side on the argument probably because of it´s ultra-feminism.
Here is a quote from a person who joined #teambhaer after becoming familiar with Friedrich for the first time through Greta Gerwig´s film and they got inspired to read the book.
”Never read or watched Little Women before this but I am so phenomenally found of Friedrich, just in general. But this is coming from someone who watched the 2019 film first and had no context prior to this. As a writer cinema-savy person, I was made aware of Gerwig´s cinematic parallelism of the past and the present during my watch and I could tell that there must have been something taken out of the equation. As a means to balance out Gerwig´s vision. Yet I took fondly of the man who was basically void of existence mid-movie barely on the fact that Gerwig´s method of narrative essential ism still had me appreciate his weight. In the same 2019 Jo summarized the entirety of her loneliness in a single sweep, as I later found out, she dedicated an entire chapter to such somber chills. I found that Friedrich´s clean sweep came down to lines that could be easily over-looked if one came from acting instead of script. ”But do you have anyone to take you seriously?”
To talk about your work, he was essentially the one meant to simply see her. That in a single line Greta Gerwig had essentialised his character. This correlates with the book Fritz.
”Now Mr Bhaer was a different man and slow to offer his opinions. Not because they were unsettled, but too sincere and earnest to be lightly spoken, as he glanced from Jo to several other young people attracted by the brilliancy of the philosophic pyrotechnics. He knit his brows and longed to speak fearing that some inflammable, young soul would be let astray by the rockets to find when the display was over”. Of course as I actually admitted it 2019 Friedrich, was my first version of Friedrich and he still managed to catch my attention, for all he was worth. It was nice reading book 2 and finding out that Alcott wrote him as a worthy addition, rather than a cop-out, as I´ve had the misfortune, to read criticism as of late, that I was shocked at all that anyone would argue otherwise".
This makes me wonder why Greta has spend so much time and energy bashing the book Friedrich while promoting her film. With just that simple line he is established as someone worthy of Jo´s love, Gerwig´s film has it´s focus how much Jo has discomforts with change, and the feedback scene doesn´t promote the ultra-feminism but Jo comes out more childish. She yells she never speaks to him again and it is not something that the book Jo would do. In the pbs series Friedrich actually yells at Jo. That is not something that the book Friedrich does.
Friedrich wasn´t biased to Jo when it came to his feelings, he knew she could do more and wanted her to be as good as she wanted to be. He sees her as an equal, as a woman with true heart and soul, a woman with talent. He isn’t easy on her but neither is he cruel to her when it comes to her writing. I think ultimately she appreciates that Friedrich never softened the blow but always treated her as someone who’s ideas and thoughts were meant to be listened to.
Here is another quote from chapter 27 literary lessons:
"that's just it. I've been fussing over the thing so long, I really don't know whether it's good, bad, or indifferent. It will be a great help to have cool, impartial persons take a look at it, and tell me what they think of it."
The whole chapter is about how Jo learns to define her craft from the feedback she receives, way before she meets Friedrich, and it foreshadows the arrival of Friedrich´s character. There is a longing to find a person who can not only give her constructive criticism but also encourage her to explore her capacity as a story teller. The 2018 film did pretty good job by making Bhaer Jo´s editor and a professor of literature, and so far it is only film where Jo listens and embraces the feedback she receives same way as the book Jo does.
Here is a quote from Edna Cheney who was one of the first Louisa May Alcott biographers
Louisa was always a creature of moods; and it was a great relief to work off certain feelings by the safe vent of imaginary persons and scenes in a story. She had no one to guide or criticize her; and the fact that these gambols of fancy brought the much-needed money, and were, as she truly called them, "pot boilers," certainly did not discourage her from indulging in them. She is probably right in calling most of them "trash and rubbish," for she was yet an unformed girl, and had not studied herself or life very deeply.
Pressure and mental health problems caused by Weekly Volcano
When I was doing this research I actually came appalled when I realized that the scene in Little Women where Jo is having a mental breakdown because of the stories that she has to write to weekly volcano, that is never in the films.
When Louisa was in her early twenties she wrote into a New York news paper called Frank Lesley´s weekly illustrated newspaper. Weekly Volcano is a caricature of that newspaper. We tend to have quite one-dimensional way of thinking what it comes to historical people because historical people had morals. Just like we have morals. Louisa was writing for money and writing for money it came with mental health problems. She had to look up things that made her feel uncomfortable. They had stories of men abusing women and some of the stories were racist and sexist. These things contradicted with Louisa and her own morals.
Which is why she quit. There is a literal quote in her journals where she writes about these moral struggles and her friend Emerson says hey you don´t need to write anything you don´t want to write and just like Jo in the book Louisa feels relieved when she stops. You can find this journal online. You can read it for free. All these script writers they have had access to read it over a decade.
Love for philosophy (and philosophers)
There has been lots of unnecessary stereotyping made towards Friedrich´s character. I will point out some of them, partly because they are truly ridiculous but also because they show how long journey we have to understand Louisa May Alcott´s world view.
In one supposedly "feminist" study that I read, the author pointed out that Bhaer having Shakespeare, Milton, Plato and Homer in addition to his German Bible in his bookshelf represent the way Jo is now a captive of the male power. Apparently if a fictional male character who happens to be a teacher of philosophy has books about philosophy in his bookshelf that must make him a sexist.
Louisa herself grew up reading books and teachings of these particular philosophers. Plato was actually one of the first philosophers who talked about gender equality.
Christine Doyle points out that throughout the book series Friedrich´s character represents the positive aspects of the German culture that the new immigrants embodied.
Well-read and well educated—Friedrich´s shelf contains volumes of Shakespeare, Milton, Plato, and Homer in addition to his German Bible—he is nevertheless remarkably unpretentious, darning his own socks, for example. at the gathering He is deeply religious, standing up for the importance of religion of intellectuals he and Jo attend. This is a particularly important detail since, unlike the working-class German immigrants, the German intelligentsia were highly suspect for their “godlessness,” and it is actually against proponents of Kant’s and Hegel’s intellectualism that Friedrich launches his defense of religion. Even the great supporters of German literature, the Transcendentalists, sometimes found it difficult to come to terms with what they read as immorality and even atheism
Movie Laurie´s missing arc
When Laurie starts to make his moves on Jo the book Jo feels very uncomfortable by that. She says no many times, but he doesn´t listen or respect her. In the book Jo is way more mature character than Laurie is but in the recent adaptations this is not the case.
In Greta Gerwig´s film after Jo has nearly confessed to Marmee that she is in love with Friedrich the film Jo suddenly decides to write Laurie and accept his proposal. One might argue that the open ending is a cop- out not to handle Jo´s loneliness and maximize the profits of the film by trying to please This does not happen in the book. everyone.
When Laurie proposes to Jo he says he wants Jo to take care of him and he doesn´t want Jo to continue writing when Laurie´s behavior becomes possessive it is now that Jo finally realizes what it feels like for a woman when someone does not respect your boundaries. Laurie guilt-trips Jo for a very long time and he makes fun of Friedrich even when he has never met him.
This is a common narrative in Louisa May Alcott´s novels. In Rose in Bloom Charlie wishes to marry Rose, because of her money. He is a lot like Laurie, a champ who everyone likes but he is also very sensitive and escapes himself to gambling and alcohol. Rose eventually falls for Mac who is basically a younger Scottish-American version of Friedrich.
In Work story of experience the protagonist Christie is courted by a man called Fletcher. A wealthy man who would like to own her and Christie feels very uncomfortable by his possessive behavior. There was no me-too campaigns in the 19th century. In true Alcottian style these men are all forgiven. Laurie goes through a process in which Amy plays an important part and thanks to her low bs level Laurie actually improves himself. Fletcher and Charlie are not so lucky and in their death beds they apologize to the protagonist. Laurie was never in love with Jo. He was looking for an excuse to keep their relationship as it was so that he would not have to grow or to take responsibility of his actions, but Jo wants to leave that toxic cycle they are in. Especially after she has returned from New York and opened her heart for Friedrich.
Laurie and the Friedrich archetypes in LMA´s novels
I am going to read you a quote from my friend Chelley and Chelley knows Louisa May Alcott´s books like their own pockets. "
"In my opinion Louisa May Alcott draws a lot deliberate similarities between characters like Laurie, Charlie in Eight cousins and Rose in Bloom, Tom in an old fashioned girl, Jack in Jack and Jill and Thorny in under the lilacs. All of whom are raised in relatively comfortable settings. Are kind hearten and clever, and talented but more than a little wild, and indolent, and are influenced whether for good or evil, most heavily by women. In Laurie´s case the Marches are explicitly referred to as a positive influence over him, but it´s Marmee, Jo and Amy who ultimately hold the most sway and each of their relationships with him represents some version of semi-domesticated feminine power; mother, sister the lover. Despite the stated importance of the first two influences however Laurie isn´t really inspired to better himself simply for the sake of being a better person growing up until he talks to Amy who instead of mothering him or spearing his feelings speaks to him honestly and tells him, he needs to grow up.
In Rose in Bloom Rose´s primary issue with Charlie is that Charlie is expecting her, the woman, to be the angel who saves him from himself, keeps him from harm and he repeatedly wounds Rose, by exploring her natural kind heart and desire to help. Louisa could have gone down that same route with Nat and Daisy, Tommy and Nan and Even Jo and Laurie or Laurie and Amy, but in all those other cases, she writes a story where woman requests to be afford the same respect they want, and expect that from their life partners, an d the men either shape up and meet them on equal footing or miss out".
Then there is the Friedrich archetype. That is Mac in Rose in Bloom, Friedrich in Little Women, John in Hospital Sketches, Adam in Moods, David in Work. The Friedrich archetype, he is usually older and more calm, self-reliant and more grounded than the Laurie archetype. There is silent passion for the protagonist. Desire to be on equal grounding with them. The idea that love beautifies a person and that when you are in a relationship with a right person you inspire each others to be better. This is a very common theme in Louisa May Alcott´s novels. In Friedrich´s case, he wants to be worthy of Jo. He applies to a job in the west so he can provide both for Jo and his nephews. In the equals you can very clearly see how well Jo and Fritz perfectly balance each others.
The Friedrich archetype is mainly based on Henry Thoreau. He was the great love of Louisa´s life. There was a very strong friendship between them. With Louisa and Henry there was almost a telepathic understanding between one another. Here is another quote from Chelley,
The love story of Mac and Rose in Rose in Bloom, is one of the most romantic ones in all of Louisa May Alcott novels and a lot of that hinges on that telepathic form of communication. It letters that sort of opens a window to their souls, to each other and they connect on an intellectual level that to them deepens the love. Silent passion is good way to describe it. I think the idea of Louisa May Alcott modeling her heroine´s love interest after men she admired in real life is almost tragically funny because while she is writing something and thinking here is the happy ending, our beloved protagonist learns life lessons and finds love and future happiness with a mate who is worthy and equal to her, a large portion of her readership is going ”she married that guy why?” because they are having trouble looking past the outward appearance and unfortunately I think a lot of people now days still miss her main point because they get so hanged up on who didn´t end up together, that they fail to see why the people who did end up together are right for each other and how that marriage based on love and trust and respect and similar goals was so radical for a time that emphasized financial stability and or upward mobility over personal happiness".
Love and Sex in Little Women
The fact that Louisa May Alcott was in love with Henry Thoreau and that she had a fling with young Wisniewski this is common knowledge. You can read about it from pretty much every single Louisa May Alcott biography and from online as well. For example Alcott scholar Susan Bailey who runs Louisa May Alcott is my passion blog, she has written tons of informative, fact-based articles on Louisa´s relationship with these men.
I am going to read you a quote from Marlowe Dailey-Galeone
”Alcott shows women finding their own empowerment and satisfaction through their writing, through their art, through their relationships with others. The way their structure domestic activities even in the way they are thinking about marriage as a partnership. Also Alcott anticipates discussion on women´s pleasure and fulfillment. When I teach little women I like to ask my students if they enjoyed the sex scene? This is a subtle but important scene of intimacy and pleasure after Meg and John have a discussion about finances, Alcott carefully includes a moment when Meg puts on John´s coat. The coat that he is only able to buy because she returns the dress and they have enough money. She puts on the coat, welcomes him home. Kinda racy. We might have missed it. What comes next is a blissful state of things, so she, Louisa, is engaging with the idea of pleasure. Again I think a nice thing to remember that in 1868 and 1869 Louisa May Alcott is thinking about this.
Louisa May Alcott and transnational family
Louisa May Alcott was a transcendentalist. Transcendentalism was a philosophical and Christian movement. Transcendentalism was based to the ideas of German philosopher Immanuel Kant and his ideology about the universal family. Belief that all nations can learn from one another. Transcendentalists they took this message to their hearts. If you know anything about 19th century world events and conflicts the transcendentalist were seen radical but they were also a head of their time. Getting familiar with other cultures was encouraged. The German immigrants were widely discriminated. Transcendentalist welcomed them. The most respected and valued literature, poetry and plays and art all came from Germany and Louisa´s whole world view was based on German philosophy.
The 2019 film has been criticized for not including the transcendentalist ideas and when Greta Gerwig was promoting her film, she made tons of xenophobic statements on Friedrich´s character. Him being German and him speaking with a German accent and how Greta Gerwig thought it was repulsive. All these xenophobic comments they don´t align with Louisa´s philosophy about transnational family and Greta Gerwig is a descendant of German immigrants herself. Some of the criticism what I have come across about Greta Gerwig is that she is reluctant to have minorities presented in her films. Which is very unfortunate.
When Jo decides to stop writing to the Weekly Volcano, she makes a remarkable realization. As a creator everything that she writes to her novels has either a good or a bad influence to her readership and she stops to think how much damage she has done by writing stories that conflicted with her own morals. She is not even paid well for those stories. Friedrich he represents the older Louisa and her whole transcendentalist world view. He reminds Jo who she is as a person and that she has a good heart. Jo grew up in a family that was always ready to help those in need and her mother took Jo and her sisters with them when she went to help the immigrant families and her father lost his job when he took a black child to his school. The Alcott´s were abolitionist and even hid black slaves at their home. Louisa had first hand witnessed people being discriminated because of their ethnicity.
Love beautifies a person
Gerwig also complained about Friedrich´s looks and this is the one thing that most people miss in Little Women. Katherine Hepburn and Paul Lukas from the 1933 film probably are closest to what the characters are written to look like. The whole point of the story is that love beautifies a person. Jo is not written to be beautiful but she finds Friedrich very attractive and he is attracted to her. Louisa was not particularly beautiful either. Even her fans were disappointed when they saw her. There is a hilarious scene in Jo´s boys. There is an adult fan who comes to meet Jo Bhaer. Jo´s and Friedrich´s son, he points out the portrait of his mother and this fan is like ”oh no! I expected her to be 15 and pretty and having pig tails. I don´t think I want to see her now, because she looks so mundane”. Laurie is written to be conventionally good looking character, but his actions over Jo are ugly. Films are sold with beautiful people, but I would be more worried about the way the film makers gloss over Laurie´s flaws.
Because of her looks, sometimes Jo feels herself as a freak and that she is not worthy of love. Friedrich basically tells to Jo that it is okay to be clumsy and unconventional and still be worth of loving.
Real life Laurie
Louisa met Ladislas ”Laddie” Wisniewski in Switzerland when she was working as a companion for an invalid woman called Anna Weld. Laddie was a 21 year old composer from Poland. He was very charming and he called Louisa his ”little mama”. He had tuberculosis and Louisa nursed him. Louisa was a trained nurse. He was flirting with Louisa. Something happened between Ladislas and Miss Weld. They got into an argument. Some believe that he tried to force her to sleep with him and others say that he proposed to her. There is an Alcott story called ”Anna´s whim”. There is a character who sounds just like Ladislas and he proposes a rich heiress called Anna. So maybe the proposal idea is not so far fetched.
This is what Louisa writes ”Anna troubled about Laddie who was in a despairing state of mind. I could not advice them to be happy as they desired. So everything went wrong and both worried”.
Previous diary markings suggest that Laddie had been flirtatious with Louisa and had even mentioned possible future together. Louisa had written that Anna Weld was ”whiny, needy, foolish, and didn´t have a glue about Goethe”. The tone of Louisa´s diary markings change. She begins to sympathize Anna and becomes more suspicious about Laddie. When Louisa writes ”could not advice them to be happy as they desired?” what does she mean? did Ladislas and Anna had suddenly become affectionate with one another. It is very unlikely because quite soon Ladislas announced that he was leaving. Imagine being Louisa. First this handsome young guy is flirting with you all the time and being romantic and then he proposes to your boss. Louisa was not rich at the time. She was not considered particularly beautiful and Louisa was about 32 when this happened. When her employment ended she went to Paris and spent a day with him without a chaperone, which was very scandalous and after that she wrote to her very censored journal words ”couldn´t be”.
If you guys have read little women 2019 film guide Greta Gerwig writes ”Jo and Laurie could be a great couple if they would like to be”. Well, it does seem that Louisa did not want it. This reminds me what Emily said in our Laurie podcast. When Laurie was proposing Jo, he was looking for someone to nanny him. Alcott biographer Harriet Reisen points out that perhaps Ladislas was a conman who prayed on wealthy women. There are things that suggest that Wisniewski might have been a conman. Louisa writes in her journal about his ”miraculous recovery from tuberculosis”. Tuberculosis killed millions of people and very conveniently, Ladislas is miraculously healed, just before he has this conflict with Miss Weld.
I don´t know if he was a conman or not but I do believe that he might have mistaken Louisa´s care for him as something romantic and that he did want her to nanny him, which is not something that you can build a healthy relationship on and I am pretty convinced that he was not on Louisa´s intellectual level and she could not rely on him being supportive on her writing.
Real life Friedrich
Susan Cheever writes in American Bloomsbury that every-time when Alcott´s moved back to Concord, Louisa would find herself loving Henry more and more every time when they returned. Louisa loved very masculine men. She writes in her journals that she loves soldiers and uniforms. She writes in her journals that Henry is the perfect man and there is a quote where she compares Henry to Napoleon and her friend Emerson to Goethe. In Little Women Friedrich is Jo´s sexual awakening. He is written to be more masculine and more mature than Laurie. He has a beard, big hands, deep voice. In Little Men the narrator even says that Jo loves very ”manly” men. There is some criticism over guys who are thin and more effeminate. Like Laurie and Nat. In Jo´s boys there actually quite many scenes where Jo and Friedrich are kissing and there is also a scene where they are making out. They are about to do the dirty and their sons come in and interrupt them. I am actually surprised that Louisa got away with that.
It is pretty fair to say that Louisa wanted someone on her side who could feed and stimulate her brain. Henry wasn´t a great looker but there was something about him because he had quite a few female admirers in Concord. Louisa was attracted to him but the most important aspect of that relationship was their similar interests and the intellectual connection that they had and they did spent a lot of one-on-one time together. She would visit him at his hut at the Walden´s pond. They took long nature walks, and he would often take her to boat trips. I have said this before and I say it again, the age difference between them was the same as between Jo and Friedrich, 16 years.
Henry passed away when Louisa was 27. Rest of her life with Ladislas, and other men and women who she encountered. She never found them to be even remotely as intellectually stimulating as Henry was. In Little Women Jo confesses to Friedrich that, he is her first love, and therefore the best.
Something I found very interesting in my Thoreau research, was that Henry and the whole Thoreau family, they had reputation that they despised gossip and supported individualism. This is something that Louisa admired. You can read from their journals that both Henry and Louisa often felt themselves as outsiders. Very similar to Jo and Friedrich who are connected by their feelings of outsiderness.
The self-censoring, it happens even in Little Women. It raises the question what is the intention of the author? In the book when Amy burns Jo´s manuscript it happens because Jo has been bullying Amy for weeks and she has had enough. Little Women is framed against Pilgrim´s process. A story where the protagonist learns to overcome their biggest flaws. For Jo her biggest flaw is her temper. Why would Louisa make her literal counterpart to face that if there was no intention? She is the creator and the one who controls the story? another explanation is that Louisa is censoring her own writing, because when Jo writes the story again, it becomes a lot better.
Second self censoring happens with Weekly Volcano. As I explained earlier Louisa used herself as an example but never admitted that. In the last Little Women book, Jo´s boys, when Jo has become a famous writer, she is very much against when her nephew Demi begins to write stories for a magazine. Jo does not approve. Almost like Louisa is echoing her own history with sensationalism.
Louisa began to self-censor her diaries when Little Women became a best-seller. As a writer she was marketed as ”the friend of all children”. It is also important to point out that in the 19th century sex was a taboo. There was times when Louisa struggled with the children book format because she preferred to write adult themes, especially after Louisa´s passing, the early Alcott scholars took everything that she had written literally, most of these people were completely unaware that Louisa had self-censored her own journals. Not only did Louisa write about her own love life in Little Women in literal disguise, she also wrote about her experience writing the sensational stories. We might even say that she wrote her biggest secrets to the novel. It is no wonder that she had very conflicted feelings about it. Some of us might be very eager to judge her for this, the way she tried to detach herself away from Little Women, but in the 19th century woman having a good reputation, that was a lot more valuable than all the money that they owned.
The idealization of masculinity
There is something that I would like to talk about. It is the heart core of studying Little Women, from the perspective of gender. That is the idealization of the masculine. In one of her journal markings Louisa has written ”I am a hero worshiper by nature”. If I quote one of my blog readers ”Jo was drowning into internalized misogyny”. Jo puts Laurie to a pedestal because Laurie is a boy. Laurie does the same to Jo, because she is the first person, who pays any attention to him. When Laurie is cat fishing Meg, Jo doesn´t see any problems in his behavior, and it´s actually Laurie who Jo feels bad for, and this has made many modern readers, female readers especially, quite upset. What we know about Louisa is that, she always preferred the male company rather than women. Friedrich is idealized for complete different reasons than Laurie. He is idealized because Jo is in love with him. When we get into the courting and the umbrella chapter, the roles are reversed between Jo and Friedrich and it is now Friedrich who openly admires Jo. Friedrich´s model of masculinity is different. He respects her boundaries and does not over-step them, and only makes his moves on Jo when he has Jo´s full consent. When Friedrich proposes to Jo he gives her German title ”Professorin”, which does not mean ”professors little wife” like it was translated into my older Finnish version of Little Women, it is German and means ”female professor” and by doing that Friedrich acknowledges Jo´s thirst for knowledge and considers her as his intellectual equal.
In both 1994 film and 2019 film Jo and Friedrich part in bad terms, but in the book they part as friends both wondering if it could lead into something more in the future.
”Early as it was he was at the station next morning to see Jo off and thanks to him, she began her solitary journey with the pleasant memory of a familiar face smiling it´s farewell, bunch of violets to keep her company and bets of all the happy thought ”well, the winter is gone and I´ve written no books, earned no fortune, but I´v made a friend worth having and I´ll try to keep him all my life”. Jo and Fritz spent the next two years writing letters to each others. Taking care of Beth forces Jo to re-evaluate her life. After Beth´s passing she goes through a period of depression, grief and loneliness. In the book right after Beth´s death, Laurie sends Jo a letter from Europe and proposes her again. This happens the moment when Laurie has realized he has feelings for Amy. Jo sends him a polite answer and refuses again. Laurie´s second proposal has never been adapted.
In the book shared looks continue when Friedrich comes courting.
”Though a very social man, I think Mr Bhaer would have gone decorously away and come again another day. How could he when Jo shut the door behind him and bereft him of his hat. Perhaps her face had something to do with it for she forgot to hide her joy at seeing him and showed it with a frankness that proved irresistible to the solitary man who´s welcome far exceeded his boldest hopes. Stealthy glance now and then refreshed her like sips of fresh water after a dusty walk. For the side-long peeps showed her propitious omens. Mr Bhaer´s face had lost the absent minded expression and looked all live with interest in the present moment, actually young and handsome, she thought”.
The Umbrella, Identification of selves
Shared looks were a big part of courting. When Jo comes to the realization that Friedrich has truly come to court her, Jo flushes. She becomes fully self-aware and she is quite pleased and thrilled by the idea.
Then we get into the third and the most important part of 19th century courtship. Identification of selves, mutual recognition of one another. Which in Little Women is the umbrella. Courting is usually rushed in the films. Friedrich in fact, visits the Marches for two weeks and during all this time he is hoping to see signs of love from Jo.
”For a forth-night professor came and went with a lover like regularity”. Then he stayed away for three whole days and made no signs for proceeding, which caused everybody to look sober and Jo to become pensive at first, and then alas for romance, very cross”.
The idea of loosing Friedrich has become petrifying. She goes to the German block to look for him, but he is nowhere to be found. It starts to rain and Jo is ready to burst into tears and then he is there.
”I feel to know the strong minded lady who goes so bravely under many horse-noses and so fast through much muss. What do you do down here my friend?”
Mr Bhaer smiled, as he glanced from the pickle factory on one side to the wholesale hide and letter concern on the other, but to her, he only said politely.
”You have no umbrella, may I go also and take for you the bundles”.
”Yes, thank you”.
Jo´s cheeks were as red as a ribbon, and she wondered what he thought of her but she didn´t care for in a minute, she found herself walking away arm in arm with her professor. Feeling as if the sun had suddenly burst out with uncommon brilliancy that the world was alright again and that one truly happy woman was basking through the wet that day.
Jo doesn´t have lots of experiences with men, so it makes sense that she is quite clumsy and awkward around him. In an earlier version of the script of Greta Gerwig´s film, Jo actually pulled down a chair when Fritz came to visit and and he fixed it in a very calm manner. At least they included the part of Jo, setting herself on fire, and the viewer finds out that Friedrich was just as clumsy.
”We thought you had gone” said Jo hasty, for she knew he was looking at her. Bonnet wasn´t big enough to hide her face and she feared he might think the joy of it betrayed unmaidenly.
Once again Jo flushes and she is very aware of his presence. The sharing of the interior lives happens while trying interpret the other persons tone and voice and gestures.
When Friedrich tells her about the new job and that he can now provide a better home for his nephews Jo is encouraged by the prospects.
”Indeed you should. How splendid it will be to have you doing what you like and be able to see you often and the boys” said Jo clinging to the lads as an excuse for the satisfaction. She could not help betraying.
”Ach, but we shall not meet often I fear, this place is at the west”.
”So far away” and Jo let her skirts to their faith”, as if did not matter now what became of her clothes, or herself.
Mr Bhaer could read several languages, but he had not learned how to read women yet. He flattered himself that he knew Jo pretty well and was therefore much amazed by the contradictions of voice, face and manner. Which she showed him in a rapid succession that day. For she was in half-dozen different moods in the course of half an hour. When she met him she looked surprised, though it was impossible not to suspect that she had come for that express purpose. When he offered her his arm, she took it with a look that filled him with delight but when he asked if she missed him, she gave such chilly formal reply that the despair fell upon him, but learning his good fortune she almost clapped her hands. Was the joy all for the boys? Then on hearing his destination, she said ”so far away” in a tone of despair that lifted him onto a pinnacle of hope but the next minute, she stumbled him down again, by serving like entirely absorbent in the matter.
The narrator points out the difficulties, of the mute courting, the narration of love. How to verbalize it through non-verbal clues.
When they go shopping Jo is very clumsy and Friedrich starts to see how Jo indeed goes by contradictions. In the store she hides her cried face into a shawl.
”Does this suit you Mr Bhaer” she asked. Turning her back to him, feeling deeply grateful, for the chance of hiding her face.
I actually always thought that this scene was very intimate. It gives me some serious 1995 Sense and Sensibility vibes.
The next moment she rummages the counters like a ”confirmed bargain hunter”. Jo´s pattern is to hide vulnerabilities into action, but Jo has got into a point where she is ready to let down all her walls.
”For now the sun seemed to have gone, in as suddenly as it came out, and the world grew muddy and miserable again and for the first time she discovered that her feet were cold. Her head ached and that her heart was fuller of pain than the ladder. Mr Bhaer was going away. He only cared for her as a friend. It was all a mistake, and the sooner it was over the better. With this idea in her head she hailed an approaching omnibus with such a haste gesture that the daisies flew out of the pot and were badly damaged”.
This is where we get into the culmination. The mutual recognition of one another.
”I beg your pardon. I didn´t see the name distinctly. Never mind, I can walk. I am used to paddling in the mud. Returned Jo winking heard, for she would have died, rather than openly wiped her eyes.
Mr Bhaer saw the drops on her cheeks though she turned her head away. The sight seemed to touch him very much, for suddenly stooping down he asked in a tone that meant a great deal.
”Hearts dearest why do you cry?”
Liking someone is scary. These two have liked each others for quite a long time. When you first bring somebody into your life, it is scary because you have to admit to yourself that you are fully open. Taking a step forward, to tell you love them, it´s like standing on an edge of a cliff. Jo and Friedrich are both standing on that cliff and when Jo opens up Friedrich tells her that he has already fallen hard.
”Now if Jo had not been new to this sort of thing, she would have said, she wasn´t crying, had a cold in her head, told any other feminine fib proper to the occasion. Instead of that undignified creature answered with and irresistible sob,
”because you are going away”
”Ach mein gott, that is so good” said Mr Bhaer, then he clapped his hands despite of the umbrella and the bundles.
”Jo I have nothing but much love to giv you. I came to see if you could care for it, and I waited to be sure that I was something more than a friend. Am I? Can you make a little place in your heart for old Fritz? he added all in one breath.
”Oh yes!” said Jo, and he was quite satisfied, before she folded both hands over his and looked up at him with an expression that plainly showed how happy she would be to walk through life beside him even though she had no better shelter but an old umbrella, if he carried it.
Friedrich wants to go on to his knees, but they are on the middle of the street covered in mud. It makes it difficult so they express their love by looking at each others and they no longer care about the surroundings. Jo calls Friedrich by his first name for the first time. Which delights him. He says that his sister was the last person calling him Friedrich. Poor man, that was five years ago. Friedrich also calls Jo as Jo and not as Miss March. The conversation is now open and tender. Louisa´s love for Germany continues when Friedrich asks Jo to use the word ”thou” instead of English ”you”. For those of you who don´t speak German, there is ”Sie” which is how you adress another person formally. Then there is ”Du” which is informal and in the 19th century context a much intimate. In old English ”thou” was the more intimate version of ”you”.
Friedrich shows Jo the poem that brought him to her. Poem is called ”in the garret” and Jo wrote it after Beth´s death, while feeling very lonely. In most adaptations, Friedrich has come bringing Jo her new book. Poem shows that Friedrich has taken the time to follow Jo´s career. When Jo asks what kept him away for so long, we find out that he has been looking for a job so that he could provide a home for Jo. This highlights Friedrich´s self reliance which is a value that Jo appreciates. Chapter ends into the very famous ”not empty now” line.
”I am glad you are poor. I could not bare a rich husband”. Then added in a softer tone. ”Dont´t fear poverty I´v known it long enough to loose my thread and be happy working for those I love and don´t call yourself old. 40 is the prime of life. I couldn´t help loving you if you were 70!
Professor found that so touching that he would be glad of his handkerchief. As he couldn´t Jo wiped his eyes for him and said laughing, as she took away a bundle or two. I may be strong minded but no one can say I am out of my sphere now and bearing burdans. I am to carry my share Friedrich, and help to earn the home. Make up your mind on that, or I´ll never go”. She added resolutely as he tried to reclaim his load.
”Ach, thou give me such hope and courage, I have nothing to give back but a full heart and these empty hands”. Sighted the professor quite overcome.
Jo never would learn to be proper. For when he said that as they stood upon the steps, she put both of her hands into his whispering tenderly. ”Not empty now” and stooping down kissed ”her Friedrich” under the umbrella.
Here is another quote from Christine Doyle.
”While Meg and John are the down to earth couple. Amy and Laurie are the romantics the artists. Jo and Friedrich combine the two. One of Friedrich´s most compelling qualities, is that he combines the domestic and the romantic heroism”.
Most 19th century courtship restrained from crossing the line until marriage, but that did not nessecarily mean that all relationships lacked passion. Lystra mentions that middle to upper middle class couples often did not take physical consummation until marriage. However during unchaperoned courtship, they would. Primary sources tend to suggest that during the 19th century sex became linked to sentimental love, especially for women. While women were supposed to be pure by nature, Lystra asserts that Victorians saw the sexual, spiritual and the moral in the concept of true love.
Here is a quote from Little Women fan Kymberly East:
”In the professor, Jo found a candidate for a kind of marriage she had not considered possible. A union between two people where freedom and partnership intertwine. In such a relationship, she didn´t have to sacrifice anything. As a matter of fact, she was able to realize a dream, that she otherwise may not have been able to achieve and in later books, she finds success as an author as well as providing a home for boys. Her liberation is completed and no sacrifice has been required of her”
Thank you for watching. Check out the episode me and Emily did about Jo´s and Friedrich´s relationship. Stay well and make good choices.
All the sources are listed 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.