aWhy 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 ”harrow 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.
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.