Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Transcendentalist Ideals of Love and Marriage in 1994's Little Women

My loving husband gave me one of my Christmas gifts early last night. The soundtrack to the 1994 film adaptation of Little Women. I've been listening to it, and thinking about how much I love that movie. I know that this film is not the most faithful to Alcott’s text, but that’s mostly because the storyline was condensed and the tone of the film seemed a little more modernized. It doesn’t matter to me though because this film is the reason I fell in love with the story, and with the concept of Transcendentalism.

In short, Transcendentalism was a movement that came about in the first half of the 19th century in New England, and it professed that divinity is found in all aspects of nature and humanity. It was a progressive movement, especially in terms of women’s rights. As Professor Bhaer tells Jo “We throw off our constraints and come to know ourselves through insight and experience”, meaning that we can better ourselves by reflecting on what we have done and making conscious efforts to improve our future actions.

During her life, Alcott was flooded with letters from young girls who desperately wanted to know why Jo had not married the boy next door when he was so obviously in love with her. As I think more and more about my own ideas of love, and how they have matured as I have grown and become a married woman, I have my own theories about the theme of Transcendentalism and how it’s at work in the love/marriage plot points of Little Women.

Meg: Meg is the oldest girl, and unlike her sisters, she can actually remember what it was like when the family had a disposable income. Although she tries to make the best of her family’s situation, and tries to be a positive role model for her sisters, she is disappointed that she misses out on the finer things. In the film, she looks wistfully at the Lawrence house and says “I shouldn’t mind living in such a fine home and having nice things.” And of course there is the infamous scene at the Boston debutante party, during which she sips champagne and flirts and wears a much more revealing dress than she would otherwise, imagining what it must be like to have “four proposals, and twenty pairs of gloves”.

While it’s clear that she would enjoy a life made easier by money, she decides to marry for love. When Jo insensitively criticizes her fiance, John Brooke, Meg defends him: "He’s a good man. He’s kind and serious, and I’m not afraid of being poor.” Meg goes on to marry John Brooke, and later welcome their twins, Daisy and Demi.

Amy: Amy, being the youngest girl, is a little spoiled.

She is like Meg in her desire for a fine home and fashion trends, but because she is the youngest, she has never had to act as a role model for anyone, and thus she has not matured like Meg must have, years beforehand. While Amy is studying painting abroad, she is courted by Fred Vaughn, a Harvard chum of Laurie’s. Laurie learns of their courtship during a chance meeting in France, and when he questions her about her hopes she informs him that she expects a proposal “any day now.” He intuits that while she respects Fred, and certainly enjoys the prospect of a life of wealth, that she does not actually love him. Although he had been haplessly wandering around Europe, while spending money and courting women of his own, Laurie decides to make himself worthy of proposing to Amy, and goes to London to establish himself in his family’s business, asking her to not to do anything they might regret (like, marry someone else). It would have been very easy for Amy to marry Fred Vaughn, certainly a respectable man, and go on to live a life of ease, but Laurie’s request forces her to reflect on her options. Perhaps rather than choosing the easiest, and surest option, she should consider one that will take longer and might not bring as much money as the other, but represents love rather than security.

Laurie: Laurie enjoys a friendship with the March family from the beginning of his time in Concord. He plays with them, helps them, even spoils them a little, and most of his actions are in the spirit of brotherly love. When Meg confides in him that she envies the other girls at the debutante ball, he whole-heartedly tells her : "You're worth ten of those girls." He proposes to Jo, claiming to have fallen in love with her from the moment he clapped eyes on her.

She tells him that even though he is her dearest friend that she cannot marry him. Basically, she loves him, but she’s not in love with him. And when I think about the story, I’m not sure that Laurie’s really in love with Jo. To him, Jo is perfection, and I don’t think that equals true love. If Laurie and Jo had married, I’m sure they would have had alot of fun, but since they’re not in love, they never would have tried to improve themselves for the sake of each other. Laurie needed Amy, and the idea of losing her, to push himself into entering the family business and make himself a providing husband.

Likewise, Amy needed Laurie to make herself understand that being in love with someone is not easy.

Jo: Jo is obviously the March girl who becomes closest to Laurie (at least at first). Their friendship develops easily and naturally and is marked with much playing and laughing and good conversation. It’s no wonder that she refers to him as her dearest friend.

But Laurie accepts all her flaws without question, and when he proposes to her, she is still far too young to understand the realities of adult love and marriage. It’s not until she makes the acquaintance of Friedrich Bhaer that she finds a man who is going to challenge her and inspire her to grow. Not because he demands it, but because she loves him and wants to grow with him. Now, instead of doing the same things she’s always done, like ice skate and act out plays, she writes a novel and attends the opera and begins making plans to found a school, alongside someone who has taught her.

With Jo’s own maturing ideas about love, she also becomes more accepting of others. She first criticizes John Brooke for being “dull as powder” and and brattily asks Meg “Can’t you at least marry someone amusing?”, and later she realizes that a good marriage is more than having fun.

Falling in love is perhaps the easiest thing; it happens without us even trying or thinking about it. But being in love with someone, whether you’re actually married or not, is something that requires a great amount of effort. The practices of Transcendentalism are at work not only in the actual dialogue of the movie, but can also be interpreted in the more subtextual elements regarding the themes of love, courtship and marriage. In each character's story, they had to look within themselves and decide to overcome a shortcoming or a flaw, and make the conscious choice to grow in order to enjoy happiness in love.

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