Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women hardly needs summarising. It’s probably one of the most popular works of American fiction as well as a seminal feminist work, revolving as it does around mostly female characters, the March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—and their lives during the Civil War. As the war rages on in the background, the girls fight, make up, make new friends, and learn new lessons. Eventually, Meg and Amy get married, Beth dies, and Jo starts a boarding school for girls and boys and becomes a famous writer. Jo’s fierce independence, strong will, and clarity about her ambitions have made her a feminist icon, and she continues to be an endearing and enduring character among male and female readers alike.
A pivotal moment in Little Women is Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s, her best friend, marriage proposal, which eventually sends him into the arms of Amy. Laurie marries Amy while Jo marries the much older Professor Bhaer, who becomes her mentor and the co-founder of Jo’s school. Jo’s rejection of Laurie in favour of Bhaer was viewed as inexplicable even at the time of the novel’s publication, and it continues to baffle readers even today. The numerous film and TV adaptations of the novel have all tried to justify Alcott’s story choice (which she claimed she made because she got tired of people constantly asking when Jo and Laurie would get married), and all have succeeded or failed to varying degrees.
I remember being surprised about it myself when I read the book as a child; both have the same personality, the same interests, and the same likes and dislikes, so why didn’t they get married? However, a closer reading of the novel as an adult indicated that the pairings of both Laurie and Amy and Jo and Bhaer made sense given Laurie’s and Jo’s personalities and their different character trajectories throughout the novel.
The novel’s tight focus on the women (and especially Jo) means that Laurie is often given short shrift. This is a pity because Laurie is one of Little Women’s most interesting and underrated characters. We first meet him at the ball that Meg and Jo are attending, where he has taken refuge in an alcove. Born and raised in Europe by governesses and servants after the tragic early deaths of both his mother and father, Laurie is shy and awkward and has little experience interacting with people, especially women. When he meets Jo, he is captivated by her frankness and vivacity. Later, Laurie meets the entire March family in a scene that Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) brought to life with perfect direction and characterisation:
One commenter, xoxo, summed up Laurie’s feelings in this scene succinctly: ‘He fell on [sic] love with the entire family, the March house, even with their candles. LOL’. Indeed, Laurie, who has never known the love of parents, brothers, or sisters, is drawn to the March family immediately—so much so that his tutor, Mr Brooke, complains to Laurie’s grandfather that Laurie’s “always playing truant and running over to the Marches.”
Laurie’s affection for the March sisters runs deep. For example, he wastes little time in expressing disapproval at Meg’s outfit and drinking at the Moffat party, telling her frankly, “I don’t like fuss and feathers.” Similarly, Laurie praises Beth for getting over her shyness and coming to his house to play the piano, and later takes it upon himself to telegram Marmee to come home when Beth falls dangerously ill with scarlet fever.
Finally, it is Laurie who succeeds where Meg and Jo failed in persuading Amy to go and stay at Aunt March’s so that she doesn’t catch the fever from Beth. There, he visits her everyday and plays games with her or takes her out. Amy comes to depend on him so much that she asks him to bear witness to her ‘will’. As for Jo, she and Laurie become close friends almost immediately. They frolic together, share secrets, get into fights and make up, and generally spend nearly all their waking moments together until Laurie goes off to college and Jo leaves to be a governess in New York.
It is at this point that several key events occur. Having tried and failed to write a novel, Jo is not sure what her purpose in life is. In New York, Jo does write professionally, but her works are invariably thrillers and cheap romances intended for the broadest possible audience. The research needed to keep coming up with new material for such stories wears her down. It is at this point that she meets and befriends Professor Bhaer, a German teacher.
Bhaer is almost fifteen years older than Jo, and he gladly shares his life experience with her. He critiques her writing and gently admonishes her for writing schlock, instead telling her to write from the heart. Jo is touched by Bhaer’s solicitous attention to her and his self-respect and love for teaching despite his poverty. Jo is clearly at a point in her life where she’s looking for a mentor, and Bhaer fills the gap perfectly. By the time Jo returns to Concord and Laurie returns from college, she has already moved on from the kind of romantic love Laurie’s infatuation with her symbolises. She rejects his proposal, and Laurie leaves for Europe in a state of deep depression.
In Europe, Laurie wanders about aimlessly until he meets Amy (who has also gone to Europe as a companion to Aunt March), who criticizes him using some well-chosen words: “Do you want to know what I honestly think of you? I despise you… Because, with every chance for being good, useful, and happy, you are faulty, lazy, and miserable… You like gossip, and waste time on frivolous things, you are contented to be petted and admired by silly people, instead of being loved and respected by wise ones. With money, talent, position, health, and beauty… you can find nothing to do but dawdle.”
When Laurie responds that she’ll respond the same way to heartbreak, Amy is quick to ridicule him: “I’d take it manfully, and be respected if I couldn’t be loved.” These words get through to Laurie like nothing else did, pulling him out of his fog of depression, and he begins to see Amy in a new light. Later, in his room, he looks at a picture of Mozart and thinks, “Well, he was a great man, and when he couldn’t have one sister he took the other, and was happy.”
This may seem like a superficial conclusion for Laurie to arrive at, but it’s in keeping with Laurie’s characterisation in Little Women. Laurie was never just in love with Jo; he was in love with the Marches from the very first moment he met them. Laurie has a habit of comparing every woman he meets to the March girls, and he has few kind words to say about Annie Moffat, Sallie Gardiner, or Kate Vaughn. In an earlier scene, he even complains to Jo about the kind of women he meets in college: “Between ourselves, Jo, some of the girls I know really do go on at such a rate I’m ashamed of them.”
It is clear that Laurie had unconsciously made up his mind to become a part of the March family a long time ago, and the transference of his affections from Jo to Amy is not as surprising as many readers have found it to be. His love for Amy is a pragmatic love; he sees her as a friend and companion and, most important, as a conduit to the March family.
Back in Concord, after Beth dies, Jo pines for her own pragmatic lover, Professor Bhaer. Reading an old note from him, she thinks sadly, “So kind, so good, so patient with me always, my dear old Fritz. I didn’t value him half enough when I had him, but now how I should love to see him, for everyone seems going away from me, and I’m all alone.”
Not long after, a newly married Laurie arrives. Laurie and Jo have a frank talk, and Laurie puts across his rationale for marrying Amy in clear terms: “I never shall stop loving you, but the love is altered, and I have learned to see that it is better as it is. Amy and you changed places in my heart, that’s all. I think it was meant to be so, and would have come about naturally.” Laurie’s admission frees Jo of her guilt of rejecting him, and she is able to put the notion of romantic love behind her, as though “shut[ting] the covers of a lovely romance, which holds the reader fast till the end comes, and he finds himself alone in the workaday world again.”
When Bhaer comes looking for Jo in Concord, she is ready for him and accepts his proposal of marriage. Whether she would have been happy with Laurie is a difficult question to answer, but Marmee’s opinion on Laurie and Jo as a couple is very revealing: “I don’t think you are suited to one another. As friends you are very happy, and your frequent quarrels soon blow over, but I fear you would both rebel if you were mated for life. You are too much alike and too fond of freedom, not to mention hot tempers and strong wills, to get on happily together, in a relation which needs infinite patience and forbearance, as well as love.”
It is precisely because of their ‘hot tempers’ and ‘strong wills’ that Jo and Laurie need Bhaer and Amy to keep them in check. With Bhaer’s patient and edifying guidance, Jo is free to live the kind of life she had envisioned for herself, becoming a famous writer and the founder of a school for poor children. Similarly, under Amy’s cultured and sobering influence, Laurie becomes a successful businessman. In the end, therefore, the pairing of Laurie and Amy and Jo and Bhaer is the triumph of pragmatic love over romantic love.