Little Women ends where it begins, in the offices of publisher Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts).
At the opening of Greta Gerwig’s film, Jo (Saoirse Ronan) stands at Dashwood’s door, psyching herself up to go in and sell a short story she won’t even claim as her own. And as the movie approaches its conclusion, two years later, she returns to sit at his desk and argue over the fate of the heroine of a novel she’s been writing — will she marry, or will she remain unwed? Jo points out that the character has firmly and repeatedly expressed a lack of interest in matrimony. Dashwood counters that readers would find such an outcome unacceptable: “If you end your delightful book with your heroine a spinster, no one will buy it. It won’t be worth printing.” We understand that it’s not just the ending of the novel they’re fighting over; it’s become clear that the book Jo’s been struggling to write all this time is actually Little Women itself. They’re battling over what will happen in the movie we’re watching — whether this hybrid version of Jo, who owes as much to author Louisa May Alcott as to Alcott’s most famous character creation, will end up like the character on the page or the real woman who wrote her.
It’s been hard to buy the scattered complaints that Gerwig’s ingenious restructuring of Alcott’s novel has somehow turned the story into a puzzle box requiring intense concentration to decode. Gerwig’s version of Little Women leaps back and forth in time, but it’s not exactly Lost. Having the saga of the March sisters unfold nonchronologically doesn’t make it harder to follow so much as it asks the audience to start with different associations for each sibling. We’re introduced to Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and Amy (Florence Pugh) as separate adults — as, respectively, a married mother of two, a writer and tutor living in the city, an invalid, and an art student abroad in Paris. They begin as individuals so that when the movie returns to their shared childhood, growing up in genteel poverty in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1861, we understand how their formative experiences inform their later choices — their whole “story of domestic struggles and joys.”
The only sequence in the movie that offers true uncertainty is the ending, and it does so deliberately and with a decided lack of resolution. By that point, Little Women has just about caught up with itself, the parts of the past it has been jumping back to coming closer and closer to its present. Before we get to the grand finale, there’s one last flicker of a flashback, to Jo’s initial meeting with Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), the German professor she weds in the novel, on the steps of the New York boarding house they both share, and under the roof of which they’ve developed a friendship with a possibility for more. After that, the movie is done hopping between timelines. Instead, what used to be the present story line becomes the past as the movie skips forward. Or maybe that’s not what happens, and maybe what we see at the end is not the juxtaposition of two different points in time, but two different realities — the ending that Jo wrote for her stand-in on the page, and the path she chose for herself in her actual life.
So in one scene we see Bhaer, clearly looking for an excuse to see Jo again, arriving at the March home for a lovesick impromptu visit, the family howling for Jo to chase after him when he eventually says good-bye and departs. Then we cut to the Dashwood household, where the initially dismissive publisher realizes he might have a hit on his hands when his daughters rush into the room clutching Jo’s manuscript and demanding to know what happens next. Then back to the carriage that a giggling Amy and Meg are using to rush Jo to the station to stop the man she loves from leaving for good. And, finally, we’re in Dashwood’s office, for that fateful discussion. Here, Dashwood’s query as to why the book’s heroine didn’t end up with her beloved childhood friend Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) echoes that of many an aggrieved Alcott reader over the years. Jo’s concession that the character will end up with someone — “I suppose marriage has always been an economic proposition. Even in fiction” — echoes a line Amy said earlier to Laurie. It’s a reminder, maybe, of who the author of that scene was supposed to be.
When the movie drops us from this negotiation back to the train station again, glowing in the night, it’s unclear if what we’re watching is something that’s taking place in Jo’s life, or if it’s part of the semi-autobiographical book she’s been writing. The music swells, and what happens is the age-old stuff of cinema, the big finish — the racing through the rain, the frantic searching through the crowd, and the kind of glorious kiss that has, in the long history of movies, always been used to signal a happily ever after. It’s a swooning clinch good enough to be shown in two angles. In Gerwig’s script, the scene header notes that “THE PRESENT IS NOW THE PAST. OR MAYBE FICTION,” an ambiguity that comes through in the way it looks on camera as well. Though it’s part of the timeline that has, until this point, had a cool tint to mark it as the present, the scene has the warm tones of memory — or of fabrication.
Alcott herself never married. One of the lines that Gerwig gives to Jo in the movie — “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe” — is actually the author’s own. She didn’t intend for Jo to marry either, and clashed about this with her own publisher, not to mention her readership. As she wrote to a friend after the first part of Little Women was published, “so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare refuse & out of perversity went & made a funny match for her.” Bhaer is, in that light, an ornery response to an audience Alcott saw as treating marriage “as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life.” If Jo had to be paired with someone, she decided, it would be with an older, absentminded man who shames her out of writing the commercial fiction with which she’d been making a living. In the book, Bhaer’s proposal is sweetly awkward — no climactic running through the 19th-century equivalent of an airport terminal — while they’re out doing errands in town, he with his hands full of shopping, she bedraggled and damp.
Of all the affectionate tweaks that Gerwig makes to her source material, it’s what she does with Bhaer that feels most telling — a way of navigating all the complicated currents of what constitutes a satisfying conclusion for characters pushing against the constraints of what’s expected of them as women. The Bhaer in the movie isn’t all that much like the one on the page — he isn’t, to use Alcott’s word, quite so perverse a pick. For instance, the literary Bhaer is not a dreamboat played by French actor and director Garrel, but a stout, bearded fellow whom Jo describes as someone who “hadn’t a really handsome feature in his face.” When, in the movie, the character ungently criticizes Jo’s writing, he does so not to chastise the moral qualities of her writing (like Bhaer does in the book) but to suggest she’s wasting her talent on material unworthy of it. And most importantly, in the movie we see Bhaer with Jo before we ever see her with Laurie. He’s linked to a bustling New York overflowing with immigrants and with life. Their dance at the beer hall sets up their relationship as one that’s not about a reluctant surrender to domestic obligations but as filled with the promise of the new.
After a scene in which Jo haggles over payment for and the copyright of the novel, the movie cuts between two more sequences. In one, Jo watches as her book is being printed and bound. In the other, all of the characters are gathered at Plumfield Academy, the school Jo has set up in the house left to her by grouchy Aunt March (Meryl Streep). The latter scenes, in the script, are labeled “FICTION(?),” and can be interpreted as representing the ending of the book Jo wrote rather than the life she went on to lead, one that might find her contentedly single and focused only on her career as an author. But what’s particularly lovely about Gerwig’s maybe-maybe-not ending is that there’s no need to make that call. Maybe they’re two separate possibilities, maybe one’s fiction and one’s fact, and maybe they’re able to coexist. Gerwig leaves the top spinning, letting us appreciate that her character doesn’t need to be married off to get a happy ending, while allowing that sometimes you just want to see a passionate kiss in the rain as well. As Dashwood puts it, “It’s romance!” And as Jo puts it, “It’s mercenary!” Like so many things in life, it’s actually a little of both.