Sunday, October 9, 2011

On Jo and Professor Bhaer

One of the most controversial pairings in classic children's literature is that of Jo March and Friedrich Bhaer in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. I often see people lamenting the fact that Jo didn't end up with Laurie, her childhood friend, but instead fell for a much older professor.

I've pondered whether this disappointment on the part of readers is a result of some flaw in the writing, or is it just that women's expectations of marriage have changed over the decades since Little Women was first published? Or was Alcott's idea of a successful marriage just different from that of her readers?

The reasons that Jo accepts Prof. Bhaer and not Laurie are clearly articulated in the text of Little Women. While Jo and Laurie have great fun together, they also fight frequently. Additionally, Laurie is handsome, accomplished and wealthy; he enjoys music and seems to enjoy the social life. Jo is more of an introvert; social obligations bore her and make her feel awkward. When Laurie proposes, Jo answers, "'I'm homely and awkward and odd and old, and you'd be ashamed of me, and we should quarrel,--we can't help it even now, you see,--and I shouldn't like elegant society and you would, and you'd hate my scribbling, and I couldn't get on without it, and we should be unhappy, and wish we hadn't done it, and everything would be horrid!'"

Jo's answer should please the modern reader to this extent: She knows herself. She sees the points of incompatibility between herself and Laurie, how their respective needs would not mesh, and she has no desire to spend her life trying to become what she is not. This view is seconded by her mother, who says, "'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.'"

This is where I think today's audiences are disappointed: they want passion. "Infinite patience and forbearance" are not nearly as exciting, even if Mrs. March is right about their necessity in a marriage. Jo and Prof. Bhaer have a quiet love. They start as friends; they have a mutual respect and enjoy each other's company. Their affection is more the tender, steady sort. As a reader, I confess that I like the Jo-Bhaer match a lot more than many other Little Women fans do. (In the interests of full disclosure, I'll say that I also married someone several years older than I, but since we both act like teenagers a good deal of the time, it's rather different from Jo's match.) I happen to agree with Jo and Mrs. March that lifetime commitment requires more than just sparks, and I have a hard time seeing Jo and Laurie being happy together beyond the honeymoon.

But one thing this controversy does is to raise an interesting question for readers to ask themselves: Do you like the Jo-Bhaer match? If not, what do you think it lacks? Would Jo-Laurie really have worked? It can lead to fruitful discussions about what we look for in relationships, and what we need in a long-term relationship. And it can lead writers to think about our fictional couples, and what draws them together or breaks them apart.