What ‘Little Women’ Taught Me About Love

How do you know when you’ve become an adult? Sure, you could say “on my eighteenth birthday, because that is the day I reached the age of legal majority,” but being an adult and feeling like an adult are two very different things. Here’s the moment when I felt like an adult: when I reread Little Women for the umpteenth time and finally understood why Jo chose Professor Bhaer over Laurie.

Like most little girls who want to be writers when they grow up, I loved Jo unfailingly. And even though I knew the story by heart, I still cried anew every time Beth died, as if perhaps on the next reading she’d finally make it. But I also adored Laurie, his wild days in Europe only adding to his mystique, and was convinced that he and Jo were soulmates. I viewed Bhaer – old, boring Bhaer – as Jo’s Plan B. I’m pretty sure that my huge crush on Christian Bale (who played Laurie to Winona Ryder’s Jo in the 1994 film version) also had something to do with this preference.

However, when I reread the book in my early 20s, something seemed to snap. I was just out of yet another relationship with a guy who was exciting but created more drama than he was worth. Bhaer appeared to me in an entirely new set of colors: he wasn’t old, he was distinguished. And unlike Laurie, who still idealized the version of Jo who existed in his head, Bhaer saw Jo as a real, live woman. Laurie is the kind of boy we love when we are young; Bhaer is the kind of man we love when we are grown up. Once I read Little Women‘s two sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys, about the boys’ school Jo and Bhaer open and run, I saw even more that Jo and her husband had a partnership. They both contributed to the marriage. Bhaer not only loved Jo as she was, he inspired her to become a fuller person – reading, learning, and growing into adulthood. Considering that Little Women was published in 1868 (that would be 142 years ago today, actually), it’s even more revolutionary that Louisa May Alcott was able to show a true marriage of equal partners.

While it may seem romantic to be put up on a pedestal, it ultimately gets really hard to climb down from there once in a while. It’s wonderful to have a Laurie for awhile, but it can’t last forever. Recently, a friend of mine broke up with a guy she’d been dating who “treated her like a character in a Jane Austen novel.” While it was flattering to be treated like a delicate glass doll for awhile, it made it hard to be in a practical relationship. People in a relationship can – and should – call each other beautiful. But sooner or later they also have to talk about where they’re going to live, whether they’re going to have kids, and whose turn it is to take out the trash. Having those kinds of conversations with the person you love doesn’t make your star-crossed courtship less romantic, but it does mean that you two see each other as full, complicated people, instead of one-dimensional characters.

Also, you know who else is hot? Gabriel Byrne.

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    • Jennifer Wright

      Where was the passion, with Professor Baher, Lilit? Where was the passion? It may not last forever, but didn’t Jo at least deserve the memory of it? Also, your friend made the right decision, but that’s because Jane Austen characters suck, not for any non-Laurie related reason.

      • Lindsay Hartman

        Jen, normally we agree. But on this point, I think you’re wrong. I love the Jane Austen women and I always will. And Jo will always have the memory of Laurie, and the memory is enough. Not everyone is meant to be in our lives forever. Jo had to grow up and find someone who suited a woman, instead of a little girl.

    • porkchop

      By 1994, I’d been indoctrinated by A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Witch of Blackbird Pond, where I’d already learned that marrying for love means a life of ceaseless toil. So when I saw Little Women, I naturally went for Laurie because he had money. However, he was a spineless pretty boy, and I was swept off my feet by Gabriel Byrne’s rugged good looks and foreign accent. So I had the exact opposite experience with Little Women.

      I knew I was grown up when I had a friend who’d been divorced.

    • Eileen

      I thought Bhaer made a better husband for Jo than Laurie/Teddy/whatever would have, but I didn’t quite get what Jo saw in him that made her want to be his wife. Actually, I never saw why Jo wanted to be a wife at all – or why Amy would so happily accept her sister’s hand-me-down boyfriend. Even if she hadn’t been my favorite, I think I always would have considered Meg to have made the best match.

      • Lilit Marcus

        I think I read somewhere that Alcott originally wanted to leave Jo single, but came up with the Bhaer character because she didn’t think the audience would want the book to end with the heroine unmarried.

    • Shae

      I’m a big fan of that smoldering, slow-burn passion, myself. Professor Bhaer and Jo had that – I was always so surprised that no one else saw the tension there. Laurie and Jo never had that sort of tension, no slow-burn – it was all quick flame. Something else that people never seem to remember is that Jo never felt the same way for Laurie as he did for her – she says it very clearly that she will never love Laurie the way he wishes her to.

    • Sherri

      I know what you mean about seeing the books you loved differently as an adult. I had a serious jones fro the Phantom of the Opera. Listening to it again after a 5 year hiatus The Phantom just seemed like a leacherous old creep instead of a romantic, dashing wronged hero. It was a wake up call.