“Little Women” and the Marmee Problem

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From The New Yorker:

The house is busy, happy, trimmed for the holidays. Laura Dern trips through the warm domestic chaos and trills over her shoulder, “Just call me Mother, or Marmee. Everyone does!” She’s introducing herself to Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), but also to us, the audience for Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of “Little Women.” The setting is cozy, the women dressed in to-die-for knits and linens (the socks alone!), and the introduction is not inaccurate. In the novel,the elder Margaret March does generally go by Marmee, just as Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s mother, did. These are well-loved, and excellently loving, women. Yet, Marmee? The word occasions a shudder. It’s sentimental, sexless, without drive. It’s sticky and cloying. The tagline for the new film is “Own your story.” Can a Marmee do that?

Marmee rarely figures in the most pleasurable contemporary discussions or interpretations of “Little Women.” She’s not usually featured in the personality quizzes. There’s no essay devoted to her in “March Sisters,” the wonderful recent essay collection about the novel. It has only been relatively recently that the real-life Marmee’s sharp wit and insight have received sustained critical attention at all (namely in Eve LaPlante’s groundbreaking work on Abigail Alcott’s journals and letters). Yet Marmee is central to the story that Louisa May Alcott wanted to tell. “Little Women” is about four sisters trying to make the leap from girlhood to womanhood. The plot is theirs. But the ending, Alcott was clear, is Marmee’s, because her girls, each in their own way, both love and despise what’s waiting for them at the end. The prospect of becoming a Marmee, “Little Women” tells us, is simultaneously an aspiration and a threat. Marmee is at once far more interesting than many readers may recognize and also a major narrative problem.

. . . .

Gerwig has said that she found inspiration in Marmee’s shocking confession of anger to Jo. “I am angry nearly every day of my life,” she declares, after Jo has almost let her sister Amy drown in an icy pond. Gerwig’s is only the second adaptation ever to commit the incredible line to film (the first was Vanessa Caswill’s BBC version, from 2017). And the new film’s main innovation—its deconstructed chronology—is well-suited to reveal what Marmee and the girls might be angry about. When Gerwig cuts directly from Beth’s funeral to Meg’s wedding day (in the novel, these events do not occur in this order), the film makes a very broad point: marriage is a kind of death. The point is humorously underscored in smaller moments, too, in multiple scenes of sharp-witted middle-aged women barely suffering their foolish husbands.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

PG looked up the context for the “angry” quote from Little Women. Here it is from The Literature Page:

“Watch and pray, dear, never get tired of trying, and never think it is impossible to conquer your fault,” said Mrs. March, drawing the blowzy head to her shoulder and kissing the wet cheek so tenderly that Jo cried even harder.

“You don’t know, you can’t guess how bad it is! It seems as if I could do anything when I’m in a passion. I get so savage, I could hurt anyone and enjoy it. I’m afraid I shall do something dreadful some day, and spoil my life, and make everybody hate me. Oh, Mother, help me, do help me!”

“I will, my child, I will. Don’t cry so bitterly, but remember this day, and resolve with all your soul that you will never know another like it. Jo, dear, we all have our temptations, some far greater than yours, and it often takes us all our lives to conquer them. You think your temper is the worst in the world, but mine used to be just like it.”

“Yours, Mother? Why, you are never angry!” And for the moment Jo forgot remorse in surprise.

“I’ve been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.”

The patience and the humility of the face she loved so well was a better lesson to Jo than the wisest lecture, the sharpest reproof. She felt comforted at once by the sympathy and confidence given her. The knowledge that her mother had a fault like hers, and tried to mend it, made her own easier to bear and strengthened her resolution to cure it, though forty years seemed rather a long time to watch and pray to a girl of fifteen.

“Mother, are you angry when you fold your lips tight together and go out of the room sometimes, when Aunt March scolds or people worry you?” asked Jo, feeling nearer and dearer to her mother than ever before.

Perhaps PG is missing something, but he takes the quote in context to mean that Marmee becomes angry on a regular basis, but exerts control over her anger so it isn’t apparent to her daughters or other people.

Given the place that Marmee has in her daughters’ lives and the book, PG thinks Marmee’s control of her anger is, in Ms. Alcott’s eyes, a trait to be admired and emulated.

“The knowledge that her mother had a fault like hers, and tried to mend it, made her own easier to bear and strengthened her resolution to cure it . . . .”

PG understands that persons of a wide range of genders, races and ethnic origins are all supposed to be angry with the circumstances of their lives in 2019 (and likely 2020 as well), but to find lessons for the modern age that seem to justify harboring anger of any sort and blaming others for that condition, either by the oppressor category de jour or whoever has upset oneself most recently seems to him to be exactly contrary to the virtue Marmee is manifesting and attempting to teach her daughters.

Would the girls be better off if Marmee were losing her temper and cursing the world every time she was upset by something another person said or did instead of counseling her daughter, “Jo, dear, we all have our temptations, some far greater than yours, and it often takes us all our lives to conquer them.”

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