FICTION(?) INT./EXT. PLUMFIELD ACADEMY. DAY. 1871.
Jo is supervising a great number of rambunctious girls and boys of all races and ages. They are finishing lessons for the day, and everyone runs outside at full speed.
Jo makes her way down the stairs and is handed a homemade cake by one of the children. She kisses him on the head and continues through what she’s built. Every inch of the school is covered with the students’ work, all of the former stuffiness is gone. She’s in her heaven. — Excerpt from the conclusion of Greta Gerwig’s 2019 screenplay Little Women
While we often think of the dramatic kiss under the umbrella between Jo and Fritz as the climax of Little Women, neither Alcott’s classic novel nor Gerwig’s film adaptation end with romance. It is a birthday party for Mrs. March, aka Marmee, on the premises of Plumfield Academy, that fills the final scenes. Aunt March’s old stuffy mansion has been transformed into a progressive school. A ragtag bundle of children—family members as well as students, their relationships indistinguishable—gather to celebrate. They work together in typical March fashion to create a party for the matriarch, complete with music, theater, and a homemade cake. The joyous picture illustrates a fact: Jo has managed to find a sense of settledness and peace at home. She still has her spark and spunk, but it has simmered into confidence and peace as she directs her enterprise. This comes not by recreating her own cozy childhood and becoming Marmee, but through expanding her home and work outward into the world by creating a little school. She blurs the edges of public and private, creating a space where strangers and outsiders become part of the family, where creativity and individuality flourish, and where imagination thrives. This is the climax. Yet in her screenplay, Gerwig types this scene in red ink and titles it FICTION (?).
While Little Women is in many ways based on Alcott’s own life, it’s still a novel. I’m not sure what to call this genre of writing, where authors pull heavily from their own experiences, yet fictionalize key parts of it. Autobiographical fiction? Autobiographical novels? Or, perhaps as Gerwig calls it, just FICTION (?). In these works, I’m always in conversation with the author’s life, trying to tease out what is real, what was imagined, and why. They invite the sort of armchair psychologizing so discouraged by true literary critics, who want the piece to stand on its own. Gerwig acknowledges this link between biography and fantasy, opening her screenplay with a quote from Alcott: “I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.”
Writing a jolly tale. This is what Alcott aims to do with her story, as her depiction of Plumfield Academy shows. Rather than creating a far-off fantasy or fairy tale as she did in her first novel, Flower Fables—which didn’t do very well—she fictionalizes real life, reinventing and reimaging circumstances and happy endings on paper that she didn’t experience. The many progressive schools her father tried to start were not nearly as successful as Plumfield, but it’s clear she believes in the ideals and wants this vision to work.
Mirroring Alcott’s own life, Jo is not afforded any grand, exciting adventures. She does not have the opportunity to pursue her education and laments when Laurie leaves for college. She writes in scraps of time after working for Aunt March or nannying in New York City. Alcott herself worked at a small half-moon desk in her room after spending her days nannying, cleaning, nursing, or doing whatever she could to pay the bills for her family. She often wrote late into the night, ambidextrously swapping the pen to her other hand in order to combat cramps. Her father’s philosophical bent meant that while she enjoyed the privilege of being tutored by Henry David Thoreau and the freedom to wander through Ralph Waldo Emerson’s library at will, her family was in constant financial scarcity. Her father’s unsuccessful commune experiment—involving a vegan diet, cold water baths, and no artificial lights—as well as his many failed attempts at starting progressive schools, meant the family was reliant on Emerson and later her mother’s inheritance. The family moved 22 times in Alcott’s early life. When she began selling her stories, Alcott became an important contributor to their stability.
Alcott had a conversation about Jo’s marital status with her publisher, similar to the one Jo has concerning her main character in Gerwig’s adaptation. Jo refuses the handsome Laurie, choosing to be a “free spinster and paddle her own canoe.” Alcott later reveals in a letter to a friend that Jo “should have remained a literary spinster.” But she felt so pressured to satisfy expectations that “I didn’t dare refuse & out of perversity went & made a funny match for her” with an older German professor. So while Alcott never wed, she marries Jo off to please the publisher. She needed to get paid.
I grew up with Little Women. I first read it as a nine-year-old, then subsequently read it every year until college, where I majored in English Literature. Growing up in a family with four children, and being the second born, I inhaled this story of four sisters, their ambitions, their fights and struggles. While I had no idea what a garret was—except that it sounded divinely wooden and drafty and artistic—Jo, with her doublet and old boots and writing hat, was my writer’s dream. I easily envisioned piles of apples in arm’s reach and Scrabble the rat wandering through to observe her progress. I would climb trees and clamber on top of wardrobes trying to find a private space away from my family where I could reconstruct my own writing world. At nine, I didn’t quite grasp the historical context of Jo’s writing, or the limited choices that were available to women at the time. I inherited her feminism along with the stories of how she defied expectations about her hair, for example, without even placing a label on it. It filled me with righteous indignation that people thought Jo couldn’t do something because she was a girl. I would be the same: no boy would stop me.
As a child, I didn’t mind that Jo got married. The glorious ending that I was searching for happened after that: Plumfield Academy. In the same way Jo taught me how to live a creative, ambitious life as a child, I wanted her to teach me how to do that as an adult, too.
While Alcott may not have had the choice to have it all, she gave Jo all of it in the fictional world. As a child, I didn’t consider this to be fiction. I, too, wanted all of it. I wanted a vast brood of children and the chance to write and process and create. I didn’t want to have to choose. I wanted a place where my role as a mother was an asset, not a hindrance, to my creative work outside the home. What I wonder now, as I frantically type at a coffee shop while the babysitter looks after my kids, is whether society has caught up with me and Alcott? Is there really space here for our hopes and dreams? Or, like her, am I creating a fictional world for myself, trying to unify parts of my existence the world around me likes to keep separate?
In Gerwig’s adaptation, she keeps strictly to the text of the book, yet modernizes the pace by having the lines run in and out of each other, overlapping them with musical energy. But there are a few key points where she adds in some new lines, highlighting for the next generation themes and ideas that Little Women can help us wrestle with today, linking the struggles of the past with the struggles of the present. Perhaps the most poignant example of this is when Jo is in the attic, talking with Marmee, sharing that she might reconsider marrying Laurie now that Beth has died and she’s stuck at home. “Women have minds and souls as well as hearts, ambition and talent as well as beauty,” she says, “and I’m sick of being told that love is all a woman is fit for. But . . . I am so lonely.”
Isn’t this what the feminist enterprise has always been about? To say we are not more than men, some type of moral angels on pedestals. We are not less than men either, unable to think and contribute and create. We are human. We are whole. We are more than our roles we inhabit. We want a society that reflects our desire to contribute meaningful work, to create, to parent, to rest, to grow no matter our gender. A century-and-a-half after Little Women was written, I still wonder if Plumfield Academy is just FICTION(?). Once I had my first child, I felt this inevitable choice was being thrust upon me, a gauntlet laid down. Children or work? Family or ambition? Society seems to say that you can nurse your baby or you can write, but you can’t do both.
I wrangled my part-time job doing communications into a flexible schedule so I could nurse my child, yet I constantly felt that I was asking for undue privileges, not being a team player. I was tired of the constant rushing between home and work, fitting in nursing or pumping, trying to fit meetings around the needs of my children, writing for other people and for the paycheck, yet not feeling fulfilled creatively. I couldn’t complain because it was my choice: I wanted to work. Financially, we could have made a way for me to stay home with our baby. The very idea that I could even consider it was a huge privilege. What right did I have to complain about this choice of my own making?
What I wanted, of course, was some kind of Plumfield. A space that didn’t force me to choose, but accepted both parts of my life. A career that supports paid family leave and childcare, that has humane working hours, that doesn’t assume we are always on the clock. A house filled with little painters and actors, as well as my own creative endeavors. Rambunctious children feeding my creativity, not taking away from it. What I wanted then, what I still want, is to be a whole person. I want to believe it is possible, and while I work towards creating it, economic and social pressures often make it feel like a fantasy.
In Little Women, Jo succeeds in turning fantasy into reality. This is fiction, after all. She can do whatever she likes. In the following book, Little Men, Jo miraculously manages to have personal time with each child in the school, including her own children, while crafting exciting lessons from daily life, baking, and writing. While the book ends with a hint that perhaps she has “settled” for the life of an educator and mother rather than building her teenage “castle in the air” of being a famous writer, I believe we can trust her when she says she loves her wild life as a mother. Reflecting on her ideal of being a famous literary spinster, she says, “The life I wanted then seems selfish, lonely, and cold to me now. I haven’t given up the hope that I may write a good book yet, but I can wait, and I’m sure it will be all the better for such experiences and illustrations as these. . .” Her artistic sister Amy (now also a mother) agrees, saying “My castle is very different from what I planned, but I would not alter it, though, like Jo, I don’t relinquish all my artistic hopes, or confine myself to helping others fulfill their dreams of beauty.” The art Jo and Amy are producing is not confined to just the home—they are still working on their craft to impact the world beyond, helping those outside their domestic spheres encounter beauty. And yet it works the other way as well. The hidden, domestic work of mothering is fueling them, making their artwork “become all the better.”
In Jo’s Boys, the last in the series, it is revealed that Jo never really stopped writing. After working on a novel for over ten years, she becomes instantly famous from a “hastily written story, sent away with no thought beyond the few dollars it might bring.” She continues to write steadily for magazines, growing so famous that a chapter in this volume is devoted to how she has to dodge the masses of fans showing up at her house.
The other day I stumbled across some of my own autobiographical FICTION(?). Like Little Women, this was a family story, a thinly veiled attempt to disguise my situation at that time. I believe I wrote it when I was in 11th grade, as I imagined a future after high school, although I cast the characters in the story much younger.
In the piece, during a family camping trip it becomes apparent to the protagonist that there is more to her mother than just her maternal role. The protagonist decides to run away, to “set her mother free” so she can fulfill all her dreams and ambitions she had before children. After many adventures, the protagonist discovers that she doesn’t need to set her mother ‘free.” Her mother can inhabit both spaces: creator and mother.
Reading this now, 15 years later as a mother of 2 young children, I wonder. This is fiction. This is really just a wish, right? It’s not the truth. I wanted the fictional mother to be happy with both because even as a 16-year-old, I was subconsciously looking ahead, peering into a potential future—a future where, unlike Alcott, I didn’t want to paddle my own canoe. I’d always wanted a partner, a team, a vast flock of children. I also wanted the writing. In this story, was I the daughter, ambivalent about the choices available to me, feeling the need to eliminate children? Or was I the mother who had found a way to inhabit both spaces, even while mothering?
As Gerwig’s screenplay ends, Jo walks through her domain, this little heaven she has created from the stuffy, pretentious house. This golden-hued, glowing ending shows a Jo who has not chosen to sacrifice having her own children for her work. Instead she’s found a way to incorporate her children into the very midst of it.
As I pause from my writing to help construct another block tower, sample a cup of pretend tea, or turn on a new movie for my children, I try not to snap with impatience to get back to my writing. I try to imagine Mother Jo, Alcott’s fictional alternative, and feel the gratitude that I’m able to create in the midst of the liveliness and life of my family.
FICTION(?) EXT. PLUMFIELD ACADEMY. DAY. 1871.
Jo presents her mother with the cake, and all of them, Amy, Meg, Jo, Laurie, John, Friedrich, Father, and the children, wish her a happy birthday.
Jo looks around at the group, so happy she was able to be alive with them, so amazed.