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When I first read ‘Little Women,’ I wanted to be Jo. Now, I hope to be Marmee.



Twenty-five years later, I found myself sobbing in another movie theater after the death of another Beth in a new “Little Women,” this one written and directed by Greta Gerwig. But this time, I wasn’t crying for Beth (Eliza Scanlen), or for the sister she’d left behind (Saoirse Ronan). Instead, the character I identified with was the girls’ mother, played by Laura Dern and known as Marmee, whose grief at the loss of her child is so acute that the camera turns away to give her privacy and the viewer relief.

For lovers of “Little Women” in all its forms, Jo has traditionally been the primary point of identification. As novelist Anna Quindlen put it, Jo’s literary ambitions provided her with “the first sign I ever had that I might someday become who I am today.” But I suspect that “Little Women” follows so many of us from girlhood into adulthood not because we all grow up to be Jo, but because we find that we’ve become Marmee: imagining castles in the air not only for ourselves but also for our children.

Though the four little women of the title are indisputably the main characters of the novel and all of its many adaptations, Marmee is more than a mere supporting character: Her daughters’ lives becomes variations on her theme. More than her sisters, Jo has endured into the modern era because her cravings for independence and literary aspirations are so recognizable. But she is also the character who is most like Marmee, and the daughter who grows up to most directly further Marmee’s ideals.

Like Jo, who struggles with her temper, Marmee confesses that “I am angry nearly every day of my life. … I have learned not to show it; and I still hope to learn not to feel it.” She tells all of her daughters that it is better to “be happy old maids than unhappy wives,” supports Jo’s ambitions to go live and work in New York, and later encourages her to write her way out of grief and loneliness. Like her mother, Jo becomes someone who can manage her anger and disappointment rather than using them as weapons. By caring for Beth in her illness and for Marmee in her grief, Jo develops her capacity as a nurturer. And the school Jo eventually opens gives girls as well as boys the sort of moral and intellectual instruction that Marmee taught her girls to value.

As an older reader, I’ve found that Marmee leaps off the page for me in a way she never did before, and it’s clear that she resonates with the women who have adapted Alcott’s novel, as well. Armstrong gives her Marmee, played with real fire by Susan Sarandon, lines like “Nothing provokes speculation more than the sight of a woman enjoying herself.” Gerwig emphasizes the effort that goes into being Marmee, which is often invisible to her daughters: the smiles she assumes before walking into a room so as not to worry her girls, or the hurt and joy she has to balance when one daughter triumphs at the expense of another. “Marmee loves her life,” Jo insists at one point, appalled by her rich Aunt March’s (Meryl Streep) suggestion that Marmee might experience dissatisfaction. “You don’t know what she loves,” Aunt March snaps back. For Jo to grow up, she has to be able to understand that happiness and goodness are things that both she and Marmee work at, rather than naturally occurring conditions.

Gerwig’s adaptation of “Little Women” nods to the generations of women inspired by Jo’s literary aspirations and makes the publication of Jo’s book the happy climax of her movie. I understand that decision: Like Jo, I still hope to write a book some day. But time and motherhood have helped me understand why Alcott’s novel ends with the surviving March girls celebrating Marmee’s 60th birthday party rather than with a scene of professional success for Jo. Trying to be the sort of parent a child wants to emulate is a monumental challenge. Succeeding at that task would be its own immortal reward.

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