Little Women: Why Jo and Laurie Don´t End Up Together
The Book Laurie
In the book before Laurie moves to Concord, he has been tossed around in Europe from one boarding school to another and then he moves to live with his grandfather and they have to build their relationship from the scratch. Older Mr.Lawrence had rejected the marriage of Laurie´s parents so since the beginning Laurie feels unwanted and this is why he becomes so attached to the Marches. He even calls Marmee his mother and that is why he is clinging on to Jo so much. Because of Jo´s idealization towards the masculine Laurie thought he could do anything and she would always forgive him. Hannah describes Laurie as a weathercock. He is a character with constant mood changes. He can be sensitive but he also has a high temper. Which has never been shown in the films. He can be very inconsiderate towards other people´s feelings (same way as Jo) like during the time when he was catfishing Meg (never adapted). Times, when Laurie is sweet and caring, are the times when he puts other people before him. Like during Beth´s illness and when he went to cheer up Amy when she was staying at aunt March.
There are times when Laurie is vain like a peacock. He likes nice clothes and keeping up a good appearance which is something that Jo at times makes fun of. He can be funny but also very immature. He wants to break free from his grandfather´s obey dance but he is afraid to do that. Laurie is an orphan. Their relationship with his grandfather is complicated. For older Mr Lawrence Laurie resembles both of the children he lost and this is why he doesn´t want to hear the music because of the painful memories and I suppose self-blame. It is only with his encounters with Beth these wounds start to heal. Laurie doesn´t like school. He wants to go to Italy and be a composer and to re-connect with his roots.
Laurie the composer
Only adaptations where Laurie actually plays the piano come from the ’70s (also in the pbs series from 2017 Laurie plays music). What it comes to the movies it is Mr Bhaer who is actually much more musical and Fritz does sing and plays music in the books. But it is strange that there are only a couple of adaptations where Laurie actually plays the piano and after all Laurie is a composer. So far the earlier film versions have had their focus on romanticizing Jo and Laurie instead of giving him a full personality. They follow the Hollywood narrative that the only reason why Laurie exists is to be pretty and to be in love with Jo and he doesn´t have any other aspirations or inspirations outside that.
Laurie the prankster
At the beginning of Good Wives when John and Meg move to their new home Laurie comes bringing gifts; a knife cleaner that spoils all the knives, soap that takes the skin off one´s hands, a sweeper that leaves all the dirt and a bunch of other similar items. Each week when Laurie is on holiday from college he brings them random useless things. It can be a funny joke for the first couple of times but Laurie does it for months. It´s the behaviour you could expect from a teenager but not from a 21-year-old. John and Meg are poor. Laurie is rich. He could give them something useful. None of Laurie´s pranks is shown in the movies. A big part of why Jo wanted to be more boyish and her being dismissive over feminine was about showing off. Laurie´s pranks were his way of showing off and getting attention.
Call to conform
It is when Laurie goes to college the gender expectations of the time start to have a bigger impact on Jo´s and Laurie´s behaviour. Laurie is not very interested in his studies. He goes to college simply to please his grandfather. Laurie is more of a party-boy in college. That is not necessarily a character flaw. Quite many young people go to college to do just that still today. In college Laurie smokes, drinks, plays pool, flirts with girls, gets into fights (never shown in any adaptations) and Jo criticizes him for doing these things. Jo doesn´t want to do any of these things but she wishes she could have the liberty to do whatever she wants without being judged by society. Jo was very aware of the unfairness of the situation. In the books, Jo never likes Laurie romantically and his romantic interest only makes Jo feel uncomfortable. Not only does their dynamics change because Jo doesn´t want to fit into the traditional female role of the time but because Laurie fits into the traditional 19th-century male role almost too well. Their relationship in their youth worked when there was more space for gender fluidly but it starts to fall apart when they are called to conform more. When Laurie develops a crush on Jo he breaks that brotherly bond and that shatters Jo´s ideas of masculinity the way she has come to know it. It has never been shown in movies. The closest example of this the way it is described in the books is the song Astonishing from Little Women musical.
Laurie´s behaviour becomes more obsessive and as a result, Jo travels to New York to work as a governess and there she meets Mr Bhaer. The movies have swapped the timeline so that Jo travels to New York after she has rejected Laurie´s proposal when in the book proposal happens after Jo has returned to Concord. When Jo meets Friedrich in New York he is not only her sexual awakening but Friedrich´s masculinity collapses the male-female binary Jo knows. When Jo meets Friedrich the narrator says that for the first time Jo did not compare a man to Laurie. Up until that point Laurie has been her ideal of masculinity but those old models have failed her miserably and then she meets a man who provides her with a new definition of masculinity. Which does not demand Jo change or to be traditionally feminine. Which is what Laurie´s model of masculinity did.
Two very different proposals
A lot of the relationship between Jo and Laurie was based on mutually reinforcing ideas of toxic masculinity. Eventually, this turned out against both of them. In Jo´s case, it made her lose the trip to Europe and in Laurie´s case it brought out his temper and more possessive behaviour. The best example of why Jo rejected Laurie´s proposal and why she did fell in love with Friedrich is to examine the two proposals. When Laurie proposes to Jo he says he loves her because Jo has always been so good to him. He doesn´t love her because of her personality or her ambitions. Jo had a tendency to mother Laurie and we can probably explain this with the fact that the young men who were inspirations for Laurie´s character were much younger than Louisa. Being a maternal figure was something that came naturally to Jo. In a way, March´s adopted Laurie to be part of their family unit. That Jo sees Laurie as her brother makes perfect sense and sisters often become pseudo-mother figures to their brothers. In movies, we only see Laurie´s pain but we never see the pressure he puts on Jo or how uncomfortable his actions make her feel. When we read the book and see Laurie´s character through the movie´s lens it perpetuates the idea that the controlling behaviour he has in the books doesn´t matter and it is a sign of love. Yet the book Laurie is not in love with Jo. He is in love with the idea of love.
Laurie´s story and his character arc in Little Women are not about Amy or Jo. It´s a story about how Laurie becomes a man.
This is what Laurie thinks about girls:
“I’ve tried to show it to you but you wouldn´t let me. Now I am going to make you hear and give me an answer for I can´t go on any longer”
“But girls are so queer you never know what they mean. They say no when they mean yes, and drive a man out of his wits just for the fun of it”’
Laurie seems to be thinking that Jo would fall in love with him because that is what girls do. If we take a look at the narrative of the first book. Laurie has said similar things as a teenager. Things like “someday I´ll get you Jo” is quite a possessive thing for a 15-year-old boy to say and it highlights how much the two have fed each other with harmful stereotypes about gender roles. Now that they are adults Jo feels the need to leave this toxic cycle. Not just because of her own sake but also Laurie´s sake and it is toxic because up until that point Laurie has been told what to do by Jo, John Brooke or by his grandfather. Laurie wants to keep the status quo of their relationship so that he does not need to grow and take responsibility for himself or his own actions. Laurie was not used to making decisions. Marrying Jo is an easy escape from his life remaining the same rather than different as it is meant to be.
Most adaptations have also chosen the easy escape by not showing the slow and painful work of the personal transformation that Laurie does go through in the books. If we now take a look at the narrative of the second book. There are no glimpses inside Laurie´s head where he would be thinking about Jo or dreaming about the future with her. When Jo leaves New York we do get a glimpse inside Friedrich´s mind and he does admit to himself that he is indeed in love with her and he wonders what life with Jo would be like. Laurie´s actions in most parts of the second book don´t make any sense because Laurie´s mind is a complete mess.
When Jo rejects Laurie we should be on Jo´s side. Yet in 90% of Little Women adaptions, Laurie´s character arc is missing. He doesn´t have a temper (or character arc) in 1933, 1949, 1994, 2018 and 2019 films. Series from 1950 and 2017. Little Women musical and or in Japanese anime.
Almost like the lack of Laurie´s inner thoughts the book is telling us that Laurie hasn´t thought things through. This is another contrast between Laurie´s shallow idealized dreaminess and Friedrich´s deeply grounded reality (@this-thrown-out-gentleman).
Jo is honest with Laurie. She sees that if she would marry him their arguments would escalate to violence. Laurie´s relationship with Jo is more codependent.
Laurie wants to keep the status quo of their toxic relationship and it is toxic because up until that point Laurie had been used to do by Jo, John Brooke or his grandfather. He wasn´t used to making decisions (@renee561)
Trying to threaten someone you say you love is never a good idea. Instead of seeing any fault in his own actions, Laurie blames it on someone else and he wants Jo to feel guilty for rejecting him. Then he guilt trips her even more by saying that she will marry someone and that she will be a silly woman by going back on her word of never marrying. Jo has a brilliant response but Laurie doesn´t want to hear it.
Then Laurie threatens to go to the devil and behaves like a 19th-century brat boy. Laurie´s proposal has been traditionally abridged or the dialogue has been changed. In the adaptations, it has been portrayed to be a romantic scene when in the books it is a conflict. Little Women is often a misunderstood book because it does something very unique and powerful. Laurie´s proposal was never about Jo. It was all about him.
It is still all about him and he still wants Jo to feel guilty. Thank god for the grandfather (this is good parenting). Six months later Amy meets Laurie in Europe and they have not met for four years. Amy finds him changed and different. She scolds him and his attitude but it comes from a good place because Amy knows that Laurie has the potential to make the most of his life and when she carefully asks what happened between him and Jo…
Still all about him. Not about Jo.
Amy´s lecture did Laurie good though of course, he did not own it until long afterwards. Men seldom do for when women are advisers. The lords of the creation won’t take the advice until they have persuaded themselves that it is just what they intended to do. Then they act upon it and if it succeeds they give the weaker vessel half the credit of it. If it fails they generously give her the whole. Little Women Chapter 41.
Amy´s words start to affect Laurie yet in his mind Laurie thinks that Amy´s advice was unnecessary and that he had always meant to do something. Laurie´s biggest flaws are his pride and vanity but also his lack of ability to put himself in another person´s position and this is why his growth process is slow and painful. Still, at this point, Laurie doesn´t see women as individuals. He sees himself above them. In Vienna, he starts to compose an opera that would harrow Jo´s soul and melt her heart. Once again it´s all about him but the opera doesn´t go that well. He wants to capture his romantic passion and all things that come to mind are Jo´s oddities, faults and freaks.
Romantic or creepy?
The moment when Laurie caught himself thinking the word “brotherly” and Jo it is almost like he sees himself as a character in an opera he is trying to compose. He immediately sends Jo a letter and proposes to her again. Once again it is all about him and not about Jo. Proposing someone right after they have lost their sister is not a good idea. When Jo´s response arrives and she still says no Laurie feels relieved but instead of feeling bad for guilt-tripping her for quite a long time he wants to cherish his memory as being a tragic romantic hero. It is still all about him. Why was Laurie so obsessed and why he never listened to what Jo had to say and why he felt guilty when he started to develop romantic feelings towards Amy? since we know Jo never cared about him like that. As being said there are no scenes in the books where Laurie is thinking Jo romantically or dreaming about a life with her. All his dreams are really about seeing himself as a romantic hero. Laurie feels guilty because his love for Jo is mainly grateful. She invited him to be part of their family. Something that Laurie was always lacking. Thanks to the over the top ideas of masculinity he and Jo fed to each other Laurie didn´t learn to respect women.
We should not ignore Laurie´s background
In terms of Little Women Louisa did not write an explicit background story for any of the male characters. From the little that we know from Laurie´s background it would seem that when he was a child he was tossed from one boarding school to another and he did not have any stable parental figures or that he never spent enough time in one place to be able to establish such relationships. Quite early in the novel, Laurie admits to Jo that he feels envious of the sisters bond to their mother.
Laurie´s and Jo´s relationship is characterised by childhood innocence. Jo represents the nurturing feminine presence Laurie was craving to have in his life at the same time Laurie is a brothernal figure for Jo who compliments her views on non-conformity (Ajedisith)
Jo and the March family become a refuge of stability to Laurie. It is only when he moves to Concord at the age of 15 for the first time he is surrounded by people who stick long enough to put boundaries and try to raise him. More than often Laurie was frustrated by Jo´s lectures but at the same, he was depending on them.
Falling in love with the idea of love
Little Women is a semi-biographical novel. We can trace Laurie´s actions to Louisa. Same way as Laurie Louisa´s childhood was unstable and turbulent and the family moved very often. When Louisa was young she had a big crush to the family friend and next-door neighbour philosopher Waldo Emmerson. Emmerson was also one of the many men who were inspirations for the character of Fritz. More than often Emmerson saved Alcott´s from troubles and he became a symbol of stability for Louisa the same way as Jo is for Laurie. Louisa became obsessed with German female writer and social activist Bettina von Armin and her book Goethes Briefwechsel mit einem Kinde (Goethe´s correspondence with a child). Which included love letters Bettina wrote to the poet Goethe.
Bettina represents herself as a lover. A role that is traditionally seen as more masculine (Kundera). Bettina was in love with the idea of love. Love is an emotion. Not as a love relation. In her letters, she does not ask his opinions or shares ideas with him.
“I turned myself into Bettina and made Emmerson my Goethe” — LMA
Laurie is not in love with Jo. He is in love with the idea of love. It is about putting up on a role and a narcissistic one for that when it hurts other people. This is exactly what happened between Jo and Laurie and Bettina and Goethe. Let´s call Laurie´s behaviour with its actual name, harassment. When Louisa was an adult she did tell Emmerson how she had built this romantic fairytale scenario in her head. Emmerson himself had been completely unaware of it. Nevertheless, they had a very strong friendship throughout their lives (Reisen).
There is the famous Little Women passage to adulthood ritual (which would make a really interesting research topic to gender studies). It basically means that a reader who has read the book as a child and romanticized Jo and Laurie and quite possible watched the 1994 film more than once. Reads the book as an adult and finds out that Laurie was very childish and he and Jo were very ill-matched and they move on to root Jo and Fritz or Amy and Laurie or both. We can also see it as a metaphor for how a person develops a mildly delusional obsession over another. Especially young boys and girls think that their life only has a meaning when they find a partner whose only reason for existing is them but it is not healthy and not love. When you truly love someone you love them for what they truly are. Not the way you want to see yourself with them. In Little Women, Laurie himself is the one character who goes through the Little Women passage of adulthood ritual. It is not until he goes through the process of self-growth and begins to see the women in his life as what they really are, he is truly able to love someone.
Friedrich´s proposal is the complete opposite. Fritz wants to tell her how he feels about her and let her decide. After Jo has left New York they have been writing letters to each other and when he comes to see Jo in Concord he hopes to see signs of love from Jo and when he reveals to her that he has gotten a job and he is going to the west Jo´s walls go down.
He gives Jo all the power and control and he lets her know that everything that she feels and thinks is important for him and he wants to make sure that she returns to his feelings and that their lives and goals work together. He is not even making a marriage proposal. He is asking if she could love him. In comparison to Laurie Friedrich´s screen portrayals are always closer to the books, even if most of his parts are left out because he is a less romanticized character. He also acknowledges his flaws in the same way as Jo does. In terms of Friedrich´s narrative, Little Women is also about identity but in his case, it is not about forming identity but when he falls in love with Jo he reshapes his already existing identity.
Friedrich as Goethe
Louisa was a great admirer of the German writer and poet Goethe. A lot of research has been made on Goethe´s influence on Louisa´s writings. For example, a long fatal love chase has many parallels with Goethe´s Faust. But less research has been done between Goethe´s writings and Little Women. Goethe was one of Louisa´s favourite authors and she credited him to be the one author who has taught her the most about creating and understand characters. Her copy of Wilhelm Meister´s Apprenticeship was given to her by Waldo Emmerson (and Louisa filled it with scribbles and took notes). In Little Women Friedrich gave Jo a copy of Shakespeare´s work and through that Jo learns how much more there is to find out about storytelling. Fritz also encourages Jo to study people around her so that she becomes better at developing and creating characters. Goethe was one of the biggest inspirations for Friedrich´s character which brings Friedrich´s impact on Jo´s writing into a new light.
Laurie as the Goethean Protagonist
Trigger warning there will be mentions of suicides.
What it comes to Laurie´s character arc there are lots of themes that come straight from Goethe´s writings. Goethe´s first financially successful novel (and first German international best-seller) The sorrows of Young Werther is a semi-biographical novel. Both protagonists young Werther and Goethe himself grew up the privileged same way as Laurie. Werther´s love interest Charlotte is marrying another worthy man Albert. Werther makes Charlotte the only sole purpose of his living. He is not only miserable. He is proud of his misery. In fact, he endorses it. As a result, he commits suicide. What kills Werther is not being disappointed in love. It has nothing to do with Charlotte. What kills him is his toxic self-centeredness. What is common with Werther and Laurie is that they are both extremely sensitive. Same way as Little Women the sorrows of young Werther has often been misread. Some readers endorsed and glamorised Werther´s suicide and when the book became vastly popular it started a wave of suicides of young people in Germany who tried to emulate the tragic end of their romantic hero.
“The children took especial interest in the love story, and when poor Laurie was so obstinately refused by Jo, “they wept aloud and refused to be comforted,” and in some instances were actually made ill by grief and excitement” (Cheney)
References to Goethe continue in Laurie´s proposal. After being rejected Laurie does threats to take his life and puts enormous pressure on Jo. Same way as with the sorrows of young Werther a great deal of Little Women fans, especially younger ones, find these worrying threats passionate and romantic. Goethe´s book was widely misunderstood since he meant it as a criticism and warning example towards life-consuming self-absorption.
“When I re-read the novel in my early twenties, I still technically thought Jo should have ended up with Laurie, but I started to feel uncomfortable about feeling that way. Wasn’t it weird, I thought, to feel that way when the character of Jo so explicitly rejected his proposal? Wasn’t it a bit like telling a dear friend she should date someone she wasn’t crazy about just because he had feelings for her and is such a good guy? I dismissed this though because a) death of the author, non-canonical pairings are a-ok, etc. and b) I have a moderate grasp on reality and I do recognize Jo is a fictional character, not my friend. But re-reading Little Women this month, I realized with mounting alarm that as a potential romantic partner for Jo, Laurie isn’t a good guy; he is, in fact, a Nice Guy™. […] The story of Laurie and Jo is not, as I had previously remembered, one of Jo seeming like she loves Laurie and making an out-of-left-field decision. It is very much in the field! Jo consistently indicates that she does not have feelings for Laurie, does not want him to flirt with her, and tries to prevent him from doing so every time he flirts with her. And he ignores her, again and again. But wait, there’s more! When Jo realizes that her very consistent attempts to communicate her disinterest are not working, she decides to move to New York for adventure and also to get away from Laurie. […] There may be some who would accuse me of selective reading. After all, Laurie isn’t a terrible person! […] To which I say: yes, but all of this can be true and Laurie can simultaneously still be a terrible potential partner for Jo. […] What I realized re-reading Little Women as a grown-ass adult is this: making Jo and Laurie perfect for each other wouldn’t just require a different ending, it would require an entirely different book. So, it’s been over twenty years in the making, but better late than never: Louisa May Alcott, I’m sorry. You were right.”
Maddie Rodgriguez, ‘Laurie Isn’t a Good Guy, He’s a Nice Guy™’ (bookriot.com)
Proof in the pudding:
As Goethe, when he had a joy or a grief, put it into a song, so Laurie resolved to embalm his love sorrow in music and to compose a Requiem which should harrow up Jo’s soul and melt the heart of every hearer. (Little Women, chapter 41)
In Wilhelm Meister´s Apprenticeship, there is also an important character called Friedrich (though he is a very different type of character than Friedrich Bhaer). One of the female characters, Marina, also likes to cross-dress (same way as Jo).
Wilhelm Meister´s Apprenticeship and Laurie´s redemption arc
Wilhelm Meister´s apprenticeship is a story about self-realisation. The story centres around Wilhelm who wants to escape the empty, mundane, bourgeois life of a businessman. After a failed romance he joins a theatre company. Wilhelm Meister´s apprenticeship and many of Goethe´s works, in general, have elements from Shakespeare´s plays. In fact in the novel´s dialogue there is a great deal of discussion about Shakespeare´s work and Wilhelm´s theatre group also performs a production of Hamlet where Wilhelm plays the lead. The Theatre world is filled with seductions, love affairs and scandals. The more Wilhelm sees it the more he dislikes it and he realizes that he is not fitting for this type of lifestyle. What Wilhelm really needs is to figure out who he is, what he wants from life and how he should live. Both Werther and Wilhelm can be seen as a failed geniuses. They are sensitive and artistic but they are not creatively productive enough. Laurie, in this case, is more similar to Wilhelm because unlike Werther Laurie goes through the process of self-discovery and like Wilhelm Laurie also becomes a husband and father (which brings long-desired purpose to his life) and a contributing member of the society which is not something he was before.
Wilhelm Meister´s apprenticeship introduces the character of Mignon. Mignon was kidnapped as a child by bandits and Wilhelm saves her. They tour the country together with the theatre group, go to picnics, flirt and joke with each other. Mignon has a constant longing for her homeland Italy. She falls in love with Wilhelm but he is in love with someone else. Eventually Mignon dies for longing (a common theme in Goethe´s works).
“It’s a genius simmering, perhaps. I’ll let it simmer, and see what comes of it,” he said, with a secret suspicion all the while that it wasn’t genius, but something far more common. Whatever it was, it simmered to some purpose, for he grew more and more discontented with his desultory life, began to long for some real and earnest work to go at, soul and body, and finally came to the wise conclusion that everyone who loved music was not a composer. Returning from one of Mozart’s grand operas, splendidly performed at the Royal Theatre, he looked over his own, played a few of the best parts, sat staring at the busts of Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Bach, who stared benignly back again. Then suddenly he tore up his music sheets, one by one, and as the last fluttered out of his hand, he said soberly to himself…
“She is right! Talent isn’t a genius, and you can’t make it so. That music has taken the vanity out of my as Rome took it out of her, and I won’t be a humbug any longer. Now, what shall I do?”
The purest form of love is to love the full reality of the other person.
She did not hear him cross the courtyard beyond, nor see him pause in the archway that led from the subterranean path into the garden. He stood a minute looking at her with new eyes, seeing what no one had ever seen before, the tender side of Amy’s character. Everything about her mutely suggested love and sorrow, the blotted letters in her lap, the black ribbon that tied up her hair, the womanly pain and patience in her face, even the little ebony cross at her throat seemed pathetic to Laurie, for he had given it to her, and she wore it as her only ornament. If he had any doubts about the reception she would give him, they were set at rest the minute she looked up and saw him, for dropping everything, she ran to him, exclaiming in a tone of unmistakable love and longing…
Is it possible that anyone who has not been happy with the books has been looking at both Laurie and Friedrich from the completely wrong perspective?
“Throughout his many works, Goethe stresses love as the foundation of relationships, and he did so living in a culture where marriage matches were typically determined by economic factors. It was a radical position to take.
The difference between “You love me!” and “You love me?” The substitution of a question mark for an exclamation point “changes the meaning completely” (Gustafson).
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