Why did Jo say no?

By Trix Wilkins

Photo courtesy of Little Women (1994), Columbia Pictures.

It’s the literary debate that has spanned a hundred and fifty years. Little Women’s Jo March was adventurous, loyal, and talented – and so was her best friend, boy-next-door-aspirant-pianist Theodore Laurence. So when he asked her to marry him, why did she say no?

Her mother advised her that they were not suited for marriage

When Jo started to make plans to “go away for a time” to nip Laurie’s evidently growing romantic feelings for her in the bud, her mother told her that they did not suit each other; that their temperaments were fitted for friendship, but not marriage. Mrs March also told her that she was relieved to hear Jo say that she wasn’t in love with Laurie. How could Jo have turned away from the advice of her mother – whose opinion she had always held in high regard, and in whose guidance she had always been so confident? She then quoted her mother’s reasoning to Laurie, when she explained her answer.

She thought her dearest sister Beth was romantically interested in him and pining for him

As if her mother’s admonition weren’t enough, Jo started to believe that Beth’s low spirits and distant demeanor were a consequence of her being secretly in love with fellow musician Laurie whilst seeing him fall increasingly in love with her elder sister. How could Jo have accepted the proposal of the man she thought her beloved Beth was in love with? She then started to plan discouraging Laurie’s affections whilst steering them towards Beth – she asked Beth to “look after” him while she went to work in New York.

She didn’t believe her love for him was “the right sort of love”

She was unwilling to entertain the idea of any sort of romantic alliance but said she loved him dearly and that she didn’t intend to ever marry anyone, implying she loved him as a friend. Yet she also said she felt he was “a great deal too good” for her and at the end of the novel she praised him to be the sort of man all should aspire to be – so the “she didn’t feel that way about him” line is arguable. Nevertheless, how could she have come to believe whatever feelings she might have had for him as “right,” given her mother’s reasoning and her own personal lack of experience?

She didn’t believe his love for her was the right sort of love, either

She seemed to believe that his feelings for her would pass and inevitably turn from affection and adoration to contempt and resentment; that he would in the end long for an elegant, beautiful wife who would be a “fine mistress” for his stately home. How could she accept the proposal of her closest friend, who she loved dearly, when under the impression that doing so would inevitably be his undoing? She thus tried to persuade Laurie that this was the case, that he would forget her in time, and “be happy.”

He asked at the wrong time

On one hand, his timing was perfect – he had just graduated from college and on the brink of a world tour. If she accepted, he could take her with him – and she had always wanted to travel. On the other hand – he had just graduated from college. His career plan consisted of a vague notion that he wanted to compose music and a firm conviction that he didn’t want to run his grandfather’s ships. How could Jo have accepted his proposal when he didn’t know what to do with his life – and how he would provide for her and their children?

Why did Louisa May Alcott write such circumstances into being in the first place? (This question has plagued me as I’ve struggled with the fact that Laurie did not return for Jo a la Darcy.) As I’m not Miss Alcott I can only make inferences from her novels and biographies, and here are my best guesses:

She was exasperated with readers writing to her about whether Jo and Laurie would end up together, and wanted to thwart their incessant demands

Ah, that famous line, “I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone!” How trying it must have been to write a heroine like Jo March into being, who had ambitions to do “something splendid,” to travel the world and become a famous author – to have readers not ask anything about any of this, only concerned with whether she would marry the wealthy boy-next-door! And so she wrote an ending in which Jo very firmly spurned Laurie.

She wanted to really hammer in the lesson that the most worthy of women won’t be bought by looks, status or wealth, but won by character and firmness of conviction

Professor Bhaer was exactly the sort of man who would have been spurned by fashionable society: an elderly, poor, foreign bachelor with neither beauty nor wealth. The one attractive feature about him was his character – he was kind, generous, and hard-working. As young women read her novel and aspired to be like Jo, what better way to turn society’s wisdom on its head than to have Jo spurn a young rich and handsome suitor in favor of another to whom she was attracted purely for his character?

She wanted to give her father’s career some timely help

Bronson Alcott had been peddling his theories and philosophies regarding education for years with very little financial success (a thing Louisa felt acutely growing up). With the sudden and unexpected success of Little Women, Alcott found herself famous, her writing pored over with admiration and anticipation. So when a sequel to Little Women was demanded – how better to help give her father’s ideas on non-traditional schooling a PR boost than to have Jo marry a Professor with whom she establishes a school? It might also have been a nod to elder men she esteemed such as Emerson and Thoreau.

She didn’t want to be accused of wanting a rich and handsome man of her own to sweep her off her feet to marry her

As Jo was her fictional counterpart, could there have been anything more mortifying to a fiercely independent Miss Alcott than to have people suggest ideas along the lines of, “Ah ha, so she does want the rich young handsome man just like every other woman!” or, “She’s invented the fantasy she couldn’t have.” This prospect might have been particularly galling given that she had criticized Jane Austen for the endings of her romantic novels.

She wanted to write a somewhat realistic ending for her readers

Sometimes the hero isn’t the rich handsome guy or even the loyal best friend. Sometimes the rich handsome guy really does fall for the beautiful blond girl in nice clothes who can speak prettily to him. Sometimes the girl who is the diamond in the rough, the one who is worthy of being adored and courted, isn’t recognized by the upper echelons in society. And sometimes women just do end up watching the man they esteem the most marry someone else.

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The Courtship of Jo March by Trix Wilkins

The Courtship of Jo March

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14 thoughts on “Why did Jo say no?

  1. Do you recall the part in “All Alone” where Mrs. March told Jo she thought that if Laurie appeared now and proposed, that Jo might feel like giving a different answer. “Forgive me, Dear, but I can’t help seeing that you are very lonely…” and Jo said yes, not because she loved him any more than earlier, but because now she cared more to be loved than she did before. A very poignant moment in Jo’s development in the story. The theory of timing definitely figures in.

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    1. Yes, I do, and I’ve often wondered whether Jo’s reply to her mother was quite complete. She has always loved Laurie, but throughout the novel there is a tension as to whether it would remain a love for a friend, or develop into something more. When Laurie returns with Amy and tells Jo of their elopement, Jo asks how they get along. Laurie replies, “My wife and I respect ourselves and one another too much ever to tyrannize or quarrel.” Louisa follows this up with an insight into Jo’s thoughts, “Jo liked that, and thought the new dignity very becoming, but the boy seemed changing very fast into the man, and regret mingled with her pleasure.” Did she regret her consistent refusal, regret that childhood days were behind them, regret that he had not after all returned for her? I feel it’s a mixture of all three…

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  2. Jo must have at least partly liked the man Laurie had become and was at least a little sorry that she hadn’t been able to be the one who could evoke that change in him.
    Seems to me the change was quite attractive.

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    1. I completely agree that she found the change attractive! I’m not so sure that it’s actually Amy who motivates Laurie to change, though that is what Jo thinks and Laurie later relates after he has married Amy. Even though Amy is the one who reprimanded him for laziness and letting his unrequited love “spoil” him, it is Jo’s name she mentions, and Jo’s disapproval that he seems to fear, the prospect of which shifts him away from indifference. He asks Amy, “Do you think Jo would despise me as you do?” “Yes, if she saw you now. She hates lazy people. Why don’t you do something splendid, and make her love you?” More is said, but it is essentially after this that Laurie pulls up his boots and not a moment before. I suppose I wonder whether he would have matured and changed whether or not Amy spoke up; if he had gone home for instance during Beth’s illness, and been gently spoken to by Mrs March, or even directly by Jo, whether that might not have prompted the process just as effectively or maybe even more so.

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      1. Oh yes, all correct; I do remember Laurie wanting to know what Jo would think.

        Isn’t it interesting that nearly 95% of the story kept driving home how immature Laurie was. I can still remember Mrs. March saying that Laurie was “hardly grown up enough for Meg, and altogether too much of a weathercock, just now, for anyone to depend on,” when Jo talked of having him marry Meg
        so her sister could live in luxury. Notice that Jo didn’t ask for Laurie for herself. Then years later it was, “Amy is left for him, and they would suit excellently…”

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        1. I think it’s a common theme in Louisa May Alcott’s novels – the young man who starts off being immature, selfish, self-absorbed, often wealthy and privileged with only a sense of pleasure not responsibility, there being some sort of fault or gap in his upbringing, ultimately growing up into a man worthy of admiration and esteem and thus the love and hand in marriage of the woman of his choice (eg: Tom in An Old Fashioned Girl; or the converse fate because he didn’t grow up, Charlie in Rose in Bloom).

          In the first part of Little Women Laurie is 16-17 years old (and so yes, Mrs March’s remark about his being a weathercock is certainly apt at that point!), and while he has attractive qualities such as his generosity (eg: the breakfast for the Marches) and humility (eg: not showing off his accomplishments, particularly his music, which Jo and Amy have a conversation with Marmee about), he has a lot to learn, is still a bit of a diamond in the rough so to speak. In the chapter Castles in the air, Jo tells him that her mother told her that he “just needs a motive,” (in relation to applying himself and overcoming his tendency to apathy/laziness) and so it seems that is the case. He studies hard and graduates well to impress Jo; later he goes back to his grandfather to work hard and make the most of his privileged position, that he can give of his wealth generously as he has done from the opening of the novel (I think this is because he didn’t want to be despised by Jo, and didn’t want to despise himself, having realized he’s not really been a man about the rejection at all).

          Jo didn’t intend to marry, didn’t really consider it for herself until after Beth’s passing, so it would have been strange for her to make plans for Laurie for herself – especially when she expected that his wife ought to be someone who could mingle well in society as fitting of his wealth and status (she is perfectly capable of doing this, as we see when she goes to the Chester’s fair in indignation over their mistreatment of Amy – but it’s not something she particularly enjoys). She does nevertheless love and admire him deeply from the beginning, and sees a potential in him that shone perhaps only dimly to others. When Jo suspects Beth is in love with Laurie, she advises him to devote himself to Beth (or at least that’s what she thinks she’s doing, and Laurie takes it to mean permission to work for her!), tells him he’s not good enough for Beth, but implies he had the potential to deserve Beth. I can’t think of a higher compliment from Jo, who loved Beth and treasured her so dearly, than being thought of as potentially deserving of her.

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          1. That is a really magnificent “take”, one that really makes me ponder, because I was always so wrapped up in the girls that I never spent much time analyzing Laurie…
            for Louisa did plenty of that in the telling of the story.

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  3. Thanks – this was a really fascinating read and offered some suggestions that I hadn’t considered. I first read Little Women as an adult, and I can to an extent understand Jo’s reasoning for saying no, but what baffled me was that the first volume seemed to be “setting up” their relationship and leading the reader naturally towards them getting together, so when she says no in volume 2, it felt incongruous. Did anyone else feel like that?

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    1. Oh goodness yes!! I definitely felt that! LMA was surprised by the reception of the first Little Women; I do wonder whether she intended to write the sequel and have to address the setting up of Jo and Laurie in the first 😉 There’s another blog post on this topic by Andrea Lundgren that touches on that very issue you might be interested in: https://andrealundgren.com/2015/01/16/when-the-author-gets-it-wrong-jo-march-and-laurie-laurence/

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