By Trix Wilkins
NOTE: A revised and expanded version of this article has been published in the 150th anniversary anthology Alcott’s Imaginary Heroes: The Little Women Legacy under the title “Why Jo says no (and why we care).”
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.
(If like me you might accept all of the above and still feel, “But he really should have returned for her!” you might like to check out the variation I wrote of Little Women in which Laurie does a great deal more chasing, The Courtship of Jo March.)