Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, based on Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel of the same name, doesn’t seem like an adaptation that would end any differently than the various film, television, radio, stage, and web series produced over the years. Yet the 2019 version — which already strays from a straightforward adaptation, as it weaves back and forth through time — blurs the established ending of the book, leaving it up for interpretation.
As it turns out, Gerwig’s take falls more in line with Alcott’s original vision for the novel. The book is semi-autobiographical: Alcott based the characters on her own family, with herself standing in for Jo March. But the ending of the book deviates sharply from Alcott’s own lived experiences. A closer examination of Alcott’s life, and how the intentions for her characters in the movie differ from those in the books, makes a clear case for why Gerwig’s choice is a proper and updated homage to the author’s legacy.
[Ed. note: This article contains spoilers for the end of Little Women (2019) and for the book that’s been out for 151 years.]
The ending that lovers of the book remember is still mostly there in the film. In the novel, Jo, who spends most of the book insisting that she will never get married, finds a kindred spirit in the slightly disheveled, middle-aged Professor Bhaer. This comes after she rejects childhood friend Laurie’s proposal — much to the chagrin of those who hoped Jo and Laurie might get together after the end of the first volume.
Alcott, however, never wanted Jo to get married at all.
“Jo should have remained a literary spinster,” Alcott wrote to a friend after the publication of the first book, “but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare refuse & out of perversity went & made a funny match for her.”
The second volume of Little Women introduced Professor Bhaer, who Alcott engineered specifically to piss off Laurie/Jo shippers but at the same time sate the audience that wanted to see Jo married off to someone. It’s purposefully an odd match, especially since Bhaer isn’t a typical romantic lead. The Jo/Bhaer pairing is less about how dreamy Bhaer is than how he’s a really weird choice in general, reinforcing the fact that getting married is Jo’s decision and no one else’s — not that of her parents, not society, and most of all not ardent Laurie/Jo fans.
Through the relationship with Bhaer, Alcott found a way to indulge her fandom and maintain Jo’s agency. In the penultimate chapter of the book, aptly entitled “Under the Umbrella,” the professor visits the March home, where he and Jo finally confess their feelings for one another. Afterward, they share a kiss beneath an umbrella — and in public, which was deliciously scandalous for the time (and in line with Jo’s character). The final chapter sees them married and happy, but with a big caveat: Jo has given up her writing career in order to run a school and be a mother.
Gerwig’s film adaptation follows much of the same path. Bhaer (Louis Garrel) visits the March home, tells Jo (Saoirse Ronan) that he will be leaving for California in order to secure a job, and then heads off. But before Jo walks after him, the film pivots back to a scene with Jo sitting in front of her publisher, her near-finished manuscript of Little Women between them. They go back and forth about whether her main heroine — a stand-in for Jo herself — should get married. The film returns to the “past,” to the March house, where the family aids Jo in going after Professor Bhaer. The two confess their love for one another, sharing a kiss beneath an umbrella.
Then it’s back to the publisher, who declares the scene a masterpiece and says that they’ll title the chapter “Under the Umbrella.” They clash a bit more about royalties and copyright, until finally they come to an agreement and the book is set to be published.
The final stretch of the movie oscillates between the last chapter of the book — a happy gathering of all the extended March family at the new school, celebrating the harvest — and scenes of Jo watching her book get printed. The family scenes are vibrant and happy, washed in the same golden hue as the scenes set firmly in the girls’ past, the scenes that we learn make up the book Jo writes. But Gerwig ends her adaptation on a shot of Jo opening up her finished novel, having achieved her goal of being a professional writer.
The choice doesn’t necessarily imply that these scenes are mutually exclusive. Modern women certainly have loving families and successful careers at the same time. The scene is ambiguous for a reason, leaving it up to the viewer to decide which path is more meaningful for Jo. But the fact that the family moment could be a fabricated epilogue, and the true end of Jo’s story would be a quiet moment basking in her published manuscript, the rights all belonging to her, is a vindication for Alcott — composed intentionally by Gerwig.
“I felt if I could give Louisa an ending she actually wanted for Jo 150 years later, then maybe we’ve gotten somewhere,” said Gerwig in an interview with Variety.
Jo’s ending has always been designed to stir things up. Both Alcott and Gerwig take care not to elevate Jo’s unconventional path as the “correct” one; the other March sisters are painted in equal, loving light, with none of their paths elevated, either. Still, Jo is Alcott’s stand-in, and Alcott herself never married. Yet she couldn’t keep Jo unmarried, since, fairly, she wanted to rake in a profit as she was supporting her entire family with the Little Women royalties (and eventually published two sequels focusing on Jo’s kids).
In 1868, the way for Alcott to emphasize that Jo didn’t care for societal conventions — yet still remain popular and profitable — was to have Jo choose an older, poorer, foreign love interest.
In 2019, though, a single woman can pursue her career goals. Gerwig boldly makes the choice that Alcott couldn’t afford to.