Why Jo Can’t Marry Laurie — My Surprising Revelation About ‘Little Women’

Something happened to me recently and I’m not sure what to make of it. To be honest, I’m a little shaken. I never thought this would happen to me but … well … here I am. See what you think.

I was lying in bed feeling under the weather so I turned on a movie I haven’t seen in years: the 1994 adaptation of Little Women. I used to watch this movie a lot as a kid. In fact, even though I hadn’t seen it in probably fifteen years or so, I remembered every scene. And I remembered, too, my teenage heartbreak over Jo March’s choice to marry boring, ancient Professor Bhaer over dearest Laurie. But this time — and here’s where it gets crazy, folks — I understood Jo’s choice. I too, it turns out now, would have chosen Bhaer over Laurie. See what I mean? Shocking!

On the surface, Laurie does seem like a good choice for Jo. They laugh together, they play together, they hide behind curtains at dinner parties together. Laurie knows about the Pickwick Club — the March sisters’ secret society in which they pretend to be characters from Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers — and joins in with gusto. Laurie accepts the ways that Jo doesn’t fit in and enjoys making fun of the society ladies with her. For a girl like Jo — spirited, educated, and determined to be a writer — men who accept her for who she is probably aren’t a dime a dozen. In that sense, Jo is right to call Laurie’s offer “a perfectly good marriage proposal.”

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My teenage self didn’t see the problem. Stupid, stupid Jo! What was wrong with her? How could she turn down the prospect of happily ever after with a man who knew her so completely, accepted her so readily, frolicked with her so delightfully? And for a man as serious, stodgy, and — let’s face it — old, as Professor Bhaer. I mean, can you imagine Bhaer romping through the woods and rolling around in the snow? No! Come on Jo!

But now, lying in bed and watching the film again as an adult, I suddenly understand why Jo turned Laurie down. Laurie — for all his acceptance of Jo — doesn’t actually get her. He doesn’t understand her deep passion for literature, or the drive that keeps her up all night writing. He’s constantly shirking his studies and has no interest in books. When he’s packing to head off to college, he scoffs at Jo’s suggestion that he bring the great works of literature with him. On the way home from the theater, Laurie would much rather giggle with Jo about the growing flirtation between Jo’s sister Meg and Laurie’s tutor Mr. Brooke, than discuss the play.

The connection that Jo and Laurie share isn’t really a meeting of minds and souls — as a marriage should be — but something else entirely. The reason Jo shouldn’t marry Laurie is simple really: you just don’t marry your brother.

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It’s easy, I think, to mistake deep friendship — particularly with someone of the opposite sex — for romantic love. The kind of love that forms the bedrock of a marriage. But the easy camaraderie and playful silliness that Jo and Laurie share is not so much romantic love as sibling love. In the film, when Laurie proposes, Jo insists, “We’d kill each other!” Their love is the boisterous, silly, sometimes inappropriate, sometimes shading into teeth-grindingly frustrating, love of brother and sister.

Not to mention the fact that Laurie pretty much admits that his one goal in life is to become a member of the March family. He wants, not to marry Jo specifically, but to be one of the March siblings — their long lost brother, finally come home. He says as much to Amy when, rebuffed by Jo, he tries to marry her instead: “I have always known I should be part of the March family.” Jo is Laurie’s favorite sister, so he proposed to her first. But, failing that, Amy will do. 

Alright, so Jo can’t marry Laurie because … well because we don’t marry our brothers. But is Bhaer really the right man for her? Startlingly, I think he is. 

When I used to watch the movie as a kid I cringed as Jo tempered her usually mile-a-minute speech, and charge-ahead attitude in the presence of mild-mannered Professor Bhaer. I rolled my eyes as she sat, her maidenly bosom heaving, as he translated an aria sitting high up in the rafters of the opera house. My temper flared as he belittled her writing and told her she could do so much better if she wrote from the heart. How on earth could this quiet, seemingly judgmental, sort of nerdy professor — in whose presence Jo became someone else entirely — be better for her than Laurie?

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But now I see the truth: Professor Bhaer gets Jo and, safe in the circle of his love and understanding, Jo grows up — and falls in love. One doesn’t act with one’s husband the way one acts with one’s brother. Jo recognizes in Bhaer a superior intellect and this causes her to listen, and to think before she speaks. She finds a deep and smoldering passion — not the raucous, giddy abandon of Laurie’s childish antics — and quiets herself so she can feel it too. And she finds a man who loves her enough to be honest with her, even when he fears he might lose her. And it spurs her on to new intellectual heights, and allows her to pour out her soul.

I know people are always saying “my husband is my best friend.” But that isn’t quite right — at least it shouldn’t be. Your husband is the person who sees deep into the you of you and loves you for it. He’s the person who can tell you the hard truths, because you know, without a doubt, that he loves you endlessly. He’s the man who inspires a passion so great and so startling that to not touch him would be torture. He’s the man who is endlessly interested in what interests you, and in whose interests you are endlessly interested too. He’s the man who stimulates you, mind, body, and soul, without angst, frustration, or competition. He’s different from your brother or your friend. He’s your husband.

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This is what Jo gets in Professor Bhaer. It’s quieter than her love for Laurie. It’s chats by the fire, and debates about literature, not snowball fights and silly faces. It’s love poetry and breakfast in bed, not giggling at someone else’s expense and collapsing on the floor. It’s adult, intellectual, spiritual — but not passionless.

Bhaer, to my shock and surprise, is the right man to be Jo’s husband. And Laurie, though his methods for getting there are somewhat suspect, is the right man to be her brother. 

There, I said it. 

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Looking for something to watch? I let predictive text write the lyrics to “Let It Go” from Frozen. Here’s what happened:

6 thoughts on “Why Jo Can’t Marry Laurie — My Surprising Revelation About ‘Little Women’

  1. I agree. He’s a better choice because he is driven, responsible, and gently honest with her. I still think that he might be a little too old, but like you said, no young guy is going to “get” her. Plus, her mom married an older guy, and it worked out for them. So, that’s what she’s used to seeing in a husband. I love this post. It reminds me how ahead of its time this story is.

  2. Funny you should cover Little Women, because that book, or at least the film adaptation with Katharine Hepburn, served as an inspiration for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, namely Belle (in fact, you could argue that it used that as the basis far more than the actual fairy tale it was supposed to adapt. Linda Woolverton certainly argued that bit based on this here: http://articles.latimes.com/1992-01-19/entertainment/ca-544_1_disney-film and here: https://web.archive.org/web/20151002043329/https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/theater_dance/beauty-and-the-beast-gets-a-budget-friendly-makeover/2012/06/07/gJQAK3B6KV_story.html ).

    And yeah, reading through that, having her marry what amounts to her brother would be a bit weird in hindsight.

  3. Yeah, ultimately have to agree with your conclusion. As good of chemistry they might have had, Tracey marrying Jo would have just been weird due to them being more brother and sister in overall demeanor.

    Funny you should mention Little Women, though, as the 1991 version of Beauty and the Beast actually took a lot more notes from the 1933 version of the film than the actual tale it was supposed to adapt, if Linda Woolverton is to be believed. Not sure that was a good idea in hindsight…

    1. Sorry for the double post. My first post didn’t show up, so I feared it didn’t go through. It’s a bit of a problem with WordPress, where any links in posts causes it to not show up.

  4. I will never be satisfied with this ending or any explanation for it. It’s not merely that Jo and Laurie were split, it’s also that it was done in an unsatisfying way. He ends up shallower with Amy (also, totally weird that he ends up with her sister), she ends up as a flatter character with a flat character. I feel like the writing and plot was contrived (actually a log of Good Wives felt contrived, Jo actually goes backwards in maturity) to make it unlikely, not that it really would’ve been unlikely. Jo and Laurie are too close, even after Amy (and that marriage drives me nuts with it’s silliness). Jo and Laurie were very young when he proposed. I can see if she didn’t have feelings for him at the time, or didn’t think she did but her reasons didn’t make sense. Also, I don’t think a truly brotherly platonic relationship can exist outside real blood relations, and I do think they were flirty intentionally or not.

    Also, if we are going on family comparisons Professor B is more like a father than Laurie a brother. Jo’s “romantic” scenes were sappy and sentimental, something she always hated, I don’t think a total character reversal is the same as maturity, and I don’t find sappy and sentimental to be sincere or mature. I just don’t find the ending to ring true in the writing. And in the subsequent novels, this continues, Jo and Laurie still have a closeness and depth that as couples they don’t have. Like their relationship, whatever it was, is the strongest idea.

  5. When I first read the book, I’ll admit I was surprised and disappointed she turned down Laurie. But then I fell in love with the Professor and ever since I’ve wanted to find a guy like that! I love this break down you’ve done it it 😊

    MB: keturahskorner.blogspot.com
    PB: thegirlwhodoesntexist.com

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