History & Film | Little Women: The Amy March Rorschach Test
WRITTEN BY BETHANY LATHAM
The first volume of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was published in 1868 to great success; film adaptations have been myriad and continual, from the silent era to last year’s offering. For the few unfamiliar with the novel’s plot, it’s primarily domestic, concerning a household of New England women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March. These nestlings are overseen by momma bird Marmee, their father spending much of the novel away at the Civil War. The family struggles financially, but Marmee embodies a mother’s love and stresses the virtue of charity to those less fortunate. Hers are words to live by: “When you feel discontented, think over your blessings, and be grateful.” Jo is the novel’s heroine, a headstrong tomboy who wants to be a writer. Meg is traditional, Beth is a saint, and Amy is the petted youngest sister. Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, the poor-little-rich-boy-next-door and Jo’s best friend, also plays a prominent role.
Though the book is thinly-veiled autobiography, Alcott was less than taken with it – it wasn’t the type of literature she wished to write. She also lacked creative control to a certain extent. The novel was published in two volumes. The second volume came about due to popular demand: readers wanted to know what happened to the girls, namely who they married. Alcott was irritated, and showed it by being contrary: “Jo should have remained a literary spinster 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.” 1 This “funny match” is Professor Bhaer, a German immigrant who is “rather stout” and without “a really handsome feature in his face.” He’s old enough to be Jo’s father and behaves accordingly – he is kind, but can be terribly didactic, morally critical, and even a bit condescending. I’ve seen multiple film versions of Little Women, and not a one has been brave enough to pair Jo off with a Professor Bhaer who actually fits the novel’s description.
Though Jo is the heroine and a worthy character study, in light of the latest adaptation of Little Women, I thought it might be more interesting to take a look at Amy. I should admit a bias: like many, I suspect, who read Little Women as children, I disliked – no, loathed – the character of Amy March. She was snobbish, vain, shallow, vindictive, and supremely selfish. I remember chunking the book across the room in disgust when Laurie comes home from the Continent married … to Amy. How could he do such a thing? How could Alcott have him do such a thing? I was angry and disappointed, just as Alcott intended.
Amy’s actions speak for themselves without my editorializing, perhaps. Though acknowledged by all as beautiful (a slender, blue-eyed blond), she sleeps with a clothespin on her nose in an attempt to improve its snub shape into something more aristocratic. Part of the book’s humor comes from younger Amy’s misuse of big words in a failed effort to appear more refined and condescend to others. Much of her vanity is played for laughs, though there are darker undercurrents to her selfishness. Amy covets her rich Aunt March’s jewelry; upon seeing it, her thoughts immediately jump to who will get it when the old woman dies. She resolves to be “a lamb”…in hopes her aunt will give her a turquoise ring and she won’t have to wait for the old lady’s death to inherit it. In one of the most memorable acts in the book, Amy pitches a tantrum when Jo and Meg attend the theatre and she is not allowed to go. As they leave, Jo dismisses Amy’s whining. In an act of devastating revenge, Amy burns Jo’s manuscript, the fruit of years of passionate labor. Amy initially lies about what she’s done, only apologizing when she experiences the full force of Jo’s rage and ostracism. Amy resolves to be less selfish…because she reasons that her sister Beth is selfless and people love her for it, and Amy wants the type of love and admiration directed at Beth for herself. Even her resolution to be less selfish is made for selfish reasons. “Money, position, fashionable accomplishments, and elegant manners were most desirable things in her eyes, and she liked to associate with those who possessed them, often mistaking the false for the true, and admiring what was not admirable. Never forgetting that by birth she was a gentlewoman, she cultivated her aristocratic tastes and feelings, so that when the opportunity came she might be ready to take the place from which poverty now excluded her.” The opportunity arrives in spades when her rich aunt (Carrol in the book, March in the film adaptations) takes her to Europe. Jo had expected to make this trip, but Amy easily usurps her place, leaving Jo devastated yet again. Once on the Continent, Amy pursues the richest suitor she can find and plans to marry him (admittedly unloved) until Laurie shows up and notices what a beautiful young woman Jo’s little sister has become. Amy lays it on as thickly as she can, throwing over her other suitor. She knows Laurie’s feelings for Jo (he has fled to Europe after Jo turns down his marriage proposal and they quarrel), yet Amy marries him anyway – he is both wealthy and handsome, after all. She is entitled to whatever she wants, because she’s one of those women “born to rule by virtue of beauty, youth, and womanhood.” Perhaps this is enough of a character sketch?
The integral point is that while Amy certainly isn’t a monster and is capable of kindness, her only consistent “virtues” are beauty, youth, and womanhood (showcased as the ability to suit herself to any social situation in order to manipulate the favor of those who can bring her advantage). Her characterization in multiple movie adaptations has reflected this. The 1933 version directed by George Cukor stars Joan Bennett as Amy, and she’s introduced in school, holding a chalkboard which states “I am ashamed of myself” as punishment for misdeeds. Yet she’s anything but ashamed of her behavior, using tears to manipulate the teacher into not telling her mother, then lying to her classmates. There isn’t a great deal to distinguish the 1933 version from the 1949 film, which is a near scene-for-scene remake, this time with a blond Elizabeth Taylor as Amy. She’s a bit over the top, nearing caricature. But both she and Bennett embody the book’s characterization to a great extent – a spoiled brat who grows into an entitled young woman.
It has been said of Little Women films that “each iteration is a kind of Rorschach test for how the world feels about women at the time.”2 When looking at Amy across these adaptations, the ink blots seem to shift for the first time with 1994’s Little Women, directed by Gillian Armstrong. I admit to loving this film, from the snow-muffled wonderland of the cinematography to the score. Claire Danes makes an exceptionally kind and pathetic Beth, and though not often affected to the point of tears by a movie (or anything else), her death has managed it more than once. It is the first film adaptation directed by a woman, and it is notable for a number of reasons, but primarily for the beauty of the female relationships and the realism of the dynamics within this household of women. It is easy to understand why outsiders (such as Laurie) desperately want to join this family, to bask in the glow of its comfort and warmth. This is also the first film to address the age issue for Amy. As the youngest March sister, the character is 12 years old when the story begins and married by its end, but most film versions still choose to use only one actress for the part. Elizabeth Taylor, at 17, barely managed to straddle the age range; Joan Bennett, who was 23 and pregnant at the time she played Amy, doesn’t even come close. Florence Pugh is likewise problematic in the 2019 version. The 1994 movie has Kirsten Dunst, who actually was 12 at the time, in the role of young Amy. Her swanning about and vocabulary mishaps are amusing, and due to her age, her foibles feel more like the lack of maturity occasioned by childhood, rather than the stark character flaws they appear with older actresses in the role. Thus, Amy is softened. This softness and realism is only enhanced later in the film when the transition is made to the older version of Amy, played by Samantha Mathis. Mathis’s poise and grace in the role, as well as the way the film frames her relationship throughout with Laurie, makes their eventual marriage both more believable as well as less off-putting (slightly). The inkblots may not have rearranged into a heroine, but at least we’re no longer seeing a villain.
Which brings us to Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film, which has been universally praised by critics. Before I saw it, I suspected the critical swooning would likely mean one thing: that Gerwig had given the film a blatant, modern social message. It should be understood that Alcott herself, influenced by transcendentalism, was quite forward-thinking for her time. She never married, and she chafed at the strictures occasioned by being a female during the Victorian era. She acknowledged in her letters (parts of which made it into the film as dialogue) that women had minds as well as hearts, and it would be lovely if they could be valued for both, and not find the be-all, end-all of their existence in marriage. Jo is often angry (her temper is famous) and bemoans the fact that she wasn’t born a boy – she craves intellectual stimulation and adventure. Much of her relationship with Laurie feels almost like a type of surrogacy: she wishes she had his opportunities as a male (opportunities he callously fails to appreciate) and lives vicariously through his experiences. Alcott addresses these and other feminist issues in subtle manner in the novel, but at the risk of the world’s greatest understatement, subtlety isn’t Hollywood’s forte. Jo is opposed to Meg’s marriage in the novel because she fears the dissolution that will begin with Meg leaving their warm family group. In this film, Meg, as the more traditional sister, must give a speech defending the fact that she wants to marry; her genuine desire for love, children, and domesticity is a sort of betrayal that must be justified to the modern audience. Unlike the novel, Jo is allowed to not wed at all (the movie is vague, but this is the impression conveyed). Based on her letters, this is probably truer to what Alcott would’ve preferred for this character which represented herself. But the greatest change comes with the characterization of Amy. Florence Pugh is arresting in any role she takes on, and this one is no exception. Her age (24) for the younger version of Amy stretches plausibility, but that could be said of more than one actress in this film. The interesting shift comes with her transfiguration from a vain and shallow gold-digger into an intelligent, ambitious feminist. Critics have noted they consider Gerwig’s adaptation powerful specifically because she “doesn’t pretend its marriages are romantic.”3 Amy seeks out only wealthy suitors not because she values wealth and elevated society as ends unto themselves, but because she knows her value as a woman. How does one know she holds these views? She spouts them, vehemently, to Laurie: “Don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition!” This is the conclusion to an angry lecture Laurie receives on the 19th century legal state of things. This state Laurie doubtless knows, but the supposedly ignorant audience must be enlightened – Amy cannot make her own money, her property belongs to her husband when she marries, and even her children belong to him. If she must be forced to sell herself, then she refuses to sell herself cheaply. In case the viewer is too slow to grasp the concept, Gerwig also has Jo repeat it almost word for word when her publisher tells her that her heroine must marry or the book won’t sell: “I suppose marriage has always primarily been an economic proposition. Even in fiction.”
Pugh as Amy, like Mathis before her, brings grace to the role of the elder Amy, but to this, she adds a strength that cannot be ignored. Amy and Laurie, as a couple, have always been problematic; it is a union that makes little sense in the world of the novel, likely because Alcott never originally intended it – it simply suited her contrary purpose by keeping Laurie from marrying Jo in volume II. In the case of this film, it is, perhaps, entirely necessary to view Amy’s relationship with Laurie in exactly the way she lectures him (and the audience), because otherwise their connection is uniformly unbelievable. Laurie is a debauched, whiny, changeable, and physically unassuming loafer. Gerwig has noted that she wanted Laurie to seem androgynous, and as portrayed by Timothée Chalamet, he is certainly quite the wispy lad. Amy is the vital, strong one in this relationship, and there’s no way her preference would tend towards this man (boy) for his own merits (which seem nonexistent). The inkblots have now completely reoriented: Amy is as much a heroine as Jo, the agency is hers, and her ambition for a wealthy husband and her grandmaster chess moves to get one somehow represent a feminist virtue. A love match – any other type of match at all – would devalue her.
Gerwig has stated that she wanted to “play with the iconography”4 of Little Women, and her transfiguration of Amy March is one of the more obvious examples. In some ways, especially as regards Jo’s development and path, she has re-plotted Alcott’s original in a way that Alcott herself would perhaps have approved. Whether Alcott (or fans of her novel) will appreciate the reimagining of Amy is more debatable. My own dislike is so firmly entrenched that I fear no film will ever be able to shift it. But future iterations are always welcome to keep trying.
- Jessica Bennet. “This Is ‘Little Women’ for a New Era.” The New York Times. 2 January 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/02/books/little-women-feminism-2019-movie.html
- Constance Grady. “The power of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is that it doesn’t pretend its marriages are romantic.” Vox. 27 December 2019. https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/12/27/21037870/little-women-greta-gerwig-ending-jo-laurie-amy-bhaer
- “Interview with Greta Gerwig.” Turner Classic Movies.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Bethany Latham is a professor, librarian, and HNR‘s Managing Editor. She is a regular contributor to NoveList and a regular reviewer for Booklist.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 91 (February 2020)