“Marriage is an Excellent Thing, After All”
Are you a Laurian or a Bhaerite?
You know what I’m talking about, and surely you were nodding your head—or possibly shaking it vigorously—before you even reached the end of that sentence. The happy conclusion of Louisa May Alcott’s classic Little Women, in which unorthodox heroine Josephine March and her new husband, courtly German Friedrich Bhaer, anticipate a joyful future together, has always been somewhat controversial. You see, Friedrich didn’t get there first. He had a rival. And many readers, even today, like the rival better.
I speak, of course, of Jo’s best friend, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence. He falls violently in love with her; she rejects him; he eventually marries her younger sister, prissy Amy. Generations of readers have cried bitter tears as Jo shoots down adventurous, passionate Laurie and subsequently groaned in disbelief when she falls for the older and stodgier Bhaer. Other readers have cited Bhaer’s steadiness, intelligence, generosity, and goodness of heart as evidence that Jo absolutely, totally, and without question made the right choice. Like I said: controversial.
Today, we resolve to address this hotly debated controversy in the best and only way: We’re going to put it to you, the readers. Who should be the captain of Josephine March’s heart?
First, we have the boy next door himself:
Assets: Young and attractive, Laurie loves Jo with his whole heart. They are similar and taste and temperament. Her family loves him, and his family loves her. And—not to put too fine a point on it—he’s filthy rich. That’s never a bad thing, right?
Liabilities: Laurie is strong-willed, quick-tempered, and impetuous. And stubborn. And emotional:
I’ve loved you ever since I’ve known you, Jo—couldn’t help it, you’ve been so good to me. I’ve tried to show it, but you wouldn’t let me. Now I’m going to make you hear, and give me an answer, for I can’t go on so any longer.
Oh, my. He’s a lot like Jo, in other words. Imagine the two of them living together; the sex would be stratospheric but the fights would be epic. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
But wait! What does Jo have to say? All in all, Jo takes a rather clear-eyed view of the matter:
You’ll get over this after a while, and find some lovely, accomplished girl who will adore you, and make a fine mistress for your fine house. I shouldn’t. I’m homely and awkward and odd and old, and you’d be ashamed of me, and we should quarrel–we can’t help it even now, you see—and I shouldn’t like elegant society and you would, and you’d hate my scribbling and I couldn’t get on without it, and we should be unhappy, and wish we hadn’t done it, and everything would be horrid!
Of note: In the 1994 film version of Little Women, Laurie was portrayed by a young Christian Bale, and who among us would have within her the strength of character to deny a young Christian Bale, well, anything?
But look out! Here comes the competition:
Assets: Herr Professor Friedrich “Fritz” Bhaer is an all-around good egg. He’s more stable in temperament than the volatile Laurie, and if he does convince Jo to stop publishing lurid melodramas after the fashion of one Mrs. S.L.A.N.G. Northbury, he also supports her as she finds her voice as a writer of more wholesome and ultimately (to her, at least) more satisfying fare.
Liabilities: At thirty-nine, Bhaer is (let us say) past the early vigor of youth, especially for the time period in question. One person’s “stable” and “solid” is another person’s “dull.” And as for the writing...imagine if J.R. Ward’s husband had sweetly convinced J.R. that creating vampire erotica was not the best use of her natural-born talents. Where would the world be then?
But surely the lady has an opinion about all this: Jo is actually a bit mortified by the whole situation:
Jo couldn’t even lose her heart in a decorous manner, but sternly tried to quench her feelings, and failing to do so, led a somewhat agitated life. She was mortally afraid of being laughed at for surrendering, after her many and vehement declarations of independence.
…And how does that whole “quenching her feelings” thing work out for her?
…[H]e asked in a tone that meant a great deal: “Heart’s dearest, why do you cry?”
Now if Jo had not been new to this sort of thing she would have said she wasn’t crying, had a cold in her head, or told any other feminine fib proper to the occasion; instead of which that undignified creature answered, with an irrepressible sob, “Because you are going away.”
“Ach, mein Gott, that is so good!” cried Mr. Bhaer… “Jo, I haf nothing but much love to gif you. I came to see if you could care for it, and I waited to be sure that I was something more than a friend. Am I? Can you make a little place in your heart for old Fritz?”
Jo’s brief but heartfelt response—“Oh yes!”—pretty much tells you where she, at least, stands on the interesting question of Laurie vs. Bhaer.
Of note: Gabriel Byrne (mmm, Gabriel Byrne) played Bhaer in the 1994 film version. But did you know that William Shatner (Eek! William Shatner) also portrayed Bhaer, in a 1978 miniseries? It’s also worth mentioning that even Alcott didn’t much care for the conclusion, having preferred to keep Jo a busy, happy spinster, and only marrying her off in response to pressure from her publisher and her fans.
To sum things up: This is, I think we can all agree, an excellent problem for a woman to have. In one corner: Youth, passion, privilege, and similarity of temperament. In the other: wisdom, maturity, stability, and similarity of intellect. It would have been nice if Alcott had rolled both men into one irresistible package, but that’s not the world we live in and at the end of the day THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE.
So have at it, Laurians and Bhaerites: Did Jo March make the right choice? Which suitor should she have married?
Kate Nagy is editor at large of Geek Speak Magazine.