Alcott, who never bore a child, never married, and, to anyone’s knowledge, never had a sexual relationship, nevertheless understood love on a profound level, and particularly those aspects of love that call on one to attend to the needs of others. When Alcott’s parents were aging, she cared for them. When her older sister Anna’s husband died young, leaving two young sons, Alcott used her writing income to become her nephews’ breadwinner. After her youngest sister died of complications from childbirth, Alcott raised the infant. Experience continually taught her that love leads us to want to be the best thing we can be in another person’s life, but that the best thing can be far different from what we might desire it to be. Adapting herself to whatever role her family demanded, Alcott was continually pressured to neglect her authentic self. But authorship was also lonely for her. Reflecting ruefully on Anna’s happiness with her two sons, Alcott wrote, “I sell my children [meaning her stories], and though they feed me, they don’t love me as hers do.”
Read: How Louisa May Alcott’s life sheds light on her treasured coming-of-age tale
So, too, in Gerwig’s Little Women. Saoirse Ronan’s portrayal of Jo gives us, as never before, a portrait of the character as an aspiring and eventually successful writer. The costs of her rise, though, are made clear; she drives herself mercilessly and experiences the isolation with which so many writers are unhappily familiar. The sacrifices also take place on a romantic level. More powerfully than in any of the previous Hollywood films, Jo and Laurie are shown as perfect for each other in every role except the one into which sentimental conventions would force them: marriage. The quest of Gerwig’s Jo for a career makes her lonely, but she is made lonelier still by the realization that love in real life does not greatly resemble the love she describes in her potboiler stories.
To show love for her family, Jo must do more than show affection. She must also earn the money that supports them, and this necessity sometimes means neglecting them in favor of her work. To show her love for Laurie, she must let him find a greater happiness than she can give him as a wife. To borrow the words of Leonard Cohen, love, for Jo, is not a victory march.
Importantly, both Alcott and Gerwig have understood that in love, men must change and sacrifice as well. As self-indulgent as he is, Gerwig’s Laurie grasps this imperative on a certain level, giving up the pleasure-seeking habits Jo disapproves of before proposing to her. He receives his share of moral condemnation as well, when Amy blasts him for his relapse into dissipation in France. In Alcott’s novel, Amy reprimands Laurie in private. In the film, some of her harshest words for him come at a lavish ball, visually reminiscent of the scene where Laurie previously censured Meg. The reversal is delicious, and again, Gerwig’s sense of thematic rhyme is unerring.