Oceans Underneath
The Natural Grace of Greta Gerwig's Little Women
Samuel Graber

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is a great film that richly deserved its Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay. Gerwig’s chances to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar, however, were swamped by a host of males directing largely male-driven movies about maleness. In its eagerness to celebrate men telling the stories of soldiers, mobsters, stuntmen, and psychos, the Academy missed an opportunity to acknowledge the talented woman responsible for a terrific film centered on women. Far more importantly, however, Academy voters overlooked a powerful example of deeply humane cinematic storytelling. For although Little Women is about women, it is finally a story for all of us.

If that claim carries more weight coming from a male fan of the film, so much the better. In making it I don’t mean to cast myself as some sufficiently woke champion of an up-and-coming female director; Gerwig certainly doesn’t need that kind of help. I actually want to point out that paying too much attention to gender, even in a film that challenges American society’s historical disempowerment of women, could cause us to undervalue a cinematic story that is finally about people—or to put it more grandly, about the human condition.

Little Women poster

Of course gender matters. In mid-nineteenth-century America, women like Louisa May Alcott and the fictional characters in her story constituted an oppressed class, beholden to their fathers and husbands within a pervasive fog of shared assumptions about their limited individual capacities and social value. To grow up as one of the little women meant grasping at wisps of freedom within a stifling patriarchal miasma that rarely lifted and never dissipated. Too much of that cloud remains with us today, but it fell heavier on women of those times and it hovers around the edges of nearly every scene in the film.

Yet Gerwig’s movie succeeds most powerfully in those moments where the fog is pierced, not by speeches about the economics of love and marriage or women’s work, but by a sudden revelation of common humanity. These are the moments that reveal the lie of all the calloused justifications of a diseased and misogynist culture, and they make the fundamental injustice motivating the film’s speeches excruciatingly clear in ways that the speeches themselves do not.

In some quarters, appeals to a region of human experience beyond culture, whether made by a film or a film critic, may sound naive and off key. Everything, after all, is shaped by culture. What we call the world is a learned experience. Even the soul is scripted, however it may be defined. All this is true, even obvious. But it is also BS, a bluff easily called by a child witnessing a corpse, or the lover’s overheard heartbeat in the night. Or, to borrow a visual motif from Gerwig’s film, the image of natural grace and wonderful history revealed in a person’s hands.

Jo March’s hands are often ink stained in Gerwig’s imagining, and she is always shaking the cramps out of them. She is a writer, you see, like the author and filmmaker behind her, building cultures with her pen and being marked herself as a text of her times. But cramps are cramps, and it is in remembering the bodies behind the text that an audience can recognize these women writers as representatives of all of us, human beings beyond their social context because they can never escape the temporal necessities that are the raw materials of all human histories, all cultures. One such moment comes during Mrs. March’s close observation of a farmer’s hands in a charity line. In her encounter with the father of four sons lost to war—two of them forever—his shaking hands yield a recognition of what lies under the ink, even under the scars left by culture and history, by work and war, class and gender. A hand beyond history finally amounts to a vaporous platonic myth, but there also can be no real history without the hands that write it together. Look closely behind the text and there they are, the hands that mirror one’s own, the hands to hold “whoever you are,” as Alcott’s contemporary Walt Whitman liked to say. So Mrs. March becomes Marmee, played with the warm but understated grace that has become Laura Dern’s trademark, as she hands the grieving farmer her own scarf, surreptitiously removing it and passing it along to the much larger man, who somehow needs this article of women’s clothing more than she does. He is on the way to a war hospital to tend to a sick son; it will be years before Marmee loses her daughter to a disease caught while caring for a sick infant. This is not merely Christian charity. Rather it is the premise behind it, the claim of our common humanity on all of us.

Children, the novitiate of our various cultures, are also the walking symbols of that deeper shared reality. They are missing from the scene, but the children grown and partially grown are held in their parents’ minds: the sons gone to war, the daughters on their way to the predicaments of adulthood. That space of holding also forms the core of the film, the ordinary truth that childhood impresses on us even as we learn to let it go, piece by inexorable piece. We feel that impression forever as something lost, in ourselves and then in our children, something our hands failed to clench tightly enough. We feel it in this film whenever Jo senses her siblings starting to depart for adulthood and hear her make Pan’s argument to the Wendys who share her attic dramas: don’t leave; just stay. As she puts it in one of the narrative’s great lines, spoken to her older sister Meg upon her betrothal to a Latin tutor: “You will be bored of him in two years and we will be interesting forever.” That’s not quite true, of course. Though Meg’s tutor is quite dull, he has a hand to hold. And as Meg promises Jo, he will help her build a family of her own, children to make the case anew, to show again that there are ways to see through the clouds of our cultures. Children and the memory of childhood can do that for all of us. Artist’s imaginations can do it, too, if their art can give the vision a solid form, a new thing to see.

So Jo writes and Greta shoots. Gerwig’s boldest narrative technique takes shape through a literal deviation from her source that, in my opinion, presents the most faithful transcription of the novel’s oxymoronic title: little women. Her film makes the memory of childhood real by rhythmically alternating cinematic points of view between the nearly mature and decidedly childish women. It’s a risk, and not without cost; the repeated skips across the seven-year gap using all the same actors can seem disorienting, hokey, pretentious. But if we assume that this film is really about the strange truth of childhood—irreducible in its essence, growing in ultimate significance even as it shrinks in the temporal distance—then Gerwig’s formal choice proves not only justifiable but also perfectly apt. These are not really flashbacks, for the film never quite endorses the authority of either temporal point of view. Childhood in Little Women is more than reminiscence, more than recollection; it becomes the literal and visceral accompaniment to all the revelations of adulthood. From the film’s point of view, childhood is both lost from the start and never transcended. And so we come to see all these little women for what they are from the point of view of eternity, as people made and marred by time, as well as by history and culture.

The value of Gerwig’s cinematic approach to the novel’s narrative manifests fully in death and the urgency of love that surrounds it in Alcott’s novel, and in the movie’s distinctive capacity to grapple with mortality as the maker of memory and its destroyer. For Gerwig’s bold temporal leaps show us, in a fresh and poignant way, the ultimate loss behind all the lesser departures that mark the lives of the little women and that make their sisterhood so dear. A death cheated in childhood must inevitably return, of course, but it is the filmmaker’s method that forces us to feel it like the drumbeat behind the characters’ collective maturation. The potential loss of the film’s promised future helps us see the nearness of Amy’s brush with death when, having burned Jo’s book and now burdened by her sister’s angry disregard, she makes a childish charge to be included in the triangle with Laurie and plunges below the ice she did not know was dangerous. Stranded too far away to grasp her hand, Amy’s future husband extends a saving branch, even as he is grasped desperately by Jo in turn. The fall, announced by breaking ice overheard from a distance, and the anxious bedside scene that follows, strip all trivialities bare with the suddenness of freezing water on the skin. Jo is left in the dark to huddle with Marmee and wonder why she is so savage, and why she cares so much for her books. The event is ordinary, a domestic scene in the wake of a mere accident of childhood. But there are oceans underneath it.

We see those oceans more directly in a crowning anachronistic sequence, a temporal mashup of beach scenes that creates a climax for the plot’s lively jostling of mortality and memory. In the script that its writer made available online, Gerwig signals the time change by stipulating that, in the later scene, “The beach is emptier, darker, colder—the beach of their adulthood, without the gloss of memory.” Here and now we find Jo reading George Eliot aloud to her dying sister, the words binding together the film’s separate chronologies. Jo has used her writing money to bring them back to the beach that the audience has just seen in all its bright remembered cheer, in the hope that it will help Beth get better. Now Jo draws another author’s words out of the past to stave off the ultimate finality for her sister, as she has resisted all the incipient surrenders that growing up entails: “We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it, if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers.”

Jo reads and Beth listens on the threshold of death and adulthood, and they talk about stories, as Beth admonishes Jo to write for others, for those who are dying and those who must face death, again and again. “I’m very sick,” Beth says, “and you must do what I say.…Do what Marmee taught us to do. Do it for someone else.” The scene and chronology shift again and we see a series of gifts: Marmee’s gift in the charity line; Jo’s gift of her hair (her “one beauty,” as Amy laments); Beth’s charity visit to a poverty-stricken child who will pass along a deadly infection; and Mr. Laurence’s gift of a piano to Beth, who reminds him of his lost daughter, as he tells her just before he exclaims that she has caught the baby’s fever. Back on the beach with the adult sisters, we hear Jo’s gift of a new story take the place of Eliot, along with her promise to stop the death she had previously only postponed in Beth. And then the camera shifts to show the women curled together as we might see them from the edge of the water, while the wind blows the sand on which they sit incessantly out to sea, a world disappearing and being made again. No hourglass can contain it. Yet in words, in pictures, and, as Beth insists, in stories, we make a place for ourselves in a larger history—Gerwig, Eliot, Alcott, and the rest—setting our hands to the task, remembering the truths of childhood as we build new cultures on a windswept world of time.


Samuel Graber is associate professor of humanities and literature at Christ College, the Honors College at Valparaiso University.

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