Jo Refuses Laurie

In my final post on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, I want to focus not on the death of Beth, which is the climax of the novel, but on that peculiar narrative twist that Alcott was so proud of: Laurie doesn’t end up with Jo. 

Let’s put this deferred romance in perspective. If you look at the narrative works on the Master List that are contemporary with Alcott’s (i.e., works by authors born fifteen years before or after her) you will find very few authors of novels that conclude with happy endings. Really, it is a dramatic shift in the fiction zeitgeist from the first half of the 1800s to the second. Consider: Can you imagine a Jane Austen novel where all is not well in the end, or an early Dickensian hero who does not emerge happy, healthy, and wed? In contrast, imagine a Thomas Hardy protagonist with a smile on her face, or a Henry James leading lady that doesn’t gravitate toward the bitter and away from the sweet. There are exceptions to my little theory, but they are exceptions. Something happened in the second half of the 19th century. Everyone got a case of the blues.  

The sorrow that briefly infects the final chapters of Little Women is therefore striking because of its limited impact on the characters. Meg dies, Laurie’s proposal is rejected by Jo, and everyone bounces back, seemingly unbroken. 

This is not unrealistic. People who lose family, lover, or limb do not all act like like Ahab or Rochester. Many endure, not without pain, but certainly not mortally wounded. In fact it is refreshing to read a book from this era where something unfortunate does not prompt a personal apocalypse.

Alcott was determined, from all accounts, not to have Laurie end up with Jo at the conclusion of Little Women. It struck her as too easy, too artificial to have her autobiographical protagonist “get the boy.” A lot of  analytical hay could be made from Jo’s refusal (and, it seems, a lot of fan fiction to correct the “error”), but the takeaway for me was a literary one. Alcott knew there was a ferocious battle going on between her characters and narrative expectations that were being laid on them by the reader. She stuck to her guns and said the characters were more important than the old rules of fiction. Perhaps, though the ending of Little Women is hardly a sad one, this was Alcott’s nod to the era literature was then entering. Not every story has a happy ending.  

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