Little Women: Jo Can Handle Feedback

Niina Pekantytär

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Little Women is a Bildungsroman. Bildungsroman is a literal genre that originated from Germany. Goethe´s novel Wilhelm Meister´s apprenticeship was the first Bildungsroman and I shall make multiple references to Wilhelm Meister in this article because this novel had a deep significance to Louisa and a huge effect on the development of Little Women. English translation could be "coming of age" - novel. The focus of a Bildungsroman is on the moral and psychological development of the characters. Jo in the first book is filled with contradictions. She is childish and very immature at times but still more mature than Laurie. Jo´s two defining character features are her anger and her fear of change. In the first book, Jo makes a conscious attempt to control her temper because it often leads her into trouble. It is natural that a person calms down a bit when they mature but still in the fourth book Jo´s boys, where Jo is in her 50´s reader finds out that she still at times struggles with her temper.

In movies and in all tv adaptations so far scene where Fritz expresses his opinions about sensational literature has been turned into a conflict. I guess it´s supposed to create more drama? but this is not the way things go in the book, because Jo already has labelled her sensational writings as rubbish way before she even thinks of travelling to New York. She has assured herself that her intentions are good because she would use the money to help her family. This inner conflict that Jo has, begins in chapter 27. Literary lessons. 

In this chapter, Jo attends a lecture about pyramids. There she bumps into a young man who is reading a thrilling story written by Mrs Nortbury. Jo is amused by the boy´s admiration of the "trash", that is how she calls this type of literature which emphasizes her wish to disdain herself from those stories, so Jo´s negative views towards sensational stories are clearly identified. When Jo hears how much Mrs Northbury makes with her "Stress and Thunder" tales Jo begins to change her mind and soon starts to write them herself. 

"Stress and thunder" tales originate from Goethe. In German, this genre is called "Sturm und Drang" Drang refers to deep emotional stress. Sturm und Drang was a movement in literature and music in late 18th century Germany and was vastly influenced by Goethe´s writings and plays. There is a great emphasis on faith for the individual and the movement was highly influenced by Shakespeare. Goethe´s Sturm und Drang plays were about very masculine Teutonic heroes which is probably what fascinated Louisa as an author.

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Little Women 2018

Jo´s first stories are poor attempts to capture the spirit of Sturm und Drang. 

Her story was as full of desperation and despair as her limited acquaintance with those uncomfortable emotions enabled her to make it

Jo takes in consideration all the advice she gets from everyone around her, instead of seeking advice from someone who could help her to improve as a writer. She goes against her own judgement when she knows that some of the advice she receives does not improve the story. 

So, with Spartan firmness, the young authoress laid her first-born on her table and chopped it up as ruthlessly as any ogre. In the hope of pleasing everyone, she took everyone’s advice, and like the old man and his donkey in the fable suited nobody.

After submitting to a bunch of magazines Jo writers her first novel which is a romance and it receives mixed reviews. Jo appreciates the feedback and learns from it. 

Her family and friends administered comfort and commendation liberally. Yet it was a hard time for sensitive, high-spirited Jo, who meant so well and had apparently done so ill. But it did her good, for those whose opinion had real value gave her the criticism which is an author’s best education, and when the first soreness was over, she could laugh at her poor little book, yet believe in it still, and feel herself the wiser and stronger for the buffeting she had received.

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In Chapter 34 when Jo enters the publishing world in New York she enters a world that is male-dominated. Her sensational story is cut from a third of its original length. Jo is frustrated with the way Mr Dashwood wants to cut out all the morals away from the story and the morals are what Jo wishes to keep, eventually, Jo agrees to these alternations to be made. 

Despite her “masculine shield” Jo is quite emotional internally even though she doesn´t like to show it and writing thrilling tales becomes distressing. 

She was living in bad society, and imaginary though it was, its influence affected her, for she was feeding heart and fancy on dangerous and unsubstantial food, and was fast brushing the innocent bloom from her nature by a premature acquaintance with the darker side of life, which comes soon enough to all of us.

Fritz knows that Jo writes and he is curious about it but Jo is ashamed of her writings. She is adamant about using a pseudonym and she doesn´t tell anyone at home what she is doing and neither she has shown her stories to Fritz. Friedrich never criticizes Jo as a writer, he is criticizing the genre. Friedrich is honest. He wants Jo to take herself seriously as a writer. The book Jo does not shout or argue with Fritz unlike the movie Jo does because Friedrich expresses what Jo has been thinking all along. 

As a result, Jo burns her trashy novels. Then the book Jo tries to write for children, it doesn´t feel right. Then she writes stories that only have moralities, that does not feel right either. She jumps from one literal genre to another. Friedrich does turn out to be indeed a friend, like the title of the chapter suggests. He encourages Jo to study real-life people so she can develop her characters and as a Christmas gift he gives her a set of Shakespeare´s novels. Goethe, Louisa´s idol. would have had similar thoughts towards sensational stories that Friedrich had.

“Bhaer is trying to help Jo become a genuine writer instead of one who caters to the whims of the crowd. This is something Goethe would have done. He disliked superficiality in people and in art and “was through life frequently offended by the shallow pretensions, the false aims, of writers who, because they have some poetic sensibility and some gift of expression” (Megan Armknecht, Jo Marries Goethe, Dr Bhaer as Louisa May Alcott´s representation of the Goethean ideal in Little Women)

​Louisa credited Goethe being the one author who has taught me the most about creating and understanding characters 

In the 1994 film, Jo argues with Fritz about her writings. The film kinda portrays Jo as an ultra-feminist, when Jo says too bad her writings are not good enough for Friedrich´s high morals. This is the complete opposite to the book Jo because the book Jo and Fritz, have always shared the same morals.

Some viewers of the 1994 film have taken Jo´s side on the argument undoubtedly because of its “ultra-feminism” but in reality, Louisa herself stopped writing sensational stories when her children´s novels became more popular. 1994 film is historically accurate in that sense that Friedrich has connections to the publishing world and in the 19th century an unknown writer, especially a woman, needed a man to represent them. 

Why Greta has spent so much time and energy bashing the book Friedrich while promoting her film. With just that simple line he is established as someone worthy of Jo´s love, it´s not something that Laurie would do. Jo has a desire to improve, but at the same, she doesn´t want to admit that the other person was right. Gerwig´s film has its focus on how much Jo has discomforts with change, and the feedback scene doesn´t promote the ultra-feminism but Jo comes out more childish. She yells she never speaks to him again and it is not something that the book Jo would do. Unfortunately, Greta Gerwig being dismissive of Friedrich´s character erases Jo´s growth as a person. The argument does show the differences in Jo´s and Friedrich´s temperaments and the same happens in the 2018 adaptation. 2017 PBS series also plays the “ultra-feminist” card when Jo defends her sensational writings and calls out poor Fritz, and like in 1994 he apologizes.

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Folklorist and historian. Alcott essayist. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

Finland, MN
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