“In the years after the Civil War, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) lives in New York and makes her living as a writer, while her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) studies painting in Paris. Amy has a chance encounter with Theodore, a childhood crush who proposed to Jo but was ultimately rejected. Their oldest sibling, Meg, is married to a schoolteacher, while shy sister Beth develops a devastating illness that brings the family back together.”
Below are the remarks from the January 21, 2020 “Off the Couch” viewing of Little Women with Randall Paulsen, MD, Psychoanalyst Member of BPSI. “Off the Couch” is part of a decades-long collaboration between The Coolidge Cinema and BPSI.
You are about to see a movie which is based on a book that was written to someone after they had died. Watching this movie, I thought of my mother who died at 95 in 2018. She was a lot like Jo March. So, as you watch this domestic tale, think of how you might write a story to someone you have lost. Welcome to, the ironically titled, “Little Women”.
There are two broad brush strokes I’d like to make first. First, it is hard to watch the fierceness, the savagery, of Jo March and not think of the power of a young woman’s conscience, and not think of our warrior teenager, Greta Thunberg, who howls at the United Nations – “How dare you not think of the future of our planet?” When I said, ironically titled, “Little Women,” I was referring to the bigness of such moral outrage.
The second broad stroke: notice the way the telescope of this movie condenses both time and geography. I love the psychoanalytic term, “experience near.” It means we can feel the immediacy of what is being told. This movie is “experience near.” The story unfolds in the time of our Civil War, 150 years ago, when idealism fought with custom, when the Transcendentalists defined a vision of American Life. We are reminded of how young our cultural bedrock actually is. 150 years seem like 15 years. Time is collapsed. Watching this movie in Brookline, we are transported as far and near as our own backyard, literally. You can take a bike ride from Lexington to the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Mass. And you can look down over the same hillside where Jo tells Laurie “I can’t love you as you want me to. I can’t say yes, truly.” It happened here.
The three subjects I’ve chosen to talk about are these: 1. The contrasting experience of time, chronological versus psychological; 2. The arc of development from childhood to death and the growth of these characters during the film; and 3. The moments of focused, two-person conversation and the transformations that occur from those them.
I. Lived Time
Little Women is a movie that amply rewards a second viewing. The flashbacks, the switching back and forth in time, seem confusing. They frustrate our desire to see a story unfold chronologically. But, what Greta Gerwig has done so beautifully is to provide many windows into what is carried inside us, psychologically. We see an event, such as Beth walking along a path gathering flowers outside the Orchard House. But we are seeing that event from the upstairs window through Jo’s eyes as, in fact, Beth is dying from scarlet fever.
When Professor Friedrich Bhaer comes to visit the March family after the father has returned from the war, we suddenly see Jo climbing up the steps of their shared boarding house in New York City. She is carrying three travelling bags to work as a governess for his landlady. When the door opens, we see the eternal moment when their eyes first meet. This is what life is like inside the human mind, inside human memory. Buddhist’s call it the wandering mind. Analysts call it free association. There are also flash-forwards that require our active participation to understand. We have to search our own memories to grasp what has happened when we see a grand, nearly empty house, with furniture draped in gauze. As Jo and her sisters enter the house, we realize that Aunt March has died and apparently left her house to Jo.
Chronological time is contextual, external and linear. It is evoked by Beth, stricken with scarlet fever, when she says, “life’s tide is going out, it can’t be stopped.” This relentless time is in the background. Jo answers as we all do when we’re young and omnipotent. “I’ll stop it. I’ve stopped it before. What Jo wills shall be done.” Chronological time is death’s conveyer. It claims Beth and Aunt March. But against this chronological force, through grieving, daring to love again, Jo’s writing “for Beth,” the movie shows us that lived psychological experience does not obey strict temporal laws. Love lasts. Stories last. Relationships transcend.
II. The Arc of Development
I can’t remember when adolescence has had such a captivating visual representation on film. I could watch Saoirse Ronan run pell-mell along the streets forever, the sheer forward movement, exultant triumph of her running with the victory of her first published story – the molten volcanic self in full stride. It is sheer delight to give oneself over to physical motion, bodies swirling. And I could watch Saoirse and Timothee Chalamet dance on the porch forever – a perfect compromise between preserving their teen-age capacity for dance and play, but to still be dancing, outside, at the edge of the formal adult world within. Enchanting.
Adolescence is the heartbeat of this movie. We watch it give way to the struggles of early adulthood.
Childhood exists more in the background of this movie, there are brief scenes of Jo’s early plays. And there is the beautiful reflection: “We could never love the world so, if we had had no childhood in it.”
Aunt March presents the alternatives for a woman in the world of 1860. “Have a career on the stage or run a cat house – practically the same thing. Or marry well. Marry a rich man – accomplish that and save your family. You’re not paid to think.” Meg, the one who wanted to be rich, asks Laurie to let her have her one debutante night as a fantasied “Daisy”. And yet she marries the schoolteacher for love. Beth insists on her mother’s mission of tending to the Hummels. She embodies the way ideals can blind adolescents to the dangers they are walking into. Young men go off to fight in wars. Some never come back. Beth insists on carrying a basket of food to a house where she contracts Scarlet Fever which ends her life. In adolescence, fidelity to an ideal, is often more important than life itself.
If the central virtue of adolescence is fidelity to an ideal, the psychological crisis concerns identity formation. Jo represents the force of a strong identity. She is a writer, and that sense of self defines her. When Amy’s jealous rage leads her to burn the pages of Jo’s novel, it is as if she has destroyed who Jo is. No one else is as focused as Jo. And, on the other hand, no one else is as charmingly unfocused as Laurie. He joins their Club as a lost boy, bursting through the clothes rack after Jo has taken the vote that awarded him entry. His unique gift to the club is a set of keys to the secret mailbox in the woods. A place for messages to be privately sent or retracted before they are ever read. If Jo is focused potential, Laurie is diffusely omnipotential. But they are joined in one important area – their fervent desire not to be swallowed or erased by the adult world. That place where they are joined is defined by what they want not to be. Laurie wants to solve his confusion by joining himself to Jo. Jo wants to be a free spirit and paddle her own canoe. If she were to agree to be the solution to Laurie’s lostness, she would lose herself.
The identity crisis of adolescence gives way to the intimacy crisis of young adulthood. Fidelity gives way to Love as the primary virtue, the young adult asks the question, “can I love?” Jo’s rejection of Laurie leads over time to loneliness. She writes a letter and puts it in the mailbox. A letter that is never read. When Laurie returns from Europe having married Amy, it is his turn to disappoint Jo. But, his “no” contains the wisdom of her earlier rejection of him. “You were right, Jo, we would have killed each other.”
As we roll toward the end of the movie all of the sisters have entered adulthood where the question is “can I make my life count?”, the virtue is care, the product is work and the goal is wisdom. Even Beth who dies young reaches a Buddhist kind of wisdom. She accepts that “the tide is going out, and it can’t be stopped.” She prevents Jo from giving up on her writing by saying “do what mother taught us, do it for someone else, write something for me.” When Jo is throwing her own writing into the fire, she stops at the red leather book containing stories with the heading, “for Beth.” Amy has accepted that she will not be a great painter, but she has married well. Laurie has provided his inherited wealth to nourish the March’s school. We see him walking around the school with a baby in his arms. Meg has married a good man and sold her too expensive bolt of cloth. As we watch this completion of the family’s cycle we are led to my third topic. It relates to the question: how did these changes occur?
III. Transformational Conversations
In Greta Gerwig’s movie the characters hurtle along in their personal trajectories and then, periodically, suddenly, they collide, causing each other to stop in their tracks or change directions. These collisions almost always involve two characters, not unlike the two characters involved in the transformational moments of a good psychotherapy. Many of these moments are intense conversations, some are confrontations, opposing views, and some are moments of parting. Unlike the past-to-future movement of time or the arc of development, these transformational moments occur in the present moment.
One such conversation occurs between Jo and Marmee. “I get so savage.” said Jo. “You remind me of myself.” replied Marmee. “But you don’t get angry.” Jo responded and then Marmee says, “I am angry nearly every day of my life”. Suddenly Jo is not alone in her savagery, it is seen in her by one who has known her all her life, and who also feels it within herself. Marmee has had 40 years of practice curbing, containing her anger. Then she says, “there are some natures too noble to curb, too lofty to bend.” A space is opened up for Jo to follow her own path, unlike her mother’s. Her savagery has been transformed, “a nature too noble to curb.”
Another transformative conversation occurs between Beth and Jo at the beach. Jo begs Beth not to give up, but to fight the ebbing of the tide. But Beth bends Jo’s will in a different direction to transcend death. “Don’t stop writing, write it for another, write it for me.” Beth’s lingering words prevent that red leather book from being thrown into the fire. It becomes the seed from which Little Women grows.
Changes occur in the intimate talking to someone who is really listening. Jo is lonely and says, “I want to be loved.” Marmee says, “that’s not the same as loving.” That sets the stage for one of the movie’s moments of group therapy. After a lovely family visit including dinner and playing Beth’s piano, Frederick Baehr says good-bye to Jo with no certainty when they will ever meet again. Closing the door, Jo turns back to see her whole family encircling her. “Jo, you love him. Go after him.” And the truth of that blooms in the rain at Concord’s railroad station.
The last series of transformative conversations I want to mention are the confrontations Jo has with Mr. Dashwood. At first, he is a nearly impregnable authority. “Morals don’t sell. The country’s just been through a war, they want to be entertained.” Mind, he is telling this to a Transcendalist’s daughter. All power resides on his side of the desk. Then she begins to write her family’s story for Beth, more experience-near stories that carry the vitality of family life, of sisters’ unquenchable bond with each other that allows them to forgive over and over. Dashwood’s daughters bowl him over, rushing into the sitting room, demanding more stories of the Little Women. In her final confrontation with him, Jo agrees to end the book with Jo marrying Fredrick, saying, “even in fiction marriage is an economic proposition.” But power has fully shifted to Jo’s side of the desk when she declines the advance money in exchange for full rights to the copy write – saying with the direct gaze and voice of a creative adult – “I want to own my own book.”
Randall Paulsen, MD, is a psychiatrist, Training and Supervising psychoanalyst, and a past president of BPSI. He is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and is a consultant at the Osher Clinical Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He led Balint groups for physicians and directed Primary Care Psychiatry at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center from 1987 to 2000. He has a long-standing interest in the role of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. He has a private practice in Lexington.
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