Since Greta Gerwig’s acclaimed film version of Little Women hit theaters, viewers and critics have been debating the ending. You’d be justified in asking, “Which ending?” The one where Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) giddily chases down her departed suitor in a carriage, her sisters by her side, and there’s a romantic, rain-drenched reunion at the train station?
That’s an ending that thrills and satisfies. But it’s intercut with another sequence, wherein Jo argues with her publisher, Mr. Dashwood, over whether to end the book she’s writing—which coincidentally happens to be titled Little Women—with just such a romantic happy ending.
If one has bought into the family-first theology of too many contemporary churches, one simply doesn’t know how to handle the fact that God doesn’t act as a cosmic Mr. Dashwood, insisting on a spouse for everyone.Dashwood says yes, definitely, marry off her heroine and give the people what they want. “She says the whole book that she doesn’t want to marry!” Jo protests. “Who cares! Girls want to see women married. Not consistent,” Dashwood retorts. He finally manages to convince her to do it his way, but only on a “mercenary” basis: “If you end your delightful book with your heroine a spinster, no one will buy it. It won’t be worth printing.”
What’s going on here? Is Jo writing her own life, creating her own romantic ending for real—or only in her book? We never find out for sure. Certain clues in the penultimate scene hint that Jo really does end up with Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel). Yet in the very last scene, the focus is solely on a triumphant Jo, alone with her newly published book.
When writer-director Gerwig weighed in on the ongoing discussion, it was to remind us that Alcott herself was single, and originally planned to keep her heroine single as well. “She was convinced that she needed to have Jo get married and have children in order to sell the book, but she never wanted that for her heroine. She wanted her to remain, as she called it, a literary spinster,” the writer-director explains. “Part of what I wanted to do was 150 years later give her an ending she might have liked.”
Naturally, though, Gerwig couldn’t alter the book’s ending entirely. What she could and did do was very skillfully walk the tightrope between two different visions of Jo’s future. She takes both Jo and her publisher seriously when they argue over how the story should end. She acknowledges that, yes, people do love to see romantic endings and that’s a perfectly valid desire. Earlier in the film, as well, she let Meg (Emma Watson) weigh in on this side, when she gently reminds Jo that her own dreams of marriage and family are no less valid than Jo’s dreams of a career.
And yet we also get to see that singleness, too, is perfectly valid, even for one of our best beloved heroines. The hint that Jo, like Alcott, could possibly end up a single woman with an absorbing and successful writing career is a gentle but firm corrective to the Dashwoods of the world and their views on spinsterhood.
As Alison Willmore wrote in a Vulture article in which she compared Little Women to Inception, “Maybe they’re two separate possibilities, maybe one’s fiction and one’s fact, and maybe they’re able to coexist. Gerwig leaves the top spinning, letting us appreciate that her character doesn’t need to be married off to get a happy ending, while allowing that sometimes you just want to see a passionate kiss in the rain as well.”
I love that Gerwig found a way to honor both possibilities by somehow, improbably, weaving them together. But there are those who don’t. I’ve read and heard their comments, many of which are well-intentioned. Often they are focused on the scene where Jo cries out to her mother, “I am so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it! But I am so lonely!”
Jo’s anguished moment of truth seems to have made us all uncomfortable—as, I would argue, it was probably designed to do. If there’s anything that ending demonstrated, it’s that Gerwig wants us to help us dwell in the tension between two very different ideas. But some viewers can’t take the tension; they can’t bear the thought of Jo, their Jo, being left lonely.
Yet there’s a tension in that response, too. On the face of it, it’s a kind and sympathetic reaction—we hate to see any beloved character lonely, even for a little while. As Mr. Dashwood discerned, we want everyone to pair up and be happy. On a deeper level, though, I wonder if perhaps we just don’t like to contemplate the idea of loneliness, or rather aloneness, at all. It’s too scary, because it’s a possibility that could loom up in front of any one of us at any moment. It hits too close to home.
Ask any single person about his or her experiences trying to talk about loneliness. Most of us will tell you about this or that married person who quickly responded, “But married people get lonely too! Really lonely! You wouldn’t believe how lonely!” While I believe what they say, and don’t want to downplay what they’ve gone through, I often come away feeling that my own experiences have been very effectively downplayed. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that married people do not want to hear single people talk about loneliness.
Married Christians, in particular, have no category for this issue, no neat and tidy place to put it. If one has bought into the family-first theology of too many contemporary churches, one simply doesn’t know how to handle the fact that God doesn’t act as a cosmic Mr. Dashwood, insisting on a spouse for everyone. Or that He might let some people be lonely—not even “married lonely,” but alone and lonely.
(If you ever figure out this paradox where married Christians want to marry off the singles so they won’t be lonely, but also argue that married loneliness is the loneliest lonely there is, please let me know. It’s beyond me.)
As a single Christian woman over 40, I’ve dealt with this mentality for a long time now. I’m used to being thought of as the anomaly, the odd one out, the exception that proves the rule that God wants everyone married. At times I’ve even been given to understand that if I have unfulfilled longings, it’s my own fault and no more than I deserve, because I failed to get married like good Christians are supposed to do. I’m here to tell you that yes, singleness gets very lonely.
And yes, sometimes it’s also good.
Like Louisa, and like Louisa’s original conception of Jo, I’m a single female writer, and I find immense joy in my work. If I may follow Gerwig’s metafictional model for a moment, writing this very article helped me tremendously during a bout of loneliness. When I write, to paraphrase a famous sentiment, I feel God’s pleasure. I feel myself fulfilling the calling He gave me. I know intimately Jo’s tension during that moment of searing honesty in the attic; I live in it every day. I understand that even as God has withheld some blessings from me, He has lavished me with others.
And bottom line, I enjoy watching a great kiss in the rain as much as anyone. (Just ask me what my favorite movie is!) What I appreciate about Greta Gerwig’s double vision of Jo’s future is that she’s asking us—all of us—to recognize the goodness of either possible path. You don’t have to be in a romantic relationship to love romance, and you don’t have to be single to appreciate the path Louisa May Alcott originally envisioned her heroine carving out.
That was the kind of path, incidentally, that allowed Louisa herself to provide for her needy family of origin, putting the lie to accusations that singleness equals selfishness. As John Matteson reminds us in The Atlantic, “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.”
But getting back to Alcott’s story and Gerwig’s interpretation, the latter’s approach to these questions, whether she realizes it or not, is positively biblical. It echoes the Bible’s ability to hold within its pages quite a variety of ideas on marriage and singleness: instructions to be fruitful and multiply, raptures about the goodness of marriage and children, along with admonitions to stay single and focused on God if it’s all possible.
It seems that the sort of tension I’ve been describing, that Greta Gerwig captured so successfully, has been around a very long time. It may even be that we cannot truly begin to understand God’s vision for us—for all of us, married and single alike—until we’re willing to put down our preconceived notions of how it’s all supposed to play out, and our bickering over whose dreams are grander and more important, and embrace that divine tension.