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Gather the Fragments

On Little Women and Christmas.

Peter Tonguette writes for the American Conservative, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and many other publications.

I did not grow up in the Nineteenth century, in the northeastern United States, or among a household of sisters, but Gillian Armstrong’s screen version of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has long reigned as the movie that most fully captures my vision of Christmas. Although I was eleven years old when the picture was released in December 1994, if I squint, I can reconstruct the sources of its appeal for me. I was already immensely fond of what I might call the Victorian rendition of Christmas, most fully articulated in the works of Charles Dickens, and Little Women, despite taking place an ocean away and in the New World, struck me as having inhaled the same aroma of mistletoe and figgy pudding. Just consider the opening sequence in Armstrong’s picture: on Christmas Eve in Concord, Mass., amid the blue near-darkness of winter’s early dusk, a wreath is hung on a door, children cart home a Christmas tree by way of sled, and a horse-drawn carriage clomps past a church. The score by Thomas Newman is rather romantically grand for a film set during the 1860s, but we forgive this because it so emphatically accentuates the lovely images.

Inside the March home, Marmee (played by Susan Sarandon) gathers her girls to read a letter from their father, whose chaplaincy has taken him off to the Civil War. The girls—Jo (Winona Ryder), Meg (Trini Alvarado), Beth (Claire Danes), and Amy (Kirsten Dunst)—have been denied Christmas gifts during these straitened times, about which there is only a bit of grousing, but the letter is surely the greatest present of all. “My dear family, I am well and safe,” Amy reads, letting out a small sigh at the news—as though the letter had not been written ages ago but was somehow, impossibly, a transmission assuring her father’s present wellness and safety.

The Christmas Eve atmosphere is also kindled by other details—Beth at the piano, accompanying her sisters as they sing carols, and Marmee dispensing candles for the girls to carry with them as they trudge upstairs for the night—but it was the family feeling evoked in that letter-reading scene that left the biggest impression on me twenty-nine Christmases ago. The girls’ expression of relief at the well-being of their father said something about the inevitable transience of family life: God could claim their dear dad, but let us thank Him that He hasn’t yet.

The Marches made sense to me since I, too, was a member of a family unit that was rare in its closeness. I can scarcely remember a time when my mother, my father, my younger brother, or I disagreed about anything important, and because my brother and I were homeschooled, the values our parents wished to transmit to us were conveyed without the intervention of interfering school teachers. (More happy homes can be had if dreary educators were removed from the equation.) In the movie, when Marmee withdraws Amy from school after she has been severely punished by a teacher—“Do you think you can discipline yourself as Jo has done?” Marmee asks her youngest, hoping the answer is “yes” and she can therefore complete her studies at home—I, then just a year or two into doing lessons from home, surely thought to myself: “Well, if homeschooling was good enough for Louisa May Alcott to endorse . . .”

Yet so much of Little Women consists of the gradual giving up of that which the girls had become accustomed: the temporary sacrificing of gift-giving is of no consequence—merely an illustration of the wisdom in what is said in Genesis about seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine—but, bit by bit, the family itself, such a splendid thing to behold in those early scenes, starts to atrophy. Meg is perhaps too willing to go along with the marital overtures of the plodding John Brooke (a superb Eric Stoltz). Amy makes a beeline to France to toil on landscape paintings. Beth is near death thanks to a case of scarlet fever and eventually succumbs to its aftereffects; her death scene—with Jo drawn to Beth’s window by a gust of wind that could be the flight of Beth’s soul—is a particularly lovely translation of Alcott’s prose. Even Jo must relinquish the steady comforts of home—and her proven gifts as a writer of fantastical romantic fiction and dramatics—to go to Boston and eventually produce the sort of serious fiction Alcott herself did. Times change, not always for the worse but just enough to make the past sometimes seem astonishingly long ago and far away.

All of this became clear to me when I saw the movie again in theaters the week before Christmas. On a 35mm print, the movie did not look like it had been made three decades ago but arguably seven or eight decades ago: so dramatically has film grammar become corrupted by computer technology and incompetent directors that to see a movie that honors the slowness of an earlier age—that honors such conventional staging as a couple meeting in a forest clearing and talking beside a fencepost—is almost overwhelming. This was Little Women by way of D.W. Griffith’s True Heart Susie. The cast is superb: Ryder is a far more companionable gamine young lady than the screechy, strident Katharine Hepburn in George Cukor’s otherwise commendable 1933 version of Little Women; and Alvarado, Danes, Dunst, and, as grown-up Amy, Samantha Mathis, each subtle and effective. Christian Bale is fittingly dashing as Laurie; Mary Wickes turns up as Aunt March—a reminder of how close, even in 1994, we were to the Golden Age. Any objections to Newman’s score are mollified by the pleasing presence of the carol “Here We Come A-Wassailing” and the hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth.”

Despite Armstrong’s prior directorial resume, which includes the feminist-oriented My Brilliant Career, I had not remembered this version of Little Women as being particularly, or distractingly, modern in its attitudes, and it was a relief to find that my impression remained much the same. When Jo and her sisters put on costumes and makeup to appear like boys for their plays, they are not rejecting gender roles but merely having fun; when Marmee rails against corsets, Meg does the equivalent of an eye roll, and in fact each of the surviving girls enters the holy and honorable estate of matrimony. It’s perhaps unreasonable to expect that a Little Women made in today’s environment would be filmed with as much elegance or scripted with as much fidelity to Alcott; Greta Gerwig’s 2019 version certainly wasn’t. 

Yet, when I watched Armstrong’s picture again, what saddened me most was not changes in moviemaking aesthetics or cultural attitudes but how much my own life had changed over nearly three decades. My father and my mother have both died; the little family we once so happily made up can never now be what it was once. It is a strange thing to say, but I think one of the first times I caught a glimpse of this inevitable future was when I saw Little Women all those years ago: while watching those glorious Christmas Eve scenes, I intuitively understood their impermanence. The only hope we have is that we can somehow gather together the fragments, as Jo does when she remakes her late aunt’s house into a school and agrees to take the hand in marriage of a penurious but sympathetic professor. Even after the Christmas Eve magic savored by little women and little men everywhere has worn off, there is still life to live.