Image: Sony Pictures Entertainment
[Spoilers for the film “Little Women” and for the books “Little Women” & “Good Wives”.]
The recent adaptation of Little Women is wonderful in all the right ways, cast to perfection, glorious detail in sets and costuming, a script that feels both modern and of the period, and a new way of telling the story through flashbacks that emphasises the adult characters as much as their girlhood selves. It is also, like every version of Little Women should be, heartbreaking. What stood out for me in this version is that it is not just Beth’s story that leads to tears for the audience, there are multiple sorrowful moments in the film. The scene in which Meg & Brooke discuss their financial woes, Amy’s disappointment at not being the artist she hoped to be and Jo’s professional and personal struggles, all of these capture the viewer in their pain. Gerwig (the director) sets this version against the background of racism both toward African-Americans and immigrants to remind us that whilst life is hard, it is probably easier for the March girls than for most.
The film reminds us that life is disappointing. Meg’s marriage is hard. Jo’s spinsterhood is lonely. Beth’s life is short. Amy’s dreams unfulfilled.
The honesty with which the film tells the story of these sisters is part of what makes it such a compelling film. For we know that life is often profoundly disappointing, professionally and personally, in broken relationships, financial troubles, loneliness, the health of ourselves and of others. And I think many Christians, even if we would never say it, want to assume that because we love God our lives should have some level of protection, some measure of safeguard from God. And yet God does not promise us lives that are free from difficulty, in fact in John 16 he assures us that life will have trouble.
Little Women takes care to show us that whilst the disappointments of life may be beyond our control, our response to them is not. The film, through the voice of Amy, is scathing of Laurie whose response to romantic disappointment is to live a life of indulgence and indolence. She directs Laurie towards a life of utility and service of others, rather than myopically only caring for himself.
As Christians we know that we will face disappointment in this life, but we also know that God has given us resources to be able to live with pain and respond to it well. Firstly, because we know that our sorrows are just as, if not more, painful to God’s heart and we can lament our sorrows to him. We also have the eternal lens through which to view our disappointments, part of this fallen world and yet we do not only belong to this life. We are part of a bigger story; one that starts with God choosing us before the creation of the world and ends after death with eternity in perfect restored relationship. In the book version of Little Women, the narrative is framed through the story of Pilgrim's Progress, the allegorical tale of the Christian life. This serves to reinforce the message that our struggles are but fleeting compared to the eternal glory that awaits (2 Corinthians 4:17). When we see our life in this perspective, we can, like Amy and Marmee, choose to live lives of love and service in this world, because we have the certainty of belonging to the next. Like Jo we can declare “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.”.
The story of Little Women is a story of heartbreak but not a story of despair, and for those of us who have known the March girls since childhood or only met them in this most recent film, we would account for their tale as one of joy. There is great pleasure in their lives; in beauty, in art, in creation, in people, in books and writing, on the stage and in acts of love. There is joy in company, in romantic love, friendship and family. There is joy in being useful, energetic, charitable and in sharing goodness with others. Contrast this to Aunt March, whose life by conventional means is far less disappointing but far more unfilled and lacking in joy. The goodness of God is available to us all, and is found in his abundant grace to us daily. Even when life is hard and profoundly disappointing we know that we serve a God whose Spirit is in us, and whose Spirit is at work. When we look for it, and sometimes in God’s grace even when we don’t, we can see the work of the Spirit and the goodness of God abundantly around us.
The final scene of the film leaves ambiguity between what is real and what is fictional. I think this serves to remind us that this (non-fictional) life will always be tinged with sorrow. And yet, we know that this life is not all that there is, and more than just fictional joy, when Jesus returns we will experience life as it was intended, without any heartbreak or sorrow.
“In this world you will have trouble.” Jesus declares, “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
Fiona is a School Chaplain who is also passionate about physics, fanfiction and feminism. She studied at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.