Are there two words more likely to make an adult woman cry than “Beth dies?” Maybe that happens to adult men – ok, I’ve seen the Friends episode. I missed the window for reading Little Women as a child. I suspect I read a Famous Five book instead. But when I realised how beloved it was, I promised myself many years ago that if I ever had a daughter, I would read it with her. And this I did last autumn, with my 10-year-old. Even though I knew Beth would die (because of the aforementioned Friends episode), I persisted with it and it was worth it. We went to see the new Greta Gerwig adaptation when it opened on St Stephen’s Day. Yes, we cried. But we loved ever second of it. We went a second time and cried even more. It occurred to me that Little Women is not just a sweet story of a devoted family who stick it out through adversity, it also contains important lessons for children on grief and loss.
All the March sisters are lovely – admittedly Amy is a bit of a terror and if she hadn’t fallen in the icy lake, there is no way Jo would ever have forgiven her for burning her book. Sorry, spoiler alert! 🙂 But there is something lovely about delicate little Beth. She seems to bring out the best in people. She brings out a warmth and tenderness in Mr Laurence that is surprising, more so in the book but also here in the film. Of which, more anon. I think that is why her death is so shocking and awful to us. Would we really have been so traumatised if Amy had drowned in the lake? Or if Meg had caught fire and burned to death when Jo singed her hair? I think I would have recovered okay from that. But who did Beth harm? What purpose did her death serve? Yes, they all became better people. But wouldn’t Mr March dying in the war have injected the necessary sadness into their lives they could have learned from? The poor Hummel baby died and barely earned a mention. Was that not sufficiently tragic for their needs? Why Beth? And of course the answer is, why not Beth? Bad things happen to good people. Awful things happen to good families. Tragic things happen to good parents. The book and in particular the film does not struggle to graft a larger purpose onto Beth’s death. At the time of writing it, Louisa May Alcott would have been surrounded by all manner of cruel and random deaths, from the war waging around her to hideous illnesses. People were used to cruelty. We are not. Little Women is an antidote to our yearning for cosmic purpose and balance. Sh*t happens and let’s not dwell on why, it tells us. Obsessively trying to find a larger purpose in random cruelty will lead you into a useless, toxic cul-de-sac. The earlier in life we learn that, I think, the better.
Beth’s mother, Mrs March, is a lovely literary creation. Laura Dern’s vision of her is less syrupy than the book’s original and all the better for it. She is kind, generous, compassionate and wise. When Beth dies, your expectation is that Marmie would get into the grave after her. Dying of a broken heart has a long and shameful lineage in our literature. There is a lovely, tender scene in the film where Jo comes down the stairs to find Marmie alone, juxtaposed with a previous scene where Marmie, Hannah and a recovering Beth were together. Marmie collapses into her grief and Jo comforts her. The parent-child dynamic is reversed. Maybe this is where Marmie will finally lose it all? Maybe Jo takes over the running of the family? Lots of books and films would have you believe this is the logical next step. And yet equilibrium is restored. Marmie resumes her role as parent and Jo resumes her role as troubled child whom Marmie must guide. Grieving adults should never hide their grief away entirely. It is healthy for a child to see some of your struggle. It reassures them that what they are feeling is natural. But it is the job of the adult to regain their composure and be the grown-up.
Next is where I may seem to contradict the point I just made, but bear with me.
The character of Mr Laurence is a warmer creation in the film than in the book. He softens faster, inevitably I suppose. He represents a common literary character I normally detest – someone whose child died many years before but who forms a bond with another child that resembles his own. No child can replace another, I would ordinarily scream at the screen. But in Little Women, it seems to serve a purpose. A man of his generation would not have been encouraged to grieve for his own daughter. It stands to reason he would form a bond with Beth and that her death would affect him so deeply. The scene where he struggles to bring himself to go into the March’s house, and is helped by the younger Jo, is so loving and so necessary. He can’t bring himself to go into the house that Beth breathed so much life into. The younger Jo empowers him to go in. Jo emboldens Mr Laurence to manage a difficult transition – going into now Beth-less house – and we later see how much his life is made better by that. Ordinarily I would be of the view that children should not be helping adults with their grieving – it should be firmly the other way around. But sometimes a kindness from a child to an adult like this goes a long way. There is something about the asymmetry of the power relationship that causes adults to relax about their own vulnerability. Children can give adults permission to grieve authentically in a way that adults often can’t. They do this only momentarily, and then the natural order of the adult supporting the child must be restored. But when they do it, it is life-changing. See, no contradiction there!
My favourite scene, although it reduced me to tears, was when Professor Bhaer visits the March home. We expect he has come to meet Jo and rescue her from her loneliness. But there is more in store. He innocently asks who plays the lovely piano. After a bit of uncomfortable shifting in chairs, they tell him Beth was the musician in the family. He
plays the piano himself and while he is no Beth March, he is clearly talented. The piece, which I now know to be Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor is lovely – appropriately solemn but not unbearably sad. A lovely choice for any occasion. But here it represents something wonderful much more important – music returning to the house. And that important realisation in healthy grieving that it’s okay to have joy in your heart. It may be bittersweet but it is still right and proper for you to have happiness in your life. This scene opens the family’s heart to all the joy that follows – Jo marrying Friedrich, their school, their new life. None of this would have happened if they hadn’t been given permission to have joy again. In our society, messages about grief are so confused. So often, it seems that only joyless suffering is a true expression of grief. It’s important that bereaved children understand that having joy in your heart doesn’t mean you have left your loved one behind. Life goes on, a little emptier than before, but not the hollowed-out shell that you might feel you have to endure.
I checked the Little Women wikipedia page and found there have been seven film adaptations of the book. The first in 1917 and the most recent last year. The book has plenty to say to us and we want to hear it. Adults and children both have plenty to learn about love and loss from this wonderful book. Children in particular can learn healthy messages about grief from the lovely March family. Yes, life can have inexplicable sadness but that is no reason to give up on all the wonderful richness it can give us, if we just let it in.