Two Little Women Superfans Debate the New Movie’s Inception-Style Ending

Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation alters a major plot point—or does it?

GIF of Saoirse Ronan as Jo while the Inception top spins endlessly on the table in front of her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by CTMG.

This post contains spoilers for the new Little Women.

Marissa Martinelli: Let me set the scene, Heather. We’re walking out of a screening of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. We’ve both read the book and seen the short-lived Broadway musical, and you’re obsessed with the 1994 movie version, so it’s safe to say we’re a couple of pretty big Little Women fans. It’s late at night and we just got on the subway. I turn to you to tell you how interesting I think it is that Greta Gerwig made such a radical change to the book’s ending, because in her version, Jo doesn’t marry Professor Bhaer.

Do you remember how you responded?

Heather Schwedel: Yes. “But she does marry him?!”

Martinelli: I couldn’t believe it! You thought Jo and Bhaer ended up together, while I thought just the opposite. It’s like we were watching totally different movies. And yet we were both equally confident we were right. Can you explain what happened in the movie that led you to your (obviously incorrect) conclusion?

Schwedel: Jo has returned home after Beth’s death, so she’s very depressed, and she’s also quietly devastated that Amy and Laurie have gotten married. But then the professor, who Jo met while living in New York, comes a-knocking at the March house, and she is delighted to see him.

Before leaving, Professor Bhaer talks about how he might take a job out West because he has nothing keeping him on the East Coast. Once he’s out the door, the whole family collectively urges Jo to go after him. It’s very rom-com–y! Amy says, “Jo, you love him!” and has a funny bit where she orders Laurie around to prepare the horses so the sisters can all dramatically race after Bhaer. They go after him, Jo finds him at the train station, and the two have their lovey-dovey moment under the umbrella.

But then how the movie ends is that Jo watches her book being printed, emphasizing the importance of her personal creative triumph over the traditional happy ending of finding a partner. And the final shot is this idyllic scene of the school Jo opens, where the whole family is waiting, INCLUDING Bhaer.

Martinelli: Ah, but you’re omitting the most important part! Before we reach that idyllic ending, those scenes of Jo chasing Bhaer are intercut with another scene, a negotiation between Jo and her editor, debating whether or not the protagonist of her book should get married. When Jo says that her story’s heroine doesn’t marry either of her love interests, her editor responds with a flat-out “No.” After some arguing, Jo finally capitulates and agrees to give her heroine a traditional happily-ever-after ending, but only for the sake of pleasing the audience. Then, right after the scene of Jo and the professor finally getting together, the editor’s voice is the first we hear, saying, “I love it, it’s romantic.”

You mention that those scenes where Jo chases the professor to the station are very rom-com–y, and I agree with you there. It’s essentially the 19th-century equivalent of a rush-to-the-jetway ending, a cliché old enough that by 2008 it had been parodied by everything from Dumb & Dumber to Not Another Teen Movie to 30 Rock. (As Lisa Simpson summed it, “If Hollywood movies have taught us anything, it’s that troubled relationships can be completely patched up by a mad dash to the airport.”)

And that’s why I think we’re not meant to take them as strictly real. They seem out of step with the tone of the rest of the movie, with Jo’s family telling her she’s in love rather than us ever really seeing it. The carriage chase and the music swelling and the exaggerated, old Hollywood acting style as Jo and Bhaer embrace seem like they were spliced in by another director—they’re so at odds with everything that has come before. That tonal disconnect, plus the context of Jo negotiating with her editor, makes me believe that these scenes are supposed to be read as imaginary. Gerwig is acknowledging that audiences expect Jo to marry and winking at that expectation, which is different from actually marrying her off.

However, the more I think about it, the more I think there is room for nuance. Remember the ending of Inception, with the top spinning and then wobbling, and how everyone obsessed over whether or not it would’ve fallen over if the screen hadn’t cut to black? Is it possible that this is Gerwig’s Inception top, her way of leaving this particular plot point open to interpretation and saying, “I’m not going to tell you whether it’s real”?

Schwedel: But that raises so many questions! The scene at the very end, when Jo opens her school: Are we to take that as “real” and not part of the fiction? Then why would Professor Bhaer be there? He decides not to go to California or, indeed, any university at all in favor of being … a lowly grade-school teacher at the school of someone who romantically rejected him? Also, there’s all this conflation of Louisa May Alcott and Jo going on. Alcott never married in real life, but this is not a biopic of Alcott. This is Little Women. As I said to you on the subway, if we’re just changing anything in the story that we don’t like, we might as well have Beth never get sick. But Beth dies and Jo ends up married! Facts.

Martinelli: And yet, as a kid reading Little Women, I never felt Professor Bhaer and Jo marrying was a core part of the plot the way Beth’s death was. It seemed like more of an afterthought. In fact, it was kind of an afterthought. Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women in two parts, and after the first half was published, readers wrote in clamoring to know more about the romances. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please any one,” Alcott wrote in her journal.

Instead, Alcott subverted everyone’s expectations by marrying Jo off to the exact opposite of Laurie: a stuffy, paternal German professor who darns his own socks. Unlike in the movie, he’s not exactly a sexy Louis Garrel type. Here’s how Jo describes him in a letter home: “His clothes were rusty, his hands were large, and he hadn’t a really handsome feature in his face, except his beautiful teeth, yet I liked him, for he had a fine head, his linen was very nice, and he looked like a gentleman, though two buttons were off his coat and there was a patch on one shoe.”

The Bhaer of Alcott’s novel is a moralizing old fart—a moralizing old fart with a “fine head,” but a moralizing old fart all the same. Once he figures out that Jo is writing sensational stories for the newspaper to support her family, he passive-aggressively lets her know that he disapproves, calling them “bad trash” all while pretending not to know that she’s the author.

Gerwig’s version of Bhaer is not quite as high and mighty, thankfully. He seeks Jo out and requests to read her writing, then tells her outright that he doesn’t like it, which is still pretty ballsy. But he also says he’s being so blunt because he thinks she’s talented. Either way, it’s a bit grim in 2019 to have Jo marry her reply guy, which is why I thought it was daring that Gerwig decided to get meta in her version and leave even the possibility that Jo ends up single. In an interview with Film Comment, Gerwig outright says that she buys into Alcott’s original vision of Jo as “a literary spinster with books for children” and that ending the movie with a simple romance would be going against that vision and even her own principles.

Then again, in a whole other interview, Gerwig says she’s not looking down on the romance, either. “I want it too! I want them to kiss!” she told the Los Angeles Times. “And even though in the movie, it’s constructed that it’s fiction, I’m still satisfied when they kiss.” It’s hard to know what to make of that. If I see the movie again, I’ll definitely be looking for the telltale wobble of the top: in this case, a wedding ring.

Still, I guess the question isn’t so much “Does Jo end up with Professor Bhaer or not?” but “Does it matter?” The true happy ending of Gerwig’s movie is Jo holding her book, then walking through her newly opened school among her family. The romance is treated as not just secondary but almost irrelevant. We never see a wedding.

Schwedel: I certainly think this would be an interesting statement on Gerwig’s part, but I also have this conviction rising in me that the text is sacred—you can’t just change Alcott’s ending. Maybe it would be more correct to say that Gerwig’s ending is trying to de-emphasize the marriage plot. I definitely don’t think she intended to disregard it completely. (I also noticed that Bhaer is totally standing in line with the other sisters’ husbands when we last see everyone at Jo’s school, just saying.)

The Jo/Bhaer relationship is a huge part of the movie. Jo’s face lights up every time she sees him, and the way Gerwig rearranges the story, their first meeting becomes the film’s romantic core. Their dancing, their flirting at the theater—it’s all very sweet and swoony. I also think and hope Gerwig recognized that it was important to preserve one of the key moments of dramatic irony in the story, which is during Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s proposal, when Jo makes noises about how she might never marry and Laurie assures her bitterly that she will. She does. That’s part of what makes that scene so indelible.

Martinelli: That’s another moment that’s alluded to when Jo is negotiating with her editor, though! She points out that her heroine has explicitly said she never wants to get married, to which he replies, “Girls want to see women married, not consistent.” That seems like pretty damning commentary on Gerwig’s part on the expectation, whether by 19th-century readers or a 21st-century audience, that Jo must get married even after she’s openly stated her lack of interest.

Schwedel: Gerwig’s ending actually had me thinking about the end of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show I know both of us enjoyed. I wrote a little bit earlier this year about the trap the writers of that show set up for themselves as it came to a close and how they wrote their way out of it. They didn’t want to have the heroine lazily end up with one of the guys who’d been a love interest of hers because they didn’t want to make it seem like the only way to end her story was with her neatly coupled up.

I think this is sort of what Gerwig is doing here, too, by seeding this doubt about whether Jo gets married: She’s saying that there’s more to the story than that. The conversation with the editor is definitely supposed to feel a little meta, and I think it jives with the Alcott quote that the movie opens with, which I also took special note of when I saw it a second time: “I had had lots of troubles ; so I write jolly tales.”

My interpretation of this quote is that no matter the troubles that Alcott’s real life entailed, she was able to write her own happy endings, and the ability to do this is its own kind of happy ending, especially for a woman at a time when gender roles were much more restricted. Here is where I start to imagine a Russian nesting doll and get confused: There’s Alcott’s book, Little Women, and then there’s Jo’s book-within-a-book, also called Little Women. (And this is not even to mention Gerwig herself lurking as another author of this version of the story.)

As Dana Stevens noted in her review, this makes the movie a “poioumenon, the rhetorical term for a work of art that tells the story of its own making.” Is Gerwig hinting that maybe the character Jo only ended up married because Alcott was giving in to feedback from outsiders, and that a version more true to the author’s vision would be a single Jo? Or maybe, as you’re saying, Marissa, it doesn’t matter whether she ends up married or not, because all that matters is that she publishes her book? The scenes of this movie where we see the book being made and then Jo proudly holding it show that she sees her creation of the book as more of an achievement than her marriage.

And the way the movie calls marriage an “economic agreement” fits into this, too: Part of that end scene with the editor includes negotiations over, in addition to whether the heroine of Jo’s book will marry, the finances surrounding the book’s publication. By publishing her book, Jo takes control of her own livelihood and proves she could support herself as a writer if she wanted to or needed to. If marriage for most women at the time was an economic agreement, this movie is showing Jo make her own economic arrangements, so her marriage can be a little bit more of a choice, and one motivated by love.

I still have some issues with this and see it as a bit of a weird circle and pat message—if someone is unhappy in their life, will writing the story of their life really fix that?

Anyway. Jo becomes Mrs. Bhaer. It’s canon.

Marissa: I’m still not so sure. The movie never convinces me that Jo loves Bhaer—certainly not with the grand, swoony kind of love suggested by the way she chases him down at the train station. It isn’t earned. I keep coming back to a speech Jo makes to Marmee a little earlier in the movie, a speech that Gerwig actually borrows from a different novel by Alcott. “Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts,” Jo says. “And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as beauty, and I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it!” Even though those words are taken from Rose in Bloom rather than Little Women, they convey such a forward-thinking, rah-rah empowerment message that they were even included in the movie’s trailer.

But in the movie itself, that speech comes when Jo is at her very lowest, after Beth has died and she’s beginning to regret rejecting Laurie’s proposal. After making this impassioned feminist cry, Jo tacks on one more sentence (and Saoirse Ronan’s delivery here is just gutting): “But I’m so lonely.” For all the movie goes on about marriage being an economic proposition for women, Jo has her own livelihood, so she doesn’t need to marry for money. And for all her editor insists on a romantic ending, Jo doesn’t actually seem interested in romance either. Assuming she does end up with Bhaer, he’s neither a provider nor a lover. He’s just kind of a companion. But hey, if that opens up the possibility for a Gerwig-directed Little Men, I can get on board.