Mine was not a film family—we were a book family, a classical music family. I owe my cinephilia to a film buff uncle who introduced me to the Marx Brothers (among others). The films we did watch as a family followed a certain type: Disney films (both animated and the strange subset of live action films from the ‘60s, inevitably starring Dean Jones), classic musicals, and of course adaptations of literary favorites.
I have a friend who almost never rewatches movies, or rereads books, as a matter of principle, but I’ve never been able to fathom that viewpoint. Many films I love yield more, not less, on subsequent viewings. But I’d be lying if I said I only revisited canonical films, because somewhere near the top of my most rewatched list is a film that few would call a classic: the 1994 adaptation of Little Women, directed by Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong and starring a then-ascendant Winona Ryder.
I wish I could point to some definitive memory that explains my love for Little Women; some special viewing that could be evoked every time I start the DVD. I wish I could say it was the movie I turned to for comfort the night I heard those dreaded words that explained my mother’s years of pain: cancer. I can’t—the night my dad broke the news to my sister and I, he rented The Mighty Ducks (I remember liking the part where they stick some money into a bag of poop to lure greedy passers-by into reaching inside). I wish I could say it was the movie I watched with my mom when we knew the end was near, but whatever that film was, I have no memory of it. I can’t even say it was the film I put on in shock the afternoon she died (waiting, considerately, for me to return from school before she went). That afternoon required something entirely discordant, so I put on some old favorite episodes of Jeeves & Wooster. Funnily enough, for as often as we watched it growing up, I don’t think I even liked Little Women at that age, having just entered my dreaded Monty Python and the Holy Grail phase.
Nor does the film fulfill some buried wish for a more perfect past. I don’t feel a strong connection to 19th century New England; I remember, on my family’s grand tour of the Northeast (we were, naturally, a family that took vacations that were historically informative) loving Bunker Hill (war!), liking Plimoth Plantation (quill pens!) and being bored in Amherst and Concord (ponds and shut-ins!). And, much as there is to admire about the Transcendentalist ethic, there’s a lot to dislike as well; not to mention that the way of life championed by Emerson and company feels hopelessly disconnected from present reality.
I can make a credible case for Little Women as a good movie, but hardly a great one, yet I return to it over and over because, for me, it signifies—instantly and intuitively—home. For me, the film invokes a conception of home as a way of life—that close openness that allows for the reality of pain while guarding the possibility of warmth and love. I return again and again to remind myself that the deep joy of home has made the pain worthwhile—that, indeed, the pain may have some share in the pleasure itself. Strange as it sounds, half a lifetime on from my mother’s death, there’s a sweet satisfaction in revisiting my memories of her, tinged as they inevitably are with sorrow. In the same way, the tears that come like clockwork when I watch Little Women bring with them a rush of something deeper and almost calm. We cannot make home a fortress, secure against the outside world, for time will wear down its defenses no matter what. Nor can we return home and find it preserved exactly as we remember, with not a thing out of place. But we can come home again, if only in part, and rediscover that mixture of joy and pain that marks us out as human.
It begins before a single person appears on-screen—with music. From the opening bars of the main theme (fittingly named “Orchard House” after the March family residence), composer Thomas Newman evokes the painful pleasures of home that form the emotional core of Little Women.Though the thick string harmony conjures up images of blazing hearths and domestic comfort, Newman gives the main tune to the English horn, an instrument with a wavering reediness to it. The resulting music is warm and safe, but shot through with uncertainty. This same melody recurs throughout the movie, transformed in various ways—including, at the end, a rousing brass chorale—a poignant reminder of the way home follows us, bringing with it joy and sadness.
There’s a word for this compound of pleasure and pain: nostalgia. It’s a word that has gained a largely negative association these days, and not without reason. Nostalgia in its modern form too often means a longing for some idyllic past, a simpler time that would seduce us away from the complexities of the present. But the pain of nostalgia is written into the word itself—it comes from the Greek words meaning “homecoming” and “pain.” Most literally it refers to a homesickness that consumes a person, but I like to expand the definition a bit to recognize the fact that often homecoming itself involves pain. Rightly understood, nostalgia always brings with it pain, whether stemming from the inability to reach home again, or the knowledge that, when reached, home will be altered from how we have imagined it.
This nuanced attitude towards home is present in many of the 19th century novels that have been categorized, often pejoratively, as “sentimental literature”—a subgenre that focuses on the domestic sphere, and of which Little Women is a canonical example. Sentimental novels have been readily dismissed through much of 20th century literary history, sidelined by a critical tradition that contrasts them unfavorably with more “difficult” works of literature. There’s gender bias at play in this discrimination—most sentimental novelists were women, most literary critics men—but also, relatedly, a privileging of the public sphere over the domestic. Recent scholarship, though, has tried to revive interest in what has come to be seen as a subtle, flexible genre. At their best, sentimental novels tackle the dirty little secrets that get swept aside in more grandiose, public-minded narratives—the slippery spectrum of emotions that coalesce in the home. We have some choice over friends, selecting them based on the pleasure they give us, but the givenness of family means that home will always bring mixed emotions—as anyone bracing themselves for arguments around the holiday dinner table can attest to.
Sentimental works also bring with them the danger of tears. Tears are an excess, the crystallization of emotions so strong they take a physical form, one that often dominates us. And yes, a life guided only by strong emotion is a dangerous one, and the worst sentimental works squeeze tears from us through cheap tricks. The best sentimental works, though, remind us of a truth we’d rather forget—that strength is not the only admirable thing, that the weakness of tears, of bearing suffering, is noble and human as well. At their best, families allow us to make peace with weakness, not just by providing opportunities for pain, but also by giving us a safe place to shed our tears.
Little Women embraces its sentimental roots, and by doing so functions like a safety valve through which those who love the film, as I do, can release and process complicated feelings toward home.
The film’s narrative (largely imported intact from the book) builds in the same way as its score, from a center of stability out into uncertainty. The March family appears first as a loving, untouchable clan of women, led by matriarch Marmee (Susan Sarandon). However it soon comes out that Marmee’s husband is away as a chaplain in the Civil War, and that the contrasting personalities of Marmee’s four daughters create an atmosphere as tumultuous as it is caring. The girls cannot be protected from the usual heartaches of life, and when, late in the film, the March daughter most associated with the home itself, Beth (Claire Danes), dies, she leaves a physical and symbolic hole at the center of the family.
Little Women’s main character, Jo (Ryder), struggles to navigate the emotional complexities of home. Unable to feel like she adequately meets the stringent standards of her Transcendentalist family (with their long list of moral prohibitions), Jo longs for a life of adventure, a desire she indulges in the pages of the sensationalist stories she writes. Though the material stretches Ryder’s abilities, she does a fine job injecting Jo with an outward bravado that conceals inner insecurity. What most challenges me in the film’s plotline is Jo’s return home. Part of me always wants Jo, like Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, to choose art and autonomy over home and tradition, to make the purportedly noble decision to strike off on her own. Little Women chooses a more complicated route, however, and has Jo return to Concord and her family—but changed utterly, and able to integrate that personal growth into the wider life of the Marches.
My mother knew something of the struggle to balance home and individual life. The daughter of missionary professors, she was born in Elat, Ebolowa, Cameroon. Between eighth grade and her second year of college, she attended a different school every year, in six countries (on three continents). Her time in boarding school was far from pleasant—her outspoken sense of justice and unwillingness to bend made her a frequent target of fellow students and house parents alike. Later, she and my father spent a decade in Australian farm country, where my sister and I were born. Hers was a life of wanderlust, one with no stable physical center to call home. Like Jo, though, she learned to carry her home with her. Though she spent large chunks of her childhood separated from her parents, she absorbed from them the values that guided her, above all a strong, almost fierce concern for others. During the last year or so, as her life ebbed away, our house in Florida played host to a global array of visitors: associates of my grandparents from Africa, a Swiss aunt, Australian friends—even her best friend from the one high school year she spent in Cleveland. Even as she forged her own paths in life, she kept the secret of home within her, and that drew others to her irresistibly.
Appropriately, the character who brings Jo back home to stay is the one easiest for modern audiences to despise. Beth, the good sister, spends most of the movie getting out of the way of other people; she is by far the most passive of the four March girls. Her tears as she accepts the burdens laid on her by her illness are the sentimental rebuke to the idea that we always shape our own lives. Jo, who spends much of her time trying to avoid the emotional complications that come with vulnerability, learns from Beth’s willingness to bear pain and grief from a place of weakness. In the end, Beth knows better than Jo that to wall yourself off in an attempt to avoid hurt is to deprive yourself of something essential to humanity: suffering.
Sentimental novels are somewhat notorious for their weepy death scenes, and Beth’s brings a deluge of strong emotion, especially as acted by Danes, whose wobbling chin and fragile voice could wring sadness from a stone. Some people resent death as a plot device, seeing in it a shortcut to foregrounding grief and pain. Here’s the thing about death, though: it’s pretty sad, and not always in the way we expect; each death brings with it a unique complex of grief. I don’t have a strong memory of watching my mother actually die, but burned in my brain is a scene from the night before that I find inexpressibly sad. My mother sits in bed, eating cantaloupe as I talk to her. All of a sudden, she loses control of her motor functions; her hands and mouth shake, like she’s having an epileptic fit, and cantaloupe comes dribbling out of her mouth. Such weakness from a person who, in my mind, always stood for strength, was as affecting to my 13-year-old mind as death itself.
One of home’s potential dangers is that, if pursued as a way to protect the self from hurt and danger, it cuts us off from those around us who would enrich our lives. By maintaining inner closeness without excluding the outside world, however, the Marches make their home a blessing to others. Though once one of Concord’s wealthiest families, the Marches have given away most of their money through quixotic generosities large (Mr. March’s integrated school) and small, as when the girls decide to give their Christmas breakfast to a family of poor German immigrants. Small wonder, then, that they attract strays—people without homes, like heir next door Laurie (Christian Bale). Those sucked in to the March vortex, however, are subject to the same pains as any other member of the family. Laurie, enchanted by the tender kindness of the Marches, decides that he must gain entrance to the family by any means; when Jo rejects his proposal of marriage, he nearly spins out of control, learning the hard way that to be open means to be vulnerable to hurt.
Bringing in outsiders also makes the Marches themselves vulnerable. The film touches on the background hurts of the family—the decline of their family wealth and the social ridicule they face as a result of their embrace of social causes in line with their ethic of generosity. But the film is more interested in the personal toll openness takes. When Jo brings Laurie into their orbit, the girls engage in a tacit rivalry over his affections, especially Jo and the youngest sister, Amy (Kirsten Dunst as a child, Samantha Mathis as an adult). Both crave Laurie’s attention, and the competition drives a wedge between them. Ultimately their love overcomes such jealousies, even when Amy marries Laurie in the wake of his rejection by Jo, but the sisters bear the scars of their conflict even into adulthood.
Growing up, my parents had an unwavering Christmas rule, one that annoyed me greatly at the time. Christmas morning was for us as a family—we would have breakfast and open presents, then lounge around for a bit. But on Christmas afternoon, the time of the main meal, we would open our home to people without families. In early childhood, in Michigan, this meant a middle-aged man and an older woman—I think they were neighbors—living by themselves in the countryside outside our small town. I don’t remember their names, though I remember that the woman had a prominent mustache, and the man always seemed like he had just changed out of hunting gear. Kid that I was, I resented these intrusions into our life, on what I viewed as a sacrosanct day of warmth and family time, especially by people I regarded as strangers—strange ones, at that.
As an adult, I look back on this practice as one of the most significant gifts my parents have given me. Our home, for its many flaws and turmoils, was a place of love and security. To keep that to ourselves would have been to reject the needs of those around us, and to diminish ourselves in the process. In the winter, of all times, we should be alert to the needs of others, and share our warmth. One reason Little Women remains a great Christmas movie—not for nothing was it released in theaters on Christmas Day—is that it preserves the spirit of that season even as it records life at all points of the year. The most memorable color in the film is the white of the snow that often blankets the ground, but the vibrant orange of fall and lush greenness of spring also have their place. The film avoids the mistake of remaining mired in a timeless Christmas season, a perfectly arranged tableaux encased in the glass safety of a snow globe. Instead, it recognizes that a truly strong home stays with us even as we leave it, that the changes in life’s seasons cannot diminish the inheritance we carry with us.
A balancing act, one that reconciles extremes. A closeness and warmth that, nevertheless, remains open to the outside world. This ethic of the home filters down to many aspects of Little Women. The film’s most striking recurring visual motif is of a hug—the four girls and Marmee locked in mutual embrace. Rather than the physical distinction, us and them, created by an actual hug, however, these hugs elicit the possibility of participation from others. Marmee stands in the center, the girls on either side, forming a horseshoe that only becomes a circle if the audience joins in the warmth. Close, not closed.
In death, as in life, my mother has no still point in a turning world, no single place to call home. When she died, we had her cremated, and her ashes divided. Half we buried in a garden in Philadelphia, a plot where my grandparents planned to be buried, and now are. The other half we took to Cameroon. A family friend, the daughter of a student of my grandfather, insisted that we bring her back to the country of her birth. She offered to bury my mother’s ashes in the same grave where her parents lie. My mother had not returned to Cameroon since childhood, but the home she gained there had stayed with her all her life, and she agreed. A homecoming, then, even as we faced her death—an event that most of us fragilely hope signifies another homecoming.
We went in the dead of winter—there the dry season, a time when the village was accessible by car. There was, of course, no snow on the ground, nothing to hint to my American eyes that it was still the Christmas season. Yet it was there, undeniably, in the close warmth of people willing to reach out and take in strangers, among them an awkward, self-conscious eighth grader still shedding his baby fat. I don’t know that I will ever go back there. A part of me wants to, of course, but I also know that this home comes with me, wherever I am. That’s why, whenever I turn on Little Women, Concord and Cameroon wrench together, and the door of home opens to me, just a crack.