Separation Anxiety: Or, How the March Sisters Help Us Find Togetherness

Little Women (2019) | Sony Pictures
Sony Pictures

When my best friend since middle school recently got pregnant, I cried for two days. I was so happy for her. I also knew that she would love her baby more than me (as well she should) and that nothing would ever be the same. We grew up in the same town, but attended different high schools and traveled to different places in the summer. We went to colleges in different states and after graduation moved even further away. We’ve been very best friends since we were 14, braiding anklets and painting t-shirts, but it has, the vast majority of the time, been a long-distance friendship. We’ve been great at supporting one another via phone call, chatting in Targets and grocery stores for many years. It’s a rude habit, but you do what you have to do to stay close with the best person you know. I was sure, though, that a baby would disallow us to chat for hours on end each day; how could it not? Everything would change.

Even as I teared up and tried to soothe myself and bought yarn to knit a baby blanket, I could feel that this was a place I had been before. I was Jo March, left with nothing as one of the women I considered a sister was moving on without me. As a young girl, I spent a lot of time crying along with the March sisters in Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation as Jo’s manuscript burned, Amy almost drowned, Meg got married, and Beth died. I felt all these losses deeply. But, having seen Greta Gerwig’s Little Women only weeks before my friend got pregnant, I now had words that anticipated what I knew I would feel in nine short months. I could already hear Jo breathing, “I miss everything.” There’s more to the story though, and I’m untangling the joy and the fear in this new phase of our lives. Along with Jo’s voice, I hear upbeat piano music accompanied by soulful strings as I dry my eyes, preparing to be mostly only happy, instead of just lonesome. 

In both Louisa May Alcott’s novel and Gerwig’s adaptation, fulfillment of mutual love is central to relationships between girls and women, but each represents that realization of love differently—the former through comforting vignettes for children and the latter via composites of time and place. Gerwig’s Little Women is, in many ways, an extension of the novel rather than a self-contained text; it seeks to inflect what we already know about the girlhood story with new meaning for adults seeking to hold our communities together, rather than revisit a morality tale about sisters and the Civil War. 

The distance between the novel and this new adaptation lies largely in intended audience and medium. I often misremember Alcott’s novel, thinking that Jo becomes a published author by writing a semi-autobiographical account of her girlhood with her sisters, wherein the “Jo character” becomes an author by writing a semi-autobiographical novel about her sisters and herself, and so on and so forth, forever. (This happened to the real-life Louisa May Alcott, who wrote Little Women about herself and her sisters.) But in the novel, Jo never writes her book, though the sisters do still end up intimately informing one another’s lives. Still, the original story fundamentally insists that friendship and sisterhood are recursive relationships that feed and strengthen themselves by the fact of their ongoing existence. Such is the power of Little Women. 

The difference is that the novel teaches this lesson with girls in mind, while the film speaks to adults like me, who often need reminding that the love between sisters (or dear friends) can’t be permanently damaged by circumstance. Gerwig’s adaptation portrays the novel’s main events, but places them out of chronological order in favor of highlighting the emotional resonance between the March sisters through time. It’s a film that embraces the reiterative nature of female friendships. In a world where women are valued and taught to value in the context of our relationships with men, Little Women insists that it is within the context of those who understand us most, our sisters, that our selfhood is most fully realized. 

In all its iterations, Little Women champions sisterhood as an antidote to those forces that would harm us. The novel, its intended audience being actual children, begins with the first winter of the March sisters’ adolescence—Amy being on the brink of her teen years and Meg on the edge of courtship and marriage—and emphasizes the passage of linear time. Alcott highlights how the girls’ faces brighten and darken together at certain news on the first page; they mutually inform one another’s experience of the events that shape their lives. In a world that isolates and diminishes girls and women, a story about girls staying together and being seen and understood lights a path in one’s imagination. For young readers, the fact of the March sisters growing up together, I think, serves as a comfort. The specter of the adult world might haunt young readers as the New England cold threatens the characters, but their togetherness in the midst of frightening events like the Civil War and scarlet fever serves as a great comfort. So many girlhood fears come from not knowing what the future holds or how to navigate it, so Alcott’s  step-by-step, chronological journey of the March sisters serves as a kind of map and comfort object. 

In both the novel and Gerwig’s adaptation, the most iconic part of Little Women is when Beth, the sweetest and kindest March sister, dies. Beth’s passing is tragic because the good die young, because Jo loved her sister so deeply, because Jo could not save her, because it was only after Beth dies that the other three sisters reunite. Despite this, in the novel, her death occurs so as to evoke peace. The family is prepared for her death, emotionally and practically, and meets it with a sense of religious peace. Jo shows more distress when she learns that Mr. Brooke has stolen Meg’s glove than when her sister dies, given that Meg’s courtship signals the imminence of adulthood. Death is always hard to understand, especially when we are young, so far removed from its shadow. The idea of our friends and sisters leaving us is very near and certainly looms nearer. Alcott’s novel provides a sense of clarity—around both abstract issues of illness, death, and war and the more immediate fear of changing relationships—through narrative directness and simplicity. 

Beth’s initial illness and death, in Gerwig’s adaptation, are conveyed in a single short scene, as opposed to being separated by the many moments that filled the years between the two events. In one moment, we see Jo fall asleep at Beth’s bedside. She wakes to see an empty bed, goes downstairs, fearing the worst, only to find Beth recovered, eating a broth. Next, we see what may be Jo’s happiest memory: all of her sisters home and well on the Christmas of their father’s return, smiling and laughing together. Then, Jo wakes again, in an identical pose and setting as moments before. She walks down the same stairs, and finds her mother alone at the table, her sister now dead. 

This entangling of timelines highlights Jo’s plight and allows us, as grown women, to access catharsis for what little girls don’t yet need. This Little Women allows us to weep—for the literal death of a girl, yes, but also for our own girlhoods and the younger versions of our best friends. We are adults watching a young Jo save her sister, but we are also women mourning the loss of innocence and potential, all the things we would not be. So much of Little Women includes the March sisters plotting and dreaming for their futures, but the presentation of Beth’s recovery and eventual death as all but simultaneous events for Jo invites us to feel the joys of salvation through sisterhood and mourn all the ways we’re separated as adults. 

None of the sisters’ dreams, including Beth’s sweet and simple hope of togetherness, come true in ways that anyone would have hoped. But Gerwig’s adaptation finds a way to offer hope and joy in the midst of dreams deferred. The chronological beginning of Little Women includes the March sisters listing their Christmas wishes and desires for the future.The novel opens with these dreams laid out on the page and ends with the remaining three sisters reveling in revised dreams, amended to fit the way their lives have turned out, while at a birthday party for Marmee. Meg initially wants to become a wealthy housewife, but finds true love instead of wealth; Jo wants to be an author, but runs a school, becomes a wife and mother; Amy wants to become an inspired painter, but finds love with Laurie, who still encourages her art; Beth wants to be together with her family, and they all stick close together after her death. In the novel, each keeps insisting how happy they are. 

I think that what most of us want for our sisters and friends is everything: love, happiness, creative fulfillment, enough goodness to soothe the soul, enough naughtiness to have fun, romantic love, music, mountains of riches, and laughter that is never at the expense of the good. Because of the nature of the human experience, though, our hopes are mostly never fulfilled. Who gets all of these things all the time? Even when our friends live happy and fulfilled lives, it can never be enough for the sisters we love, because of the nature of love itself. When Meg finds true love, we know that’s not all she wants. Amy gets the life of luxury with Laurie, but we want for her to be a painter too. Our sisters’ satisfaction does nothing to satisfy us, who always want more for them. Gerwig’s adaptation helps us bridge this gap, between what we want for our sisters and our lived realities.

The hopes of our girlhoods are only satisfied in the light of togetherness; if we can’t have everything, we can at least have one another. Then again, togetherness is not guaranteed. Beth dies. But her death, if still the most iconic moment in Little Women, is not the end of the story; Little Women has its tragic moments but it is not a tragedy. Whereas in the novel Beth dies almost as a matter of course and the reader is borne into the next moment in the remaining sisters’ lives, in Gerwig’s film Beth stays present through the film’s score. Her piano continues to play. The power of love, Beth’s music shows, is that it allows us to be ever-present for one another, even when we can’t be physically near. 

One of the many achievements in Gerwig’s adaptation is its refusal to valorize Jo at the expense of the other sisters. Instead, Beth’s insistence on her own way, and her belief in Jo, create the circumstances for Jo’s success. Beth’s power allows for Jo’s success, not the other way around. In a series of beautiful scenes by the seaside, we get to know the girls as healthy and young and then later, as Beth convalesces with Jo at her side. When Beth is sick, both she and Jo try to assert their will for one another. When Beth tells Jo that she is not afraid of death and that they can’t fight God’s will, Jo replies, “God hasn’t met my will yet. What Jo wills shall be done.” Later, when Jo, despondent, has given up on writing, Beth tells her that she wants more stories and says, “I’m very sick, and you must do what I say.” The girls take their circumstances and bend them to their will, which is to say they both insist on the best for their sister. 

I had forgotten that Jo is a school teacher at the end, like me. I had also forgotten that it’s a happy ending, with the sisters together in spirit, though never again to live under the same roof. Alcott’s novel taught me, as a little girl, that my friends, my sisters, would be the most central characters in my life. The 2019 adaptation gives space for us to mourn our losses and feel all the ways we are separated from our sisters, but also to embrace one another despite our differences and cherish the ways we make one another whole. 

The original and the newest adaptations of Little Women, taken together, give us words and space and sound and image to be ourselves and love our sisters. They insist that we can hold each other together even from far away, and especially when we get less than we deserve. Jo March taught me that I am most fully realized when my sister is most fulfilled, not when I have the most prominence in her affairs. 

The March sisters’ mutual support and interdependence is perhaps the most lasting hallmark of Little Women and thus takes on central importance, even more than plot, in the 2019 adaptation. In a world where women are torn apart and asunder, this particular story, with its explicit musing on the joy of togetherness and the pain of separation, has comforted girls for many generations. We are not alone, it teaches us; we must insist on never staying far from one another in spirit, even if the forces of fate and society seek to separate us from the people who know and love us best. 

My friend is now approaching her second trimester. I really am a lot like Jo, so it would be a lie to suggest that I have no fears. I am confident that she won’t leave me behind, though. The music is still there, and we have always figured it out before. If Amy can marry the love of her sister’s life and still work at her sister’s school, and Beth can die and still give her sisters music, I am quite sure that I will love my friend and her baby with all the love in my heart, and that she will do the same. It’s what we do, we stay together. Jo’s will be done.