Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) is a bright, subtle, and inspiring retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868-1869 novel of the same name. Gerwig, who won the Women Film Critics Circle’s award for Best Woman Storyteller, succeeded in weaving Alcott’s little women into a cinematic tapestry of complex emotions, realizations, and relationships. The film’s debut was met with critical and public praise and has garnered over 160 award nominations thus far, including multiple nominations for Best Production Design. Presented through a series of past and present vignettes, Gerwig relies on cinematic parallels to propel Jo March’s narrative to its elated but ambiguous conclusion.
One of the film’s most consistent undercurrents is its food culture, particularly the act of consumption or absence of consumable products. For Gerwig’s Little Women, her production design and artistic teams created an understated visual storyline with food and interpersonal relationships at its core. A reading of the screenplay shows that very little of this food culture was written into the original script. While the characters typically interact with food as props on a purely physical level – they eat but often think little of it, except when an abundance or absence of food is notable and related to their livelihoods – the appearance and disappearance of food and consumption subliminally reinforces the characters’ interpersonal relationships or lack thereof.
While not strictly a food product, the idea of consumption through oral expulsion is introduced within the first two minutes of screen time; Jo’s meeting with the New York publisher Mr. Dashwood is opened by Dashwood spitting what is likely chewing tobacco behind his desk before addressing his visitor. The act of spitting is dismissive, just as his initial behaviour is to Jo – while he ultimately accepts her short story, he is only interested in publishing her work under the condition that it be heavily revised to lose much of its original character and moral strength. Consistently at odds with Jo throughout their various meetings and letters, Dashwood wants future submissions to be “short and spicy”: not exactly the flavour profile one might attribute to the pastel, pastoral tone of the Marches’ life of genteel poverty in Massachusetts.
Just as Dashwood’s negligent tobacco usage underscores his terse professional relationship with Jo, her decision to eat in front of Theodore Laurence within minutes of meeting at a party indicates the strength of their long-term friendship and the comfort she gleans from this relationship. Food here is used as a tool to physically move Jo into a space of trust: throughout the rest of the film, we only ever see her eat while in the presence of family members or friends-cum-family such as the Laurence grandfather and grandson duo and John Brookes. For Jo, consuming food is a major indicator of her willingness to maintain friendly relations. Notably, she is never seen on-screen eating or drinking while in the presence of Aunt March, about whom she is vocal about her dislike, while nearly every other major character in the film is at some point featured alongside Jo at the table.
The relatively isolated location of Orchard House, the March family home, also plays a part in the film’s visual food storyline. The production designers’ decision to plant vibrant, attention-grabbing foods within the home directly contrasts the state of affairs in the film’s high society scenes, where food is often comparatively colourless, relegated to the background, or present only in small quantities or otherwise unavailable. While it’s openly mentioned that the March sisters “barely have enough to eat” during Marmee’s absence from Orchard House, which is in and of itself a nod to a distance in the sisters’ filial relationships due to their parents’ departures, there is never a true shortage of food when the table is laid. Some of the meal scenes contain modest spreads but never do the Marches go hungry like the Hummel children, and accordingly never do the March sisters’ relationships fray beyond the point of repair. The two highlights of the Christmas breakfast scene both involve food and plenty: first, the Marches donate their intended meal to the destitute Hummels, who later interact with the ill-fated Beth. This act then inspires Laurie and Mr. Laurence to send a significantly more substantial hamper to replace the donated Christmas breakfast, a gift which firmly establishes the Laurences’ lifelong link to the March family. Likewise, Beth’s death is associated with the appearance and disappearance of food: when she recovers from scarlet fever Jo finds her at an occupied table containing a bowl of fruit, but the second time Jo descends from an empty sickroom she finds an equally bare table to reflect her sense of loss.
Liquid consumables take the place of solid foods in the high society circles which Laurie, Amy, and Meg occasionally inhabit, an environment where Laurie is consistently ill at ease or ill-behaved to his friends. The appearance of tea or alcohol where the focus is shifted off of solid foods often predicts a rift between characters: the trays of beer steins in the New York dance hall, champagne flutes in the Paris ballroom, and the crystal glasses of the debutante ball are each featured moments before a scene of interpersonal conflict. In New York, Jo shouts at Friedrich Bhaer when he is unkind about her work; in Paris, Amy’s disappointment in the recently dissolute Laurie is tangible. In a pre-1868 scene Meg and Laurie quarrel over her finery and company at the debutante ball, though they become friends again within the same day – something which occurs after both have set their drinks aside and taken a seat near a selection of cakes. Laurie’s on-screen action of leaving his glass on a side table hints at their future reconciliation even when Meg storms off visibly upset.
On Meg’s wedding day Laurie smuggles another crystal glass to Jo, whose rejection of his frankly uninspired proposal sends him into a tailspin which encompasses his path and his character for much of the post-autumn 1868 portion of the film. The only foods in the wedding scene are part of a background display, and while many of the main characters are seen drinking during the festivities, none touch the provisions. Laurie, who had been initiated into the March family by Marmee’s midnight token of a fresh scone, becomes symbolically divorced from Massachusetts and the Marches when he chooses to drink instead of eat when in the company of the sisters. His reconciliation to the family comes after his marriage to Amy, when the extended family is shown having a meal following Beth’s death and Bhaer’s arrival. When tracing the trend of food culture in the film his reintegration is unsurprising given the introduction of a fruit bowl and still-life paintings in Amy’s studio in Paris. If the pears in Paris set the stage for Laurie’s return to the fold, then the family repast in a Massachusetts parlour reinforces it.
For a film without an excessively sprawling main and secondary cast, there are relatively few scenes which bring the Marches, the Laurences, and the March sisters’ partners into a single frame. Many of these are centred around the Marches’ dining table: Mr. March’s first Christmas back in Massachusetts features a full spread and a full family tableau including the Laurences. Of the secondary cast, only Bhaer (not yet introduced in the timeline) and Aunt March are missing – Aunt March being a character who is ornery to her relatives and who is only ever depicted drinking, not eating. One of the film’s closing scenes, Marmee’s birthday at Plumfield, again repeats this motif of food and family with her surviving daughters banding together to present a cake and their husbands gathering around the table. As with almost all scenes containing food, it is a portrait of love and trust. It is important that Bhaer’s official introduction to the March family takes place over a prolonged lunch; it is one of the longest food-related scenes in the film. The leisurely meal and the reappearance of desserts in the parlour near the piano indicates Bhaer’s relationship with and continuing importance to Jo. Food again reconciliates two parties in conflict, and as it does with Laurie at the film’s beginning, it confirms Bhaer’s place in the family circle.
Little Women’s food culture is less about physical sustenance than it is about emotional fulfillment and bonding. It’s hardly an innovation to observe that food brings people together but given how unstable the food system could be in the time and place in which Little Women is set – a concern personified by the impoverished Hummels – food serves as a tertiary character in its own right. As with Amy and her schoolhouse debt of pickled limes, it acts on multiple occasions as a gateway to interpersonal acceptance; in the case of Jo and the bread she tears into without a second thought, it represents both her security in and the fragility of emotional bonds. The fact that Jo continues to cling to the ravaged bread once she recognizes Bhaer’s presence in her home is indicative of the fierceness with which she holds onto her valued relationships. While Little Women has a multitude of strengths on several levels, Gerwig’s celebrated oral storytelling is supported by her production design team’s subtle relationship-building through gastronomy, a medium which allows the film to explore the interconnectedness of love, limes, and the little women.