The Heart and the Hearth
Rekindling joy in ordinary, seen through the lens of ‘Little Women’
“Who will be interested in a story of domestic struggles and joys? It doesn’t have any real importance”.
So says Jo March in Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel, Little Women. And at perhaps one of my favorite moments in the film, Amy responds: “Maybe we don’t see those things as important because people don’t write about them … Perhaps writing will make them more important”. I am hard-pressed to find a more beautiful and profound statement, one upon which the entire film seems to revolve and from which it draws inspiration. In a moment, Amy echoes a sentiment that is pertinent in a season of celebration, a time when we are all preparing to return to our respective homes for the holidays — which may be a source of great joy for some, and great pain for others. A time when we are made to face, quite simply, the “domestic struggles and joys” of our lives.
Little Women (2019) is brimming with memory. The very start of the film places us in the middle of the story, and we are then carried through a whirlwind of golden flashbacks to the March sisters’ childhood, woven together with the intensely human, ordinary events of their growing up. The plot unfolds with such energy, purpose, and charming alacrity that by the end we’re quite swept away by the beauty of it all. What is it about this film that takes our breath away? That swells within us an intense appreciation for the beauty of simple life? That leads us to recognise the painstaking beauty of existence, that yearning for something deeper — perhaps more real and genuine? There’s something in this film that illuminates the aspects of life that would otherwise be shrouded beneath a veil of obscurity — throughout it, we turn inward to the home, where so much of the film is based that we almost share in the anxieties that the sisters feel upon leaving. It brings to the fore the urgency and magnitude of family life, as every high and low of the March sisters’ lives turn upon the solid and comforting bedrock of their relationship with one another, and their relationship with their mother and father. It relives the moments in the kitchen, the living room, the attic, by the hearth, retold (as we come to understand) through the lens of Jo’s memory as she compiles and collects the simple articles of her family which reveal nothing of particular extravagance, but nearly everything of life. By the end, we are convinced that life is lovely and recollection is a powerful tool, one that is, amazingly, always at our fingertips.
From the beginning until the end, this film interrogates independence, ambition, dreams, hopes, fears, poverty, marriage, and death — elements that are intensely human in every sense. Brimming beneath it all, there’s an overwhelming sense that each dream, hope, and fear, no matter how large and intense, is kept within the bonds of familial love. I think this is what lends to the greatness of the film; it reminds us that no matter how large life might feel, no matter how overwhelming our lot, there are those in our life who will make even the most menacing storms feel small, those who help us regain our ground. The touch of a friend, the laughter of a parent, the outdated remark of a grandmother, even the anger of a sister — all of these things and more remind us that friendship, family, relationships, and home are the parts of life that make us bolder and humbler and braver to face the days ahead. They’re also the parts of life that can be a source of great pain, sorrow, regret, and heartbreak, but placing ourselves at the end of our story, I sincerely hope that we, like Amy, recognise the importance of it all.
I will end with this. Of the many scenes that I absolutely adore, one stands out in particular. The scene when, after Amy ruthlessly burns Jo’s manuscript out of childish anger, she runs to join Jo and Laurie on the ice. It’s not long before Amy falls through the ice and Jo and Laurie rush to rescue her from the freezing water. There’s something wonderful in this scene (everyone is safe, warm, and reconciled in the end) because the breaking of the ice breaks the seemingly unresolvable tension between the two sisters. When I was considering the themes of the film in light of the holiday season, I looked up a few definitions of ‘thankful’ and cumulatively they are as follows: “Pleased and relieved”, “pleased about something good that has happened, or that something bad has not happened”. And there is something so simply profound in this that it risks going unnoticed entirely. Jo’s fears, her ambitions, and her dreams could not be the truest source of her joy and contentment – once they were burned to ashes her hope was lost and bitterness took root. Rather, it’s not until a tragedy is avoided, followed by an even greater tragedy (the death of her sister, Beth), that Jo’s heart is able to finally recognize the parts of life that really matter, and they become a source of joy in themselves. So it seems that thankfulness does in fact help us to recognize the importance of our very own “domestic joys and struggles”.
Illustration: Lauren McAndrew