Writer and director Greta Gerwig’s 2019 movie adaption of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women earned six Academy Award nominations. In a moving scene pulled from the novel’s pages, Jo confesses to Marmee, “When I get in a passion I get so savage I could hurt anyone and enjoy it.” It’s a disquieting confession, but even more surprising is her mother’s reply, “You remind me of myself.”
Throughout the story, Marmee epitomizes the ideal mother: a kind, generous, practical and near saintly comfort to all. (“‘Call me Marmee. Everyone does,’” the movie version of Marmee tells motherless Laurie upon meeting him.) It’s no wonder Jo is stunned by her mother’s admission. The audience is, too.
“But you’re never angry,” Jo presses.
“I’m angry nearly every day of my life.”
“I’m not patient by nature. But with nearly 40 years of effort I’m learning not to let it get the better of me.”
“Well, I’ll do the same then,” Jo quietly replies. She is clearly affected.
One of the hardest tasks for a screenwriter adapting a novel is choosing which scenes to include in the film. Other adaptations of Little Women have omitted this interchange. But in an age where the portrayal of perfection is a tempting aim -- especially for girls and the women who raise them -- the scene strikes a chord.
Marmee’s admission to Jo unzips our vision of perfection and reveals her true character as a person working daily to overcome her weaknesses and failures. In doing so, she reveals her faith in Jo’s ability to do the same. Marmee teaches us that how we respond to others’ shortcomings can have a profound effect on how they see themselves and envision themselves in the future. In fact, Alcott writes that Jo felt “comforted at once by the sympathy and confidence given her.”
The scene also teaches us that we have more influence than we may guess. Writers know the most engaging characters are flawed. By sharing some of our own inner struggles and how we deal with them, we become more interesting and compelling to the children in our care. We may even become more sympathetic to their struggles, while inspiring in them courage, self-acceptance, and perseverance.
As Amy, the youngest of the March sisters later declares, “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” The message: our nature is the ship, but our character is the captain. We cannot control what ship we get or what seas we encounter, but we can learn from the captains that sail ahead of us how to best raise our sails and weather all storms.