January 21st, 2022
The Antagonist of Little Women
Everyone has their pride and prejudice, and this is mine, and if you don't have a pride and prejudice, you simply are not doing this whole life thing right. Little Women has been a favorite of mine for a long while, and I’ve always been a Jo girl, but something in the newest adaptation changed my previously stubborn opinion on the story, and that is Laurie. From the ripe age of 3, I was a Laurie hater, and not one of those people salty that Laurie didn’t end up with Jo. There’s no harbored hate for Amy around here because that is called deep seated misogyny. It was more of a general dislike for the character who only caused problems in the March sisters' lives, but obviously something changed my mind, and it was not just the addition of vampire esque cheekbones although I think Timmy did do the character justice. In a lot of ways, the 2019 Greta Gerwig Little Women is a groundbreaking adaptation, with it’s enlightening additions to the story, whether it be the split timelines between past and present, more introspection on Jo’s inner monologue, or most importantly, a long overdue Amy revival. For all those people talking about how they were always a fan of Andrew Garfield since the amazing spiderman now that there’s a renaissance, everybody is all yak yak yak, and yeah. I get it. Except my girl’s been getting hate since 1868. Yak yak yak is about right. But it is impossible to talk about Amy without talking about her natural foil: Laurie, and how for the first time it’s clear that Laurie is not an unlikable character but the antagonist of the story, and the movie achieves this while actually making Laurie a very likable character.
The March Sisters Versus...
Not every story needs a villain, Little Women included, but a story can’t be a story without an antagonist, and this story’s antagonist is Laurie, specifically what he represents and how he functions in the story on the opposite end of the March sisters. Here’s the thing. If you want to get technical, and believe me, I will, and the antagonist is not just the big bad sniping down innocent civilians joker style but simply any character who is a foil to the protagonist, the pov of the reader. This does not reflect good and evil or right and wrong, just opposing ideals and the conflict that arises because of it. This is what drives the story forward, and this is why some of the most confrontational scenes that drive the characters’ arcs are Laurie versus insert sister. Each sister (except Beth because no adaptation will ever do her justice apparently) has a scene with Laurie that illustrates their character journey, in which Laurie functions as the antagonizing force versus a March sister’s conflicting ideal.
Chronologically, Meg is first, and her time in the spotlight arrives with the debutante party of her friend Sallie. Meg’s storyline centers around faux ideals of luxury versus an impoverished but genuine reality. Her childhood fantasy is to wear fancy dresses and have maids waiting on her every move, and this scene is her living out this fantasy, being taken under the wing of her wealthier friends, dressed up in a extravagant gown, and acting frivolously, completely unlike herself. It’s a lot like a child playing pretend in a costume, and this performance comes to a clash with her identity when Laurie arrives at the party. He shuts her down (rude) and gives her the 19th century version of a reality check, the reality check being a watered down version of telling her that this isn’t her, this is her playing pretend, and guess what, playtime’s over, and she needs to grow up. It’s no coincidence that the party this occurs at is a debutante party, thrown to introduce a young girl into society. And so Meg accepts what he says, knowing that it's completely true. The fuss and frills aren’t real, and Meg’s reality is a family in need, one that cannot afford more than one dress per sister, and her dancing around in a borrowed dress, pretending to be a created character Daisy is a childhood fancy, one that will quickly be shut down by her impoverished situation, but it still hurts to accept it, and Laurie is the one to deal that blow.
Soon after, in the story, Meg marries Mr. Brooke, Laurie’s tutor, to which Jo is not exactly thrilled that someone’s come to take her sister away. Immediately after, Laurie takes this opportunity to propose to Jo, forcing her to face her fear of her childhood being over. She’s not thrilled about being proposed to either. The conflict of protagonist and antagonist is most clear here, with both literally yelling their opposing ideals out in a masterfully written scene. The scene begins with Laurie bringing up the topic of getting married, and Jo’s immediate reaction is ‘no.’ She doesn’t even want to think about the idea that this is what Laurie is considering, that it is an actual option, that she can no longer cruise through her life peacefully, living in the same house with her sisters and not having to worry about marriage or adulthood. Jo spurts out anything and everything she can to make him see that she doesn’t want to let go of her childhood freedoms, and Laurie turns into a broken record just repeating that he loves her over and over, which translated into normal people talk is him forcing her to come to terms with the reality of having to marry as a woman, as an adult, in the society they live in, that she cannot in fact continue to cruise through her life unbothered by what goes on outside the four walls she’s grown up in. This is the last scene of the flashbacks. This is the moment childhood is really over.
No, it's not just plot convenience that he’s the voice of adult-like reason. Interestingly, some of the movie’s runtime is taken aside to show Laurie’s home: the quiet, empty rooms, dull lessons, prim and proper meals at a large table for only two, all in stark contrast to the March house, which is washed in warm colors, homely clutter, and overlapping conversations. Laurie, in a way, was never allowed to be an actual child and was not awarded the privilege of his childhood flashbacks occupying the warm and fond quality of Jo’s when she looks back upon her time living with her sisters. The March sisters represent everything Laurie does not have, and even though he is welcomed into their home and lives, from the very start, he represents a change in their humble lives, a transition from childhood to adulthood, the beginning of the end, if you will (sorry haunting of bly manor fans), and he is unable to let go of the cold ideals of a harsh reality his grandfather’s rigid homelife instilled in him.
See, this is where things start to get interesting. This is where Laurie goes through what we, in the business, like to call character growth. So Meg is married, Jo turned down the proposal, Beth is sick but who cares definitely not this movie, and Amy is in Paris with Laurie. Amy has become the poster child for grown up. She knows she needs to marry rich to support her family, she’s going through her artist burnout phase, and she got rid of her very 2019 bangs to show her character progression of maturing. She delivers an incredible monologue on her acceptance of letting go of her childhood fancies, and Laurie, for the first time, gets a taste of his own medicine. Now Laurie is the one putting on a childish show, as he arrives to the New Year’s party drunk and a mess and confesses to Amy that he’s been running around Europe doing nothing but killing time, after being rejected by Jo. He’s making up for lost time and letting go of the proper expectations of someone of his status in place of frolicking with an Amy who is no longer the one who knew as a child and tempting her into letting go too, following her fantasies of a long gone era. And Amy’s not having it. At first.
Then along comes the proposal scene, and it should seem familiar because Amy has the exact same initial reaction as Jo, that refusal to face the truth of the situation, that repeating of ‘no’. But she caves. So Amy really ends up having it all: the hunky yet somehow sickly Victorian child she’s liked for years and her family’s livelihoods. Perhaps she didn’t love him after all. Perhaps she was in love with the idea of fulfilling her childhood want in a way that wouldn’t endanger her financial security. And Laurie’s done good too by marrying someone he is actually compatible with and doing right by her family. This could be considered a redemption arc because as the girls grew older, his childhood antagonism, him being the very reminder of the inevitability of growing up changed, as he, in turn, grew more childlike and careless. He became a victim of his own antagonism, never able to be a child as the March sisters were, and succumbing to immaturity rather than evolving naturally as the March sisters did. He went from being the foil of the insistence of childhood to the foil of the insistence of adulthood, until he found Amy once again, in a completely different state of mind than years before. In a way, this is the happy ending between protagonist and antagonist. This is the resolution of both their arcs: a mutual understanding and the compromise between childhood idealism and the expectations of society as an adult. Hey fantasy readers. Does this count as the protagonist ends up with the villain trope?