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Eight Little Women at Work and Play

Few interventions have had as disproportionate an impact on the ways we talk about literature than Roland Barthes’s 1971 essay “From Work to Text,” which, in fewer than ten pages, manages to advance half a dozen compelling arguments—or, as Barthes prefers to call them, propositions—about the distinction between the work, “a fragment of substance” that “occupies a portion of the spaces of books” (57), and the text, “a methodological field” that “is experienced only as an activity, in a production” (57, 58). Unlike the work, which “functions as a general sign” produced by an “author” who is traditionally owed respect as “the father and owner of his work” (61), the text, which is “read without the Father’s inscription” (61), “practices the infinite postponement of the signified” (59). Unlike the work, which “is ordinarily the object of consumption” whose readers “cannot rewrite” (63) it, “[t]he Text […] decants the work […] from its consumption and recuperates it as play, task, production, practice” (62) because its “signifier’s infinitude does not refer to some notion of the ineffable (of an unnamed signified) but to a notion of play” (59). Given the opposition between works that demand to be read in narrowly prescribed ways and texts that amount to open invitations to rewriting, it is no surprise that numberless readers have followed Barthes in preferring texts to works.

Half a century after Barthes’s explosive essay, there is no way of putting this particular genie back in the bottle. I come not to bury the text, but to praise the work by pointing out that the playful beckoning Barthes had reserved for the text can also be coupled with the notion of work—not so much “the work” that Barthes is at pains to distinguish from the text as work itself, an activity, and a verb, that are inextricably bound up with their nominal opposite, play. The propositions I have to offer about the intimate connections between work and play are drawn from Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women and eight of its screen adaptations. Alcott explores relations between work and play that screen adaptations of Little Women complicate still further by the different ways they play with the novel and sometimes with each other.

Female-coming-of-age stories are based on a foundational paradox economically announced in Alcott’s title: her leading characters, in the terms their father uses to describe them (Alcott 17; otherwise unidentified parenthetical references are to this edition), both are and aren’t women: they’re future women, incomplete women, apprentice women, yet already the women they’ll become. Alcott’s great achievement lies not in her invention of incident or character but in the synchronic, developmental relations she explores between different characters and the diachronic relations she establishes between different incidents. Given the episodic nature of Alcott’s novel, it develops a surprisingly rich series of relations between work and play.

Work is a subject Alcott took seriously, as readers can see from her autobiographical 1873 novel Work. Through a series of jobs ranging from maid to seamstress to laundress to greenhouse manager to labor negotiator, Alcott’s heroine, Christie Devon, cultivates a “consciousness of work as distinct from job”: “Domesticity produces a consciousness of work not only as a ‘craft,’ but also as a process quite apart from wages and hours” (Elbert 193, 192). And Alcott takes play equally seriously, as we can see from the space Little Women devotes to different kinds of play. Unlike Work, Little Women consistently complicates the apparent opposition or contradiction between work and play, most obviously by multiplying the number of her heroines to four, by creating shifting analogies and interplay between them, and by emphasizing the importance of play in their journey to womanhood. Alcott’s little women enliven the real work of maturation and social growth by playing scenes, playing at romance, playing with different future scenarios, and playing with each other. They follow their author in calling their mother Marmee, a ritualistically playful name that is set against the contrary associations of her husband’s surname, March, with military work, associations sharpened by the fact that Mr. March spends the first half of the novel fighting a just war and becomes an absent head of the family, ceding parental authority to two females: his wife, Margaret, and his sister, Aunt March. Alcott’s decision to reserve the last name “March” to Mr. March and Aunt March and to use “Marmee” for the mother of the family indicates her willingness to play with the gendered roles traditionally associated with different kinds of work.

Alcott, who considered writing Little Women difficult and uncongenial work—“I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing,” she wrote (Journals 165)—had a complex investment in work, play, and the centrality of them both to her view of female coming-of-age that is mirrored from the beginning by her little women. The four March sisters combine the impulses to work and play in four different ways. Meg, who considers work and play as complementary alternatives (8), submits to being treated like her friend Belle’s “doll” (100) and dismisses her suitor John Brooke because it’s the thing to do before he admonishes her: “Don’t play with me, Meg” (240). At the point of her marriage to Brooke, she pushes back against the performance her wedding calls for—“I’m not a show, aunty” (265)—and has to work even afterward at finding a proper balance of work and play (422). Jo, who thinks that even being a woman is something of a masquerade (9), approaches nearly every activity, even listening to a sermon, as play (53). She complains that Europe-bound “Amy has all the fun, and I have all the work” (327). Jo plays at being a man (8, 9, 11, 59) and dreams of going to Europe and becoming a writer, monetizing her imaginative play “to support myself and help others” (167) and cutting her hair to raise $25 for her wounded father, who responds by celebrating the transformation of his “son Jo” to “a young lady” in his absence (234). The most notable time Jo isn’t playful in in her inexperienced, straightforward response to a delicate question (500) that leads to Professor Friedrich Bhaer’s profession of love. Amy unreflectively imitates her elders’ behavior, leading to malapropisms and “Amy’s Will” (206) and “want[ing] my lunch to be proper and elegant, though I do work for my living” (273) before growing out of play and out of a careerist (328) determination to marry for money into a marital partnership with Jo’s former suitor Laurie. Beth, who plays Mr. Laurence’s piano, which “suffers from want of use” (67), and repays his gift by announcing, “I’m going to work Mr. Laurence a pair of slippers” (69), is so consistently invested in work rather than play that Alcott describes her as “constantly forgetting that it was to be all play, and no work” (121).

In addition, the four sisters repeatedly revel in role-playing exercises like “the Pickwick Club” (111) and “Camp Laurence” (135), indulge in directed and limited “experiments” (129), building “Castles in the Air” (153), and constantly seek and find ways to reconfigure work as play (18). All these exercises are clearly inspired by Mr. March’s call to work (14) and Marmee’s memories of her teenaged domestic experiments—“It was play then” (257)—and her continuing sense that “it is a play that we are playing all the time in one way or another” (18). Nor are these exercises limited to women, for Laurie, who echoes Jo’s gender play in choosing a feminine nickname as an alternative to the even more feminine “Dora” foisted on him (35), complains that women “drive a man out of his wits, just for the fun of it” (383) before he joins Jo in her playful reaction to his confession that he’s married Amy (468).

Alcott focuses especially on exploring the interplay of work and play in her little women as they wait and prepare for “the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman” (110)—unlike “French girls, who have a dull time of it till they are married” (412). The novel associates several distinct relationships between work and play not only with different characters but with different stages in each character’s development. Marmee’s earlier history and current example position play as a developmental stage, a preparation or rehearsal for work. Beth sees work as a constant vocation to be cheerfully accepted until her untimely death prevents her from developing any further perspectives on work and play. Meg sees play first as a complementary alternative to work, then as an activity in which one is played by other players like her scheming female friends, and finally, in something of a return to her younger self, as a tonic balance to work. Amy begins by considering play as an imitation of work, graduates to consider careerism as play, and eventually settles into a marital partnership that is work that’s also play. Jo, a clearly autobiographical figure who allows Alcott to “‘return’ in the text […] as a guest” whose “inscription is no longer privileged, paternal, alethic, but ludic” (Barthes 61)—a position Barthes reserves for authorial appearances in texts rather than works—begins by using play as an incessant activity or mode of self-presentation, then comes to regard play as an unreachable rescue from work that is available only to privileged others before she discovers the joys of writing for publication, which consecrates her play as an expression of work in a balance that provides the novel’s endpoint.

The universe of book sequels, prequels, and adaptations to Little Women launched by Alcott herself in Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886) has expanded to include at least twelve novels, seven theatrical adaptations, seven feature films, three radio adaptations, three musical adaptations, two operas, and thirteen television adaptations, including two anime series. Every one of these adaptations carries the potential to add several new dimensions that further complicate the relations Alcott and her characters establish between work and play. Each of them can treat the novel as a canonical work to be played with. Each of them obliges its performers to work at being playful. Each of them is free to choose which of the earlier versions to invoke as models to be followed, corrected, or played with. And each of them has the opportunity to play with, on, and against the expectations encouraged by the earlier versions it selects.

The most obvious way that film adaptations of any sort can play with the works they adapt is through decisions about the casting and performance—the playing—of individual characters. Jo is always the starring role, and always the most spirited and playful of the sisters. Her determination, beginning with Katharine Hepburn’s performance in George Cukor’s 1933 film, to seize access to the freedoms and activities reserved for men challenges gender binaries in every adaptation. Other roles allow for different kinds of play. The casting of Elizabeth Taylor in Mervyn LeRoy’s 1949 film broadens the treatment of Amy, whose malapropisms and social pretensions are repeatedly burlesqued. Marmee is often a pivotal role for established stars to play a maternal role. Following Spring Byington in the 1933 film, Marmee is played by Mary Astor in the 1949 film, Dorothy McGuire in the 1978 television miniseries directed by David Lowell Rich and Gordon Hessler, Susan Sarandon in Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 film, Lea Thompson in Clare Niederpruem’s 2018 update, and Laura Dern in Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film. Every adaptation follows RKO’s decision to cast Hungarian-born Paul Lukas in the role of Professor Friedrich Bhaer by casting some other non-German actor, from Rossano Brazzi or Kent Smith to William Shatner or Gabriel Byrne, as Bhaer. By casting June Allyson as Jo and Peter Lawford, her costar in the 1947 college musical Good News, as Laurie, the 1949 film plays with the audience’s expectations about which man Jo is most likely to end up with (see Figure 1).

Eight Little Women at Work and Play, 
Thomas Leitch, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1. The 1949 Little Women teases its audience with the possibility that Jo (June Allyson) will end up with Laurie (Peter Lawford), since Allyson and Lawford were romantic partners in Good News (1947).

The adaptations play in surprisingly consistent ways with the incidents in Alcott’s work by treating the novel as a scrapbook of obligatory scenes and subordinate episodes they may transform, supplement, or exclude at will. Amy’s spiteful burning of Jo’s papers, Jo’s refusal to accept Amy’s apology, and the subsequent reconciliation of the two sisters after Jo rescues Amy, who has followed her and Laurie on their skating date, loom just as large in most of the adaptations as in Alcott’s novel, but the 1933 film omits them entirely. So the list of events the adaptations all agree in treating as obligatory is remarkably short: Mr. Laurence’s gift of his piano to Beth, Meg’s attendance at the Gardiners’ dance, Mr. March’s offscreen wounding and Marmee’s trip to Washington to help nurse him, Beth’s scarlet fever, Jo’s refusal of Laurie’s romantic suit, Jo’s discovery that Laurie has married Amy instead, Professor Bhaer’s climactic visit to Concord, the publication of Jo’s first novel, and the opening of her school. The two longest adaptations treat Alcott’s work very differently. The 1978 miniseries takes advantage of its 195-minute running time to include more material taken directly from the novel than any other adaptation; the three-hour miniseries Vanessa Caswell directed for Masterpiece Theatre in 2017 is far more inventive, freely adding new dialogue and new incidents to Alcott’s scrapbook. The two-part television adaptation Paul Nickell directed for Westinghouse Studio One in 1950 emphasizes the romantic rivalry between Amy and Jo; the 1933 film soft-pedals it by having Meg tell Jo of Laurie’s love for Amy and allowing Jo to accept it after a moment’s not-very-angry hesitation.

More generally, one of the most important differences among these adaptations is their decision to treat romance as work or play or some combination of the two. The 1933 film makes it clear that courtship is a matter of work, not play. When John Brooke (John Lodge) presses his proposal to Meg (Frances Dee), he tells her: “I’ll wait. I don’t mind how long or how hard I have to work if only I can have my reward in the end.” Returning after Aunt March (Edna May Oliver) unwittingly provokes Meg’s defense of him, he asks, “You will give me leave to work for you and love you?” In his own abortive proposal to Jo that immediately follows Meg and Brooke’s wedding, Laurie (Douglass Montgomery) agrees that Jo, or her love, is a prize to be worked for. But when he asks on his return whether they can now expect a return to “those happy old times,” Jo replies: “Those happy old times won’t come back, and we shouldn’t expect them to. We’re man and woman now, and we can’t be playmates any longer.” The film ends by confirming play as a developmental stage on the way to the work of adulthood. The 1950 television adaptation, which omits many scenes of the sisters playing together in order to emphasize the romantic relationships that await Beth and Jo, privileges work even more completely over play. The 1994 film, which treats the sisters as more or less equally prominent until Jo meets Professor Bhaer, is most concerned to distinguish Amy’s petty, vindictive bad play from Jo’s productive, goal-oriented good play. Jo’s surprise, as she calls it, in response to Amy’s marriage to Laurie is expressed in a single over-the-shoulder shot shortly after she has received a copy of her first published novel, Little Women, explicitly incorporating Beth’s recollections of Meg being unwillingly dressed for that dance, and so converting Meg’s unwittingly bad play into Jo’s ultimate good play: the very novel the film is adapting.

The more recent adaptations play more actively with Alcott’s structure by means of transitions, juxtapositions, flashbacks, and other dislocations, redefining the relations individual incidents establish between work and play. The 2017 television miniseries begins by intercutting the sisters’ frivolous conflicts over haircutting with the real grief and emotional hardship the war is bringing to their father. The fast-paced crosscutting continues after Jo (Maya Hawke) and Meg (Willa Fitzgerald) refuse to take Amy (Kathryn Newton) to the theater with John (Julian Morris) and Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King). The following sequence cuts back and forth between the two couples at the theater and Amy burning Jo’s manuscript in the stove. In the brief pre-credit sequence to Part Two, Jo writes Marmee (Emily Watson) assuring her how well everyone’s behaving as Amy, who is snarky and more than a little mean, flounces around the house saying that she’s going to use curling papers in her hair on a weekday because Marmee isn’t there—all intercut with shots of Marmee tearfully standing over the unconscious Mr. March (Dylan Baker) in Washington, the live sounds in this scene replaced with a voiceover of Jo reading her letter, in a sequence that once more uses playful cinematic devices to set the girls’ play against their mother’s grim work. The 2019 adaptation uses flashbacks and flashforwards more generally to subordinate the chronological progression of episodes in Alcott’s novel to the associations they establish between the March girls and the women they become. Instead of using sad events to puncture happy events, as the 2017 miniseries does, the 2019 film favors thematic contrasts and ironic analogies. The returning adult Jo’s thoughtful glance at her key provokes a flashback to the original presentation of four mailbox keys by Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) after he’s crashed and been accepted into their club. Such playful juxtapositions make audiences work to figure them out, rejecting the original irony (Jo, back home, doesn’t remember yet why she’s returned) for a deeper irony (this is the day the daughters will first meet the family that will infect Beth). At the debutante ball, as Meg (Emma Watson) tells Laurie, who has suddenly appeared, “It’s just like playing a part, to be Daisy for a little while,” provoking his annihilating reply: “What would Jo say?”, the episode is intercut with shots showing Beth playing Mr. Lawrence’s piano and Mr. Lawrence coming silently down stairs to sit on the stairs and listen, posing two analogous but dissimilar ways women can perform for male audiences. Later, the film repeatedly cuts back and forth between shots showing Beth originally suffering from scarlet fever and shots showing her spending time with Jo at the shore, culminating in two sequences in which Jo walks downstairs first to find the recovering Beth sitting with Marmee, then to tell Marmee wordlessly that Beth has died and to comfort her—a juxtaposition that deals playfully with the gravest matter in Alcott’s story (see Figures 2 and 3). Throughout this adaptation, anything, playful or serious, can interrupt anything else at any moment.

Eight Little Women at Work and Play, 
Thomas Leitch, Literature Film Quarterly
Eight Little Women at Work and Play, 
Thomas Leitch, Literature Film Quarterly
Figures 2 and 3. In the 2019 Little Women, Jo descends the staircase twice after her vigil at Beth’s bedside, first to find Beth recovered, then to comfort Marmee over her death.

Finally, the adaptations distinguish themselves from each other through the ways they play with the novel’s status as a classic work to be followed or an old chestnut to be playfully updated. The 1933 film, whose trailer describes it as “The Crowning Event of All Show History!”, is intent on preserving Alcott’s story as a treasured artifact from the past from the opening credits, displayed before a Currier and Ives–like print, en route to becoming, in Guerric DeBona’s terms,“ as the first successful literary prestige picture in ten years” (44). The 1950 television miniseries is the only adaptation that follows Alcott in explicitly dividing the story into two parts that it labels “Beth’s Story” and “Jo’s Story.” The 1949 film follows the 1933 film, though not Alcott’s novel, by introducing Professor Bhaer on all fours, fully clothed in a bear costume, as a potentially playful partner rather than an intellectual mentor. By contrast, the 1994 adaptation pointedly declines to play with the patterns established in the 1933 and 1949 adaptations, which Gillian Armstrong’s DVD commentary shows no awareness of. Indeed, its most obvious progenitor text apart from Alcott’s novel is Armstrong’s own My Brilliant Career (1979), the film that evidently inspired producer Denise Di Novi to pursue the reluctant director for this film. The opening shot of the 2019 film, which reveals behind the Sony logo an anachronistic Columbia Pictures logo, is a shout-out to the opening shot of the 1994 film (see Figure 4). The 2018 film, whose release was timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the novel’s original publication, is an aggressively modern update, marketed under the tagline “New generation, same sisters,” that both reflects and transforms its source, like a less brash Clueless. The sisters have movie cameras and cell phones and say “whatever” as elders like artsy Aunt March (Barta Heiner) call them out “Just like a Generation Z.” Strenuously updating Alcott’s story produces some strange effects. Jo (Sarah Davenport) first meets Laurie (Lucas Grabeel) at a dance featuring rap music blaring in the background. Meg (Melanie Stone) resists the sexual groping of a pickup at the prom her friend has outfitted her for in a midriff-baring two-piece dress as she drinks from the pickup’s flask. Jo insists that she won’t save her writing on Laurie’s laptop because “a paper copy is forever” moments before Amy (Taylor Murphy) tosses it into the fire before Jo’s eyes. Freddie Bhaer (Ian Bohen) responds to Jo’s accusations of patriarchal privilege by offering to read more of her “female fantasy mythopoetic fable”; she’s also working on “a post-apocalyptic zombie thriller,” she tells her father (Bart Johnson) over FaceTime.

Eight Little Women at Work and Play, 
Thomas Leitch, Literature Film Quarterly
  Figure 4. A second production company logo following the Sony logo that introduces the 2019 Little Women pays homage to the logo that heads the 1994 Columbia film.

Do all these different permutations of work and play in Little Women and its adaptations refute Barthes’ distinction between work and text? Of course they don’t. The goal of this essay has been simply to complicate that distinction by defining “work” not as an object but as an activity nominally opposed to “play,” recasting Barthes’ opposition as a dialectic in which each activity lays the foundation for the other, each one depends on the other for its definition, and each one carries the inexhaustible potential to disturb the certitudes implied by the other. If these propositions seem to fly in the face of Barthes’ now-canonical analysis, they are commonplaces in the field of adaptation studies, whose subject is the way adaptations play with the works they adapt. And they remind us that the best way to honor pioneering poststructuralists like Barthes is not to canonize their work, as departments of literary studies did for so long by freezing their propositions into dogmas, but to treat it as a field of play that acknowledges and licenses the playful challenges of authors, characters, and audiences as well as theorists.

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. The Journals of Louisa May Alcott. Ed. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy. Little, Brown, 1989.

---. Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys. Library of America, 2005.

Barthes, Roland. “From Work to Text.” The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard. Hill and Wang, 1986, 56–64.

DeBona, Guerric. Film Adaptation in the Hollywood Studio Era. University of Illinois Press, 2010.

Elbert, Sarah. A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women. Temple University Press, 1984.

Little Women. Directed by George Cukor. Performances by Katharine Hepburn, Frances Dee. RKO, 1933.

Little Women. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Performances by June Allyson, Peter Lawford. MGM, 1949.

Little Women. Directed by David Lowell Rich. Performances by Meredith Baxter, Susan Dey. NBC, 1978.

Little Women. Directed by Gillian Armstrong. Performances by Winona Ryder, Gabriel Byrne. Columbia, 1994.

Little Women. Directed by Vanessa Caswill. Performances by Maya Hawke, Kathryn Newton. Masterpiece Theatre, 2017.

Little Women. Directed by Clare Niederpruem. Performances by Sarah Davenport, Lea Thompson. Pinnacle Peak/Pure Flix, 2018.

Little Women. Directed by Greta Gerwig. Performances by Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson. Sony, 2019.

Oughton, W, and Thompson, B, adaptation writers. Little Women. BBC. Westinghouse Studio One. 1950.