For centuries, Little Women fans have decried the youngest March sister as spoiled, bratty and naive. But as Florence Pugh’s performance in the recent adaptation proves, the character is unfairly maligned and very much misunderstood.
Oh, how I wish I could post a screenshot of the Stylist slack channel directly into this story.
Such a screenshot would be the perfect illustration of the point of this article, the reason why I think that Little Women fans need to re-examine their relationship with the characters they know and love so well. It all started when I mooted this idea for a story defending Amy March, the youngest of the quartet of sisters who form the backbone of Louisa May Alcott’s novel, adapted into a new feature film by Greta Gerwig in cinemas today. I wanted to set the record straight about a character that I think has been unfairly maligned for centuries by Jo-loving Little Women fans.
The response from my fellow writer Sarah – a book-loving Jo if ever I saw one, and I mean that with the utmost, sincerest, heartfelt love, as a fellow book-loving Jo myself – was clear: “the WORST.” As in, Amy March is the worst March sister, the worst character in Little Women and, to use our colloquial parlance, simply ‘the worst’.
It’s easy to see why so many people feel that Amy March is the worst. I thought that the first time I read the book as a teenager, and I thought it the first time I saw the 1994 film adaptation and watched Kirsten Dunst sobbing over stolen limes against the backdrop of snowy Concord. Amy is a classic youngest daughter and a true Scorpio: she’s headstrong, proud and thoroughly indulged. In the first few chapters of Little Women, Amy responds to a perceived slight by taking Jo’s manuscript, painstakingly handwritten by candlelight, and tossing it into the fire.
This moment has passed into infamy, setting Amy’s character in stone forever. (So much so that it even became a joke on an episode of Friends. “Amy just burned Jo’s manuscript,” said Joey. “I don’t see how he could ever forgive her!”)
I could tell you that Amy was just a child when she burned the manuscript, old enough to know what she was doing was wrong and yet immature enough to want to do it in the first place. I could tell you that, after burning it, Amy “felt that no one would love her till she had asked pardon for the act which she now regretted more than any of them”. I could tell you that the act of burning the manuscript, and of Jo later letting Amy imperil herself on the thinly frozen ice, and of Marmee’s wise words to Jo that she should never let the sun set on her anger, were all part of a morality fable in Alcott’s book, a neatly wrapped teaching moment for young readers.
But, but, but. For Jo fans, Amy will always be the spoiled younger sister who burned the manuscript out of spite. Maybe the only thing that will change that is Florence Pugh’s performance in Gerwig’s new film in cinemas today.
Gerwig understands that the actions of young children should not be used to judge their true nature. It’s why she decides to frame her film from the perspective of an adult Jo and an adult Amy. Both sisters receive the bulk of the movie’s screentime, a major increase in spotlight for Amy and a slight narrative shift away from Jo (Saoirse Ronan).
When we meet Amy in Gerwig’s Little Women she is already living in Europe and working on her painting. She is already the woman that she wanted to be as a young girl, the kind of woman who might declare with naked, unadorned ambition: “I want to be great or nothing”. That’s a wonderful Amy line pulled directly from Alcott’s original text. Also from the book: “The world is hard on ambitious girls.”
Amy and Jo actually have a lot in common. That’s why Amy knew that burning the manuscript would cause Jo the most pain, because she knows that if anyone did that to one of her paintings she would be distraught. Amy and Jo are both ambitious women who dream of big, borderless lives for themselves. They both want so many things, a desire entirely un-uttered by most of their female contemporaries. Jo wants to be a successful writer living a life that never bores her. Amy wants to be creative too, but she also dreams of financial security. Born last into the March family, she was raised in austerity, unlike her older sisters. Is it a crime that Amy wants these things? Should we shame her for having these dreams, fur-trimmed and silk-lined as they may be?
Gerwig thinks not. The writer-director has penned a version of Amy that is strong but never severe and who more than holds her own against her older sisters and Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). With Gerwig’s script and Pugh’s bright and confident performance, Amy is given a depth that she has never had onscreen before.
“When I read [the novel] as an adult, Amy was the one who struck me as having some of the most interesting things to say and having the most utterly clear-eyed view of the world,” Gerwig told The Atlantic. “I think I started seeing her as this… equally potent character to Jo.”
Part of the Amy hate comes, I think, from the fact that she’s the baby who always gets her way. She gets Jo’s man – not that Jo would actually want to be with Laurie, even when portrayed with floppy-haired sauciness by Chalamet – and she gets Jo’s trip to Europe and she gets Jo’s cosy relationship with Aunt March (Meryl Streep) and she gets financial security. Jo will have to struggle for the rest of her life, writing ghost stories to make ends meet while Amy is kept in stockings and gin courtesy of the Laurence fortune.
But that’s what Jo wants, really. She wants to be challenged, always, that’s why she turns Laurie down. She wants fireworks and fizz, a life so full to the brim it feels that it might burst. She wants to hustle and strive. (No wonder she ends up in New York.) She wants to feel real, true passion. Deep down, Jo wouldn’t have been happy in a marriage to Laurie. She wouldn’t have enjoyed being under Aunt March’s thumb. And she wouldn’t want to trade independence for security.
Amy is happy to make that sacrifice, and she uses her prettiness and good humour as a means to that end. Amy tells Laurie as much in Gerwig’s film, in one of the best scenes in the movie. “I’m not a poet, I’m just a woman,” she says. “And as a woman there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to make a living or support a family… So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.”
Having said all that, Amy does actually really love Laurie. Unlike in other Little Women adaptations, where the coupling of the youngest March sister and the boy next door is treated as a fait accompli, Gerwig gives the couple time and space to grow. Seeds of Amy’s love for Laurie are planted in scenes featuring Pugh and Chalamet’s characters as children, and those seeds start to bear fruit by the time they reconnect in Europe as adults, Laurie chastened by the rejection of his proposal to Jo. Here, in the shadow of French elegance, Amy gets what she wants: Laurie. Remember – Jo turned him down. Jo didn’t want to be with him. Jo knew that he couldn’t make her happy, as much as Amy knew that he could.
In Gerwig’s film, Amy still burns the manuscript. It’s still a shocking moment, a scene so thoroughly awful and upsetting for anyone who has ever dreamed of putting pen to paper. But, as Gerwig has explained, Amy burning the manuscript wasn’t merely an act of defiance. It was a sign of how untouchable she believed her sister really was. “In that moment, Amy sees Jo as just so much bigger than she is,” Gerwig told The Atlantic. “She’s like, ‘But you’re Jo; you’re magical.’ Like, ‘What could even me burning your novel [do to you]?’”
Gerwig knows that she might not change your mind about Amy. She understands that some things, like a painstakingly produced work of art reduced to smoking embers, can never be undone. But her vision of Amy in Little Women is a radical shift in perspective on the character. Her Little Women advises you to go on a journey with Amy as you move from immaturity and selfishness to ambition, practicality, desire, generosity and love. In short, it wants you to watch Amy grow up.
Little Women is in cinemas in the US and the UK now.
Images: Sony Pictures, Getty
Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.
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