By Kristen Proehl
From L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908) to Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (2012), young adult literature is replete with representations of friendship that trouble the boundaries of romantic and platonic love; indeed, these relationships often exemplify what might be termed “queer friendships.” Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women reflects and might even be said to set the stage for these representations. For this reason, among others, it has served as an ideal framing text for my young adult literature courses. Our class discussions have tended to devote considerable attention to Chapter 35, “Heartache.” This chapter is widely known because it depicts Jo March’s romantic rejection of her adoring friend and neighbor, Laurie Laurence. Alcott’s girl readers were famously displeased with Jo’s rejection of Laurie, whom they believed to be her perfect match. Since then, “Heartache” has elicited an array of critical readings among Alcott scholars and continues to evoke a diversity of responses among my students.
In this chapter, Laurie has returned home from college, where he has labored to conform to what he perceives as Jo’s expectations for him. To his great disappointment, however, he learns that his efforts to transform himself for Jo’s sake have been in vain. Against Jo’s protestations, he confesses that he has loved her ever since the day they first met and implies that they should marry one another. In response, Jo insists that she has only ever loved him as a friend and explains that she never plans to marry. Laurie disagrees vehemently with her assessment, storms off to his grandfather’s house, and pounds out melancholy music. Jo attempts to intervene by talking to Laurie’s grandfather, who ultimately convinces Laurie to cope with his grief by traveling abroad.
For Jo and Laurie, the experience of coming of age also entails a coming to terms with the socially-constructed binary of romantic and platonic love. As their friendship transitions from one of childhood to adolescence, it becomes fraught with romantic tensions and frustrations. Her dilemma is one that appears throughout YA fiction because of its capacity to appeal to young, female readers. Perhaps counter-intuitively, her refusal to marry Laurie in order to simply advance her social position situates Jo within a position of power.
In her foundational essay, “Queer Performances: Lesbian Politics in Little Women,” Roberta Seelinger Trites notes that Laurie’s “girlishness” and Jo’s “boyishness provide the text with multiple layers of possibility” (48). She outlines her own and other scholars’ critical responses to this scene, including those of Martha Saxton, Sarah Elbert, and others (48-9). Building upon the diversity of critical responses to this chapter, I ask students to consider the following questions: is Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s marriage proposal a “strong affirmation of lesbian politics” (33), as Trites suggests? If, as Elbert notes, Laurie is both a “surrogate sister” and “son” to Jo, might her decision be interpreted as a rejection of an incestuous relationship? Finally, we also consider the extent to which Jo’s rejection of Laurie might set the stage for her marriage to Professor Bhaer—a more traditional relationship, to be sure, but one that is more closely aligned with her own spiritual and intellectual development. The capacity of “Heartache” to yield such a diversity of critical responses not only speaks to the complexity of Alcott’s writing but also illuminates many of our historically-constituted understandings of human relationships.
Elbert, Sarah. A Hunger For Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women. Temple UP, 1984.
Trites, Roberta. “Queer Performances: Lesbian Politics in Little Women.” Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature. Edited by Michelle Ann Abate and Kenneth Kidd. U. of Michigan P, 2011. 33-58.
Kristen Proehl is an assistant professor of English at SUNY-The College at Brockport, where she teaches courses in children’s, young adult, and American literature. She has recently published Battling Girlhood: Sympathy, Social Justice, and the Tomboy Figure in American Literature (Routledge) and is at work on a second project, “Queer Friendship in Young Adult Literature.”