Though Jo didn't feel it herself: Anthropologists frequently pose the question, most often at 2 in the morning:
Were we humans—we so-called rational animals—ever really rational in our essence? Or was it just a succession of tribal fictions—scripted narrative all the way down?
In fairness to these future experts, they always draw a firm distinction between matters of technology and engineering as opposed to everything else. Early last month, they called our attention to Professor Matteson's essay in The Atlantic.
Frankly, how apt! Two weeks before that piece appeared, The Atlantic's David Sims had published a crackpot conversation with Aaron Sorkin, in which the two men reached several strange points of agreement.
Most strangely, the fellows agreed that Harper Lee's famous novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, ends with Atticus Finch covering up a murder—the murder of Bob Ewell! Stating the obvious, you'd pretty much have to be out of your mind to read the book that way.
(Earlier, it had been even stranger. In an essay in New York magazine, Sorkin had actually said that Lee's fictional Atticus Finch "believes in the fundamental goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists." Sorkin quickly linked this very strange claim to Donald J. Trump's famous statement about there being "fine people on both sides." So it goes when the rational animal, at times of tribal agitation, sets out on the prowl.)
Sims and Sorkin voiced that strange belief about Atticus Finch on December 17. Two weeks later, Professor Matteson's piece appeared, in which he discussed Little Women.
Is the rational animal ever rational? Or is it always tribal script—narrative all the way down?
We can't answer your sensible question. But Professor Matteson, a Pulitzer-winning Alcott biographer, strangely told readers this:
MATTESON (1/1/20): Among children’s classics, Little Women is virtually unique in its lack of a personified villain. The prevalent reading of the novel is that the chief evil that must be fought and subdued is the flaw in each character’s own breast, whether Jo’s temper, Laurie’s laziness, or Beth’s shyness. While these inner struggles are amply addressed in the film, Gerwig convincingly proposes an alternative reading: A considerable source of pain in Alcott’s world is the disapproving masculine gaze, so often clad in the guise of moral judgment, that can bruise a woman’s self-esteem and steal her self-expression.Forget the episode involving Laurie. Let's focus on Professor Bhaer, and on the power of script.
Alcott’s novel presents two powerful instances of such criticism. Laurie chides Meg for her attire at a party, which she considers beautiful and he deems immodest; and Professor Bhaer arraigns Jo for publishing lurid stories that he regards as a waste of her talent and that he fears will subvert her readers’ morals. In the novel, these scenes occur far apart, with no obvious linkage. Gerwig has heard the similarities between them; her film makes the two moments rhyme thematically and lingers on the hurt and indignation that the two men heedlessly cause.
What makes Gerwig’s take so notable is that she sees both sides of the situation with equal conviction. Laurie and Bhaer speak in good faith, yet are largely oblivious to the depth of the pain they are causing...
According to the real-life Professor Matteson, the fictional Professor Bhaer causes a great deal of pain in Alcott's novel. It happens when he "arraigns Jo for publishing lurid stories."
According to Matteson, the fictional Bhaer "heedlessly" causes a great deal of "hurt and indignation" when he exposes Jo to "the disapproving masculine gaze" in this manner. He's said to be "largely oblivious to the depth of the pain" he has caused. The professor bruises Jo's self-esteem and steals her self-expression.
In fairness to Professor Bhaer, at least he hasn't been accused of covering up a murder. In fairness to Professor Matteson, he gives a fairly accurate account of a set of events which occur in Greta Gerwig's "adaptation" of the Alcott book.
That said, these events don't occur in Louisa May Alcott's famous novel, which Matteson has presumably read.
Given his status as a Pulitzer-winning Alcott biographer, it's hard to believe that Professor Matteson hasn't read Alcott's actual book. Has his understanding been swept away by the narratives of the moment?
In Alcott's actual book, does Professor Bhaer engage in the hurtful conduct the real professor describes? Does he heedlessly cause hurt and indignation by arraigning Jo? Is he oblivious to the depth of the pain he has caused?
Sadly, no, that doesn't occur in Alcott's actual book.
That reinvented set of events is offered for our tribal pleasure in Gerwig's "updated" film. But a very different set of events and reactions unfolds in Alcott's actual novel. You can see this by forcing yourself to read Chapters 33 and 34 of her very old book.
In Alcott's actual book, Professor Bhaer never reads any of Jo's "sensation stories." He does tell her, at one point, that he disapproves of this tabloidy genre as a general matter, but it's already perfectly clear that Jo holds the same general view.
What's up with Jo's "sensation stories?" This is the way the scene is set at the start of Chapter 34, with Jo now working as a governess in New York City:
ALCOTT (chapter 34): Though very happy in the social atmosphere about her, and very busy with the daily work that earned her bread and made it sweeter for the effort, Jo still found time for literary labors. The purpose which now took possession of her was a natural one to a poor and ambitious girl, but the means she took to gain her end were not the best. She saw that money conferred power, money and power, therefore, she resolved to have, not to be used for herself alone, but for those whom she loved more than life. The dream of filling home with comforts, giving Beth everything she wanted, from strawberries in winter to an organ in her bedroom, going abroad herself, and always having more than enough, so that she might indulge in the luxury of charity, had been for years Jo's most cherished castle in the air.According to Alcott's text, Jo March had taken to writing rubbish in pursuit of money and power.
The prize-story experience had seemed to open a way which might, after long traveling and much uphill work, lead to this delightful chateau en Espagne. But the novel disaster quenched her courage for a time, for public opinion is a giant which has frightened stouter-hearted Jacks on bigger beanstalks than hers. Like that immortal hero, she reposed awhile after the first attempt, which resulted in a tumble and the least lovely of the giant's treasures, if I remember rightly. But the "up again and take another" spirit was as strong in Jo as in Jack, so she scrambled up on the shady side this time and got more booty, but nearly left behind her what was far more precious than the moneybags.
She took to writing sensation stories, for in those dark ages, even all-perfect America read rubbish. She told no one, but concocted a "thrilling tale", and boldly carried it herself to Mr. Dashwood, editor of the Weekly Volcano.
In our own modern times, many people who "adapt" famous texts are, of course, perhaps engaged in the same general pursuit. But it's clear in Alcott's text that Jo feels or knows that she shouldn't be producing such tabloidy "rubbish," and Alcott's narrator directly says the same thing.
If you fight your way through the whole of Chapter 34, you'll see the repeated appearance of questions concerning Jo's "conscience." In fact, Jo shares the professor's view of these tabloidy "sensation stories." She also knows that her parents wouldn't approve of such efforts.
As the chapter unfolds, Jo's regard for Professor Bhaer continues to grow. Things are quite different in Gerwig's film, where he rather rudely tells Jo that he disapproves of her stories.
Hotly, Jo tells the professor off. Instantly, she's called back to Concord, where her sister Beth has taken a turn for the worse.
These exciting modernized events don't occur in Alcott's book.
In Alcott's actual book, Jo goes to her room and burns her "rubbish" stories after her conversation with Professor Bhaer. But she isn't angry with Professor Bhaer; she agrees with his general assessment of "sensation stories:"
ALCOTT: [W]hen nothing remained of all her three month's work except a heap of ashes and the money in her lap, Jo looked sober, as she sat on the floor, wondering what she ought to do about her wages.Do you see any "indignation" there? We can't spot it either!
"I think I haven't done much harm yet, and may keep this to pay for my time," she said, after a long meditation, adding impatiently, "I almost wish I hadn't any conscience, it's so inconvenient. If I didn't care about doing right, and didn't feel uncomfortable when doing wrong, I should get on capitally. I can't help wishing sometimes, that Mother and Father hadn't been so particular about such things."
Ah, Jo, instead of wishing that, thank God that 'Father and Mother were particular', and pity from your heart those who have no such guardians to hedge them round with principles which may seem like prison walls to impatient youth, but which will prove sure foundations to build character upon in womanhood.
In fact, Jo agrees with Professor Bhaer's view, and so does Alcott's narrator. For ourselves, Jo's repeated thoughts about "conscience" recall the great female-oriented undercard in On the Waterfront, in which the Marlon Brando character rails against the Eva Marie Saint character's constant references to conscience, even after he has come to see 1) that she is a better person than he is, and 2) that he wants to be more like her.
In Gerwig's film, Jo thrillingly tells the professor off, and the pair part on bad terms. That isn't what happens in Alcott's book.
In Alcott's book, the professor continues to "help [Jo] in many ways, proving himself a true friend, and Jo was happy, for while her pen lay idle, she was learning other lessons besides German, and laying a foundation for the sensation story of her own life."
When Jo finally leaves for home, the professor is dreaming that he might some day win her love. She hasn't yet discovered the depth of her own feeling for him—it's skillfully signaled through both New York chapters—but Chapter 34 ends like this:
ALCOTT: Early as it was, he was at the station next morning to see Jo off, and thanks to him, she began her solitary journey with the pleasant memory of a familiar face smiling its farewell, a bunch of violets to keep her company, and best of all, the happy thought, "Well, the winter's gone, and I've written no books, earned no fortune, but I've made a friend worth having and I'll try to keep him all my life."Professor B's in love. She still isn't—or, at the very least, it hasn't quite dawned on her yet.
In Gerwig's film, Jo angrily tells the professor off, then goes away on bad terms. According to leading experts, some people engage in such "adaptations"—produce such modernized "sensation stories"—in their own search for money and power!
This brings us back to Professor Matteson's odd presentation in The Atlantic. As with Sorkin, so too here, or so some experts have said.
At times of major tribal stress, tribal stories take control, these future experts have told us. Clear vision tends to disappear. It's replaced by the mandates of scripted tribal tales, leaving us with "narrative all the way down."
Atticus Finch is involved in a murder! And not only that—Professor Bhaer has heedlessly bruised Jo's self-esteem! Plus, the fellow is too fat, a key perspective we're able to gain at Vox.
"The human mind was wired this way," future experts have said. "This sort of thing rarely ended well," they've often despondently added.
Tomorrow: Toy story
Two different yet similar partings: When Jo finally leaves New York, it could be imagined that she's unaware of her actual feelings.
Professor Bhaer is plainly in love. It seems that Jo still isn't:
ALCOTT: Early as it was, he was at the station next morning to see Jo off, and thanks to him, she began her solitary journey with the pleasant memory of a familiar face smiling its farewell, a bunch of violets to keep her company, and best of all, the happy thought, "Well, the winter's gone, and I've written no books, earned no fortune, but I've made a friend worth having and I'll try to keep him all my life."So Chapter 34 ends. We think of a certain lady's departure from Yalta in The Lady With the Lapdog, Chekhov's famous story.
Gurov will discover later that he's in love with the lady. But as her train leaves him behind, he still doesn't know this:
CHEKHOV: The train moved off rapidly, its lights soon vanished from sight, and a minute later there was no sound of it, as though everything had conspired together to end as quickly as possible that sweet delirium, that madness. Left alone on the platform, and gazing into the dark distance, Gurov listened to the chirrup of the grasshoppers and the hum of the telegraph wires, feeling as though he had only just waked up. And he thought, musing, that there had been another episode or adventure in his life, and it, too, was at an end, and nothing was left of it but a memory. He was moved, sad, and conscious of a slight remorse. This young woman whom he would never meet again had not been happy with him; he was genuinely warm and affectionate with her, but yet in his manner, his tone, and his caresses there had been a shade of light irony, the coarse condescension of a happy man who was, besides, almost twice her age. All the time she had called him kind, exceptional, lofty; obviously he had seemed to her different from what he really was, so he had unintentionally deceived her.So ends one part of the story. Later, the truth would emerge, within. Two different, quite similar partings.
Here at the station was already a scent of autumn; it was a cold evening.
"It's time for me to go north," thought Gurov as he left the platform. "High time!"