As someone who spent my prepubescent years watching director Gillian Armstrong’s “Little Women”, I was eager to see Greta Gerwig’s newly released version. Previously unexplored contours of each character, and of my changed perceptions, were made visible through this iteration. The most difficult and touching part of the film that lingers with me is the story of Beth, pianist and caretaker. Beth’s untimely death brings grief into the center of the March family narrative, and Gerwig’s portrayal brought up grief in me about my experiences with invisibility as a paced introvert in a culture that celebrates speed and extroversion.
I grew up wanting to be like Jo March, the outspoken, reactive protagonist. Jo was the rebel, the obvious feminist, and, mostly importantly to me, the brave one. Beth seemed to me to be boring, relegated to a life at home, bound by illness and a preoccupation with the needs of neighbors. Her steadiness looked to me like obedience; she could not fight away the disease that eventually killed her, and I wished to be everything besides her, the introvert who observed and cared and loved music and then died. As I grew into my own introverted, observant, caregiving tendencies, I began to wonder if I had been tricked by my culture, by my upbringing, to think I was Beth when I was really Jo! While social pressures certainly influenced my personality, as they do for us all, I didn’t want to believe that perhaps I was growing into my natural temperament, endowed by the Universe, expressed in my mind and body. As a woman in the 21st century, as a feminist, I was supposed to be like Jo, not the way I was (am). To have a deliberate or tender nature was, in my subconscious perception, to betray the spontaneous, assertive natures of those more worthwhile feminists who got things done.
For author Louisa May Alcott, Beth’s death was based on the demise of her real sister (Lizzie) from scarlet fever, but for me it resonated symbolically. The death of the gentle giver was one I thought might be necessary in my own Psyche so I could be louder, tougher, quicker – less of myself and more of someone else and a more admirable aspiring young feminist. Interestingly, the literary depiction of Beth seems to gloss over Shadow elements of Lizzie’s inner and interpersonal life, elements that must have balanced her gentleness and generosity. That these elements did not receive literary or cinematic attention is unfortunate. However, this lack of attention motivated a deeper dive into my own exploration of gentleness and generosity in their most raw forms, without stabilizing or protective states like anger or humor. In their raw forms, gentleness and generosity within me are tinged with shame. I must remind myself these are not inherently shameful ways of being woman, or feminist, in America. They are aspects of humanity that have been marginalized by patriarchy, particularly in the United States, and (perhaps as a sort of backlash) within some feminist rhetoric. I recognized the impact of this marginalization by looking deeply at Beth.
Of course, the margins I speak of are those I experience as a White cisgender young adult and not the same margins experienced at intersections of feminisms not my own. I wonder how you feel about your own disenfranchised parts, and what stories surface them. While I sense a kindred connection to Beth, I relate to each March sister in some way, and suspect every person has within them a striving Jo, a perceiving Meg, a delighting Amy, a giving Beth. Ultimately it is my hope for myself and those I love that gentle, emergent instincts are experienced and seen as courageous just as are passionate, eruptive ones. To seal this hope, I wrote the following poem – for Beth, for myself, and for the other gentle givers I know whose courage is not always celebrate.
In praise of courage
The soft are not always small.
I, too, have space to take up,
feel desire racing in my heart and
inspiration churning in my belly.
The soft are not always small.
The quiet are not empty.
I, too, have caverns in which trumpets sound
and laughter rolls,
where things that stop abruptly screech.
You must wait and listen;
sound needs space and air.
The ones who speak obliquely,
do not lack knowing.
I, too, see things with biting clarity,
name inclusive essence.
Direct routes leave unexplored the wilderness.
The soft live largely, the quiet resonate intensely, and the circuitous have certainty.
The gentle, too, are brave.
Cathleen Flynn is a board-certified music therapist and grief counselor in western North Carolina. She has studied and worked with people moving through terminal illness, grief, and trauma recovery since 2014, and enjoys cooking as well as reading and dialoguing about all things queer, feminist, and psychospiritual. https://www.mtcarolinas.com/