I never read Little Women growing up (the boys in my middle school were pushed to read Hatchet and Call of the Wild), nor have I seen the iconic 1994 Winona Ryder-led touchstone. Which is why I was surprised to learn that, after watching Greta Gerwig’s splendid adaptation and feverishly talking about it with anyone that would give me a chance, Amy March (played by Florence Pugh) has not historically been a fan favorite.
In fact, the youngest March sister is far from beloved: Amy March, prior to Gerwig’s adaptation, has traditionally been seen as the novel’s villain.
My gushing over Pugh’s performance; my love for Amy’s “economic proposition” scene; and my proclamations that Amy’s ambition to marry rich and live a good life with Timothee Chalamet spoke to my soul were met with some reproach. This more empathetic, even likable version of her character never existed in Little Women, I was told, until now.
At the end of Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel, Amy has the man that her older sister Jo loves, the wealth that belongs to the man that Jo loves (and that should have been hers, which may have mattered more to readers than to Jo herself), the trip to Europe that Jo wanted to go on, and she was never punished for burning Jo’s manuscript. On paper, Amy’s actions would put a Cinderella step-sister to shame, and they sure do seem a lot like villainy. Kinder interpretations point to Amy being the youngest and most spoiled March sister as the root of her actions — she’s more of a brat than a terrible person, but she’s also still kind of terrible (it is possible to read Alcott’s Amy in a positive light, the unfortunate subject of an unreliable and inconsistent narrator).
And now, after listening to my friends rip Amy’s behavior to shreds and then reading the novel, I completely agree with the OG Amy haters. Yet that character bears little resemblance to the one I fell in love with watching Greta Gerwig’s version of the film. And knowing how Amy was originally portrayed only makes me love the first Amy March I met, Florence Pugh’s Amy, that much more. Gerwig and Pugh’s appreciation for Alcott and Amy, and the more textured take on the character we get as a result, is the single best thing about this fantastic movie.
Why the novel’s take on Amy was so different
Amy’s portrayal in Gerwig’s film is a revelation in large part thanks to Florence Pugh. Pugh played her as an entirely different character than previous versions of the character, including the Amy we know from Alcott’s original 1869 novel. Amy is a pragmatic realist in Gerwig’s adaptation, and someone who realizes that to be a woman is to be at a societal disadvantage. The motivations behind her behavior stem from her worldview, which is made plain to the viewer over the course of the film.
In the novel, Amy is a bit more opaque. Alcott’s autobiographical novel is more geared and sympathetic to Jo (Alcott’s surrogate) as its primary protagonist, and Amy (believed to be based on Alcott’s sister Abigail May) is positioned as the one sister that Jo doesn’t get along with. Because of their similar ages, Jo and her older sister Meg share a kinship. And Alcott points out that Jo and the sickly, innocent Beth are close too, in a way she and Amy aren’t.
“Meg was Amy’s confidant and monitor, and by some strange attraction of opposites Jo was gentle Beth’s,” Alcott writes. “The two older girls were a great deal to one another, but each took one of the younger sisters into her keeping and watched over her in her own way, ‘playing mother’ they called it, and put their sisters in the places of discarded dolls with the maternal instinct of little women.”
Jo and Amy don’t have a close relationship the way they both do with their other sisters. But since Alcott’s narrative is slanted toward Jo, it makes Amy’s actions, like burning Jo’s manuscript or even marrying Laurie, a little colder and meaner, without fully understanding Amy’s intent. Not only are she and Jo not close, but Amy appears to be downright cruel to her oldest sister.
Alcott also includes unflattering descriptions of Amy being coddled and fragile (“Amy was in a fair way to be spoiled, for everyone petted her, and her small vanities and selfishnesses were growing nicely.”) or being sanctimonious. She writes: “‘I don’t complain near as much as the others do, and I shall be more careful than ever now, for I’ve had warning from Susie’s downfall,’ said Amy morally.” Alcott successfully paints Amy in an unsavory way.
One of the most striking examples of how Amy doesn’t get to tell her own story is when Alcott describes Amy’s talent for painting, something that’s expounded upon in Gerwig’s adaptation.
Late into the novel, Alcott describes Amy’s love affair and affinity for painting, explaining that she mistakes “talent and genius” primarily because she conflates “enthusiasm for inspiration.” Alcott shadily writes that Amy becomes obsessed and intoxicated with painting and sketching, but never truly displays anything more than talent.
“If ‘genius is eternal patience’, as Michelangelo affirms, Amy had some claim to the divine attribute, for she persevered in spite of all obstacles, failures, and discouragements, firmly believing that in time she should do something worthy to be called ‘high art’.
She was learning, doing, and enjoying other things, meanwhile, for she had resolved to be an attractive and accomplished woman, even if she never became a great artist.”
The anecdote ends with Amy honing her party skills, being obsessed with elegant society, and throwing a flop of a party that no one attends. These faraway glimpses at Amy are what make her seem self-obsessed, even underserving of kindness. Intentional or not, Amy seems like a determined, ambitious person, but only ever harnesses those admirable qualities in forms of selfishness. At any minute, she could drop whatever holds her fancy (see: Laurie, or Jo’s manuscript, or Europe) — just like she does with her art and partying.
In this passage, though, we never get to hear Amy’s own feelings about being an artist, what art does or doesn’t do for her, or if, in her mind, that wanting to be part of polite society isn’t mutually exclusive to being an artist.
What we know and how we should feel toward Amy comes from an observation of a narrator who isn’t particularly close to her. And it isn’t a particularly flattering one either.
Greta Gerwig and Florence Pugh’s portrayal is about giving Amy a voice and point of view
During the ongoing promotional tour for Little Women, Florence Pugh has stated on a few occasions that she refused to play Amy as the villain. It comes in contrast to how, in multiple interviews, Pugh says that, the people in her life kept telling her that she was playing the character everyone hates once she got the role.
But refusing to play Amy as a villain isn’t as simple as delivering lines differently or smiling more. Pugh and Gerwig instead decided to develop Amy’s motivations, the circumstances that made her the woman she ended up becoming, and the growth she took on as a character to get there. Essentially, they give us a look into Amy’s life that we’ve never seen before. They approached Amy not as a secondary character, but as Jo’s (Saoirse Ronan) fellow protagonist.
“We haven’t given her drive. We’ve never seen her with creativity. She’s never had to argue as to why she needs to marry rich,” Pugh told IndieWire in a December interview. “I think Greta just gave Amy the opportunity to express that. You couldn’t just earn your own money and be a painter. That’s not how it happened. What she is doing was the most realistic and most wisest thing that a woman in that era could have done.”
Gerwig worked to underscore, underline, highlight, and punctuate the idea with exclamation points that women in Amy’s time could not own anything — not their property, not their money, not even their children. Amy’s choice to marry rich isn’t because she wants nice things, but because of the lack of options. She goes after Laurie for more than love: it’s for Amy’s own survival.
In Paris, after an encounter with Laurie, Amy verbalizes this. She comes to the realization that she will never be seen as a genius and won’t be able to live the life of a painter. He questions her, naively asking why she can’t follow her dreams.
“Well, I’m not a poet. I’m just a woman. And as a woman I have no way to make money, not enough to earn a living and support my family,” Amy tells him. Even if I had my own money, which I don’t, it would belong to my husband the minute we were married. If we had children they would be his, not mine. They would be his property. 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.”
Pugh plays this scene beautifully. There’s a slight tremble and alertness in her voice, which makes Amy sound like she is simultaneously trying to get Laurie to understand her and coming to her own frustrating realization about the limitations of being a woman in that day and age. And as dismal as marrying someone you don’t love and giving up your dreams may seem, Amy knows that it’s better than any other option she has.
Coupled with other sensitive scenes, like when the brutal Aunt March (Meryl Streep) is telling Amy she’s the family’s last hope, the moment where Amy gives her impassioned speech makes her a more sympathetic character. What she’s doing is simply reacting to the rules and game that society has placed her in. Her motivation isn’t greed or jealousy, but determining the best life for herself against options that are so utterly bleak for women. Amy isn’t the villain for cashing in on her right to marry rich. The villain of Little Women would be the world that doesn’t allow her anything but that.
Read the Vox staff’s thoughts on all nine of the 2020 Best Picture nominees:
1917 | Ford v Ferrari | The Irishman | Jojo Rabbit | Joker | Little Women | Marriage Story | Once Upon a Time in Hollywood | Parasite