by Stephanie Shi
JO. When did you become so wise?
AMY. I always have been. You were just too busy noticing my faults.
When Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of Little Women came out, many of my Facebook friends raved about it. Their posts were tagged #JusticeForAmy.
I wasn’t stirred to watch the film. I thought Amy was a brat and no hot take could change my mind.
Some things must anger us. People are wise to moderate their anger and eventually let it go. But anger, on its own, is not a wrong emotion. I’ve held this belief for as long as I can remember, but the people I’ve shared it with weren’t convinced. It must’ve seemed like an excuse. Mom certainly thought I was radical; some friends said I’m “never happy.”
When I was reading Little Women, I was on high alert when Marmee spoke to Jo about Jo’s youngest sister Amy. Amy had just burned Jo’s handwritten manuscript.
Marmee’s entreaty (let go of your anger and forgive your sister) is valid and right. But it didn’t sit with me that the conversation suggested that it’s wrong to get angry, especially after what had happened. Marmee says, “I’ve been trying to cure [my anger] for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.”
I tolerated Marmee’s words. Characters, like people, are free to espouse their own beliefs. But I was disappointed with how Louisa May Alcott then described Jo’s reaction: “The knowledge that her mother had a fault like hers, and tried to mend it, made her own easier to bear and strengthened her resolution to cure it….”
It’s true that Jo sees her temper as a flaw, and she’s lucky that through her mom, she’s empowered to overcome what she believes is holding her back. But I couldn’t go on reading a book that implied through two characters that it’s wrong to be furious. It brought back days when I was told to be cheery, that any other emotion is either improper, or worse, could lead to wrinkles.
I wasn’t going to have that idea forced down my throat again at 27.
I was loved with nos and how-could-yous and spanking, until I was sorry for not thinking hard enough. I used to love by writing down what I hated and stripping my body of everything I did not get for myself. When I’d rant to Mom, hoping she’d rain her anger down on my bullies, she’d coo, urging me to ignore them and hold my head high. I know now that we just didn’t love the same things at the same time.
In the novel, we meet Amy as a child. She is materialistic and self-centered. Alcott writes, “Amy was in a fair way to be spoiled, for everyone petted her, and her small vanities and selfishnesses were growing nicely.” It’s this Amy that had cried, “You’ll be sorry for this, Jo March, see if you ain’t,” when she didn’t have her way.
Meanwhile, Gerwig introduces Amy as someone responsible, determined, and practical. She lets us see Amy as an adult first, painting in Paris with a style similar to Renoir’s. When Aunt March tells her she shouldn’t return home until she’s engaged to the wealthy Fred Vaughn, Amy replies coolly, “Yes, and until I’ve finished all my painting lessons, of course.”
Gerwig also gives Adult Amy more screentime than Child Amy. It’s a simple yet brilliant creative choice, for I now see Amy for her merits and as her own, mature person. I recognize how she’s like the fan-favorite Jo—artistic, hardworking, and ambitious—just as I realize Jo’s uncontestable flaw: she’s prejudiced.
Suddenly, it becomes clear that Amy’s wrongdoing against Jo is the act of a petulant child who didn’t know any better. It’s not a deed that should characterize Amy for the rest of her life.
Our experience of time is a curious thing.
Physically, we experience events in only one way: forward. A linear story flows correctly, so to say, but when it is also told with a close psychic distance to the protagonist, it quickly makes a villain out of anyone who opposes the protagonist. It’s difficult to redeem that character, especially when we still carry with us the protagonist’s loss. The memory of pain is not easy to forget.
Psychologically, our experience of time can jump about. We are free to linger in a scene or an image from the past and the present, to dig up more memories and interrogate them, and to string them all together to make sense of ourselves and other people. One becomes a frame of reference for the other, thus showing more accurately each person’s growth or lack thereof.
This is Aristotle’s golden mean, from the Nicomachean Ethics:
One can be frightened or bold, feel desire or anger or pity, and experience pleasure and pain in general, either too much or too little, and in both cases wrongly, whereas to feel these feelings at the right time, on the right occasion, towards the right people, for the right purpose and in the right manner, is to feel the best amount of them, which is the mean amount—and the best amount is of course the mark of virtue.
I learned this in my senior year at university, and I was comforted that someone else, a great thinker no less, also believed that anger wasn’t necessarily a bad emotion.
But that is only one part of the picture; I still have to be better at moderating my temper. Because I tend to feel too much anger, I need to detach myself from it, so I can let some of it go. I have to make a habit of zooming out of a situation. Only then can I gain the perspective of a fly on the wall, have the wisdom of a mother who encourages her kids to make peace on their own, or understand and feel compassion toward Mom who came of age in a more chauvinistic world.
I needed a break from rewatching movies on Netflix. Months into lockdown, I yearned for something new.
Was I going to take a chance on Alcott’s classic? Gerwig being the film’s director wasn’t enough to bait me.
Yet my eyes were glued to the thumbnail. I felt the sanguine smiles of four young women pulling me in, inviting me to know them and their little world. I shook off my misgivings and clicked.
Stephanie Shi mostly writes essays, and on rare occasions, poems. Her most recent works have appeared in 11 x 9: Collaborative Poetry from the Philippines and Singapore and The Achieve of, the Mastery: Filipino Poetry and Verse from English, mid-’90s to 2016. She lives in the Philippines.