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Getting to Know Professor Bhaer, Part 1

February 22, 2016 | by

He isn’t old, nor anything bad, but good and kind, and the best friend I’ve got next to you. Pray don’t fly into a passion; I want to be kind, but I know I shall get angry if you abuse my Professor. I haven’t the least idea of loving him, or anybody else. —Little Women

Literature has known many divisive characters. The dubious morality of Humbert Humbert, the disreputable spikiness of Holden Caulfield, the judgment and snobbery of Emma Bovary—all have pitted readers against one another since time immemorial. That said, there’s one character more controversial than all of these put together: Friedrich Bhaer. 

Bhaer is a character in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and its sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. If you’re unfamiliar with him, here are the broad, spoiler-filled basics of the controversy. Little Women’s heroine, Jo, having devotedly fulfilled her readers’ expectations for years, confounds our hopes by ending up not with the dashing, boyish Laurie but with Professor Bhaer, a somewhat older, less glamorous, rather didactic German tutor. To anyone steeped in the conventions of romance—not to mention conventional plotting—the gesture has for generations felt almost vindictive on Alcott’s part. It was, at the very least, a true surprise. 

But I had no idea how deep the division ran until I put the question to the world—which is to say, a small portion of Twitter. “What are your feelings about Professor Bhaer?” I asked.

There was the expected anti-Bhaer faction, of course. “No. My feelings are No,” wrote one woman. “The anti Bad Boy—blech,” wrote another. A third: “The Bhaer story line makes me sad. And very cross.” “Too much of a settle for Jo. Even now I’m older and understand him better. Except when [he’s] played by Gabriel Byrne.” Several people mentioned that Bhaer was acceptable if and only if he was played by Gabriel Byrne or Michael Fassbender, neither of whom matches the written description of the “not handsome” character. “Problem is that the man is almost certainly a Hegelian, and those are trouble,” wrote another reader. And, “I would accept Jo either with Laurie or as a happy spinster. Any third option feels wrong!”

But Team Bhaer was unexpectedly forceful in arguing the professor’s case. “YES BHAER, NO LAURIE,” trumpeted an early reply. “Professor Bhaer,” wrote another supporter, boasts “the beauty of quiet love even if it lacks drama.” Someone else was on “#TeamBhaer without a doubt. Same reason that the best part of Emma is when Knightly calls her out on being horrible.” The support kept coming: “Sweet, kind, a little paternalistic but ultimately loves Jo for who she is. Unlike Laurie, who was pretty selfish.” “Love Bhaer for Jo! B is just so sweet & smart. Anyone’s better than that awful Mr. Brook.” “Love the dude. What an angel in Little Men.” “He’s confusingly paternal for a lover. BUT, he is a grown-up and helps (note, not makes) Jo grow up.” “Someone who actually respects Jo’s brain! I love Little Men so much. Plus he’s musical, good with kids, and is a bit self-deprecating.” “I like Bhaer because he is wise, kind, possessed of strong opinions but slow to share them, and respects Jo enough to be direct.” “Love him, and I’ll never understand people who think Laurie was a better match for Jo.” 

A few readers had found that their opinions evolved with age. “Kid me assumed he was a creepy sexual predator masquerading as an unassuming bookworm.” “I thought no when I was younger, but wonder if I revisited would feel different.” “I used to think, ‘NO NO NO WHY?’ Now I think, ‘Eh. Sure.’ ” 

For others, the question was more generally philosophical: “I wonder if he’s to blame for the seductive but pernicious idea that a man can prove he loves me by criticizing my writing.” “Bhaer was a better match, but a bit paternalistic for her. Sometimes I’m uncomfortable with the mentor-as-lover thing, other times I think maybe that was that era’s ‘true partner.’ ” “At some point in my late twenties, it occurred to me that you can’t be a new woman and marry Laurie. Still a little sad about it.” “Team No One—didn’t Alcott want Jo to end up single and happy?” “Maybe it’s wrong of me, but I kind of wanted Jo always to be solitary. Selfish I know. But Louisa May Alcott never married … ”

And then, of course, there were the basic factual questions: “What happened to him in Germany? What’s the deal with those nephews?” And why, someone asked, did his grandmother snip off the tip of his tongue?

Clearly, these are questions that must be answered. In the following days, therefore, I am going to immerse myself in the world of Professor Bhaer. I am going to reread the books as a grown-up and see how we get along. I’m going to explore Alcott’s motives, her inspirations, her decisions, and critical interpretations. And by God, I’m going to find out what the deal is with Professor Bhaer’s life in Germany. While we’re at it, I’m curious about his sexual habits.

I hope you’re ready to go down this rabbit hole with me.

Read Part 2 here.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.