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“Me Wants Me Bhaer,” Part 2

February 23, 2016 | by

Who could say no to that face?

Read Part 1 here.

As often as I’ve read Little Women, I found that I didn’t have very distinct memories of Bhaer—not the way I did of Jo or Amy or Laurie. Despite his recurrence in the later books, he’d faded into a somewhat two-dimensional character for me. When I first encountered the book, I was probably nine or ten—too young to appreciate a character like Bhaer, and more receptive to Laurie’s obvious charms. Bhaer had seemed pedantic and unromantic, and I’d retained that notion. As a grown-up, would I feel differently? By this time, having known loneliness and love, and indeed having married someone a few years my senior, would I have more sympathy for this more mature relationship?

“You’re my professor Bhaer,” I said experimentally to my husband.

He paled. “That’s the most horrible thing you’ve ever said to me,” he replied. 

This only heightened my determination to give Bhaer a fair shake. And so I dove in. The first volume of Little Women proceeded as remembered: Jo is strong and original, and Laurie—the wealthy neighbor and friend turned suitor—is realistically drawn. His rapport with Jo, with their warring tempers, grows naturally. We expect romance not because he’s the logical lead but because they seem to love each other, and because their friendship is based on mutual fondness and respect. When Jo turns down his declaration, it seems—wrong. Like she’s arrested or scared. At any rate, her objections are unconvincing. Laurie is self-absorbed and spoiled, yes: but even as a part of me was glad to see him thwarted, I wasn’t persuaded by her denial. This was the first time I doubted the narrative voice’s total honesty. 

Having refused Laurie, Jo travels south to New York City to work as a governess and pursue her writing. Shortly after arriving at the house, she encounters Professor Bhaer. She recounts the experience in a letter home:

As I went downstairs soon after, I saw something I liked. The flights are very long in this tall house, and as I stood waiting at the head of the third one for a little servant girl to lumber up, I saw a gentleman come along behind her, take the heavy hod of coal out of her hand, carry it all the way up, put it down at a door near by, and walk away, saying, with a kind nod and a foreign accent, “It goes better so. The little back is too young to haf such heaviness.”

Wasn’t it good of him? I like such things, for as Father says, trifles show character. When I mentioned it to Mrs. K., that evening, she laughed, and said, “That must have been Professor Bhaer, he’s always doing things of that sort.”

Mrs. K. told me he was from Berlin, very learned and good, but poor as a church mouse, and gives lessons to support himself and two little orphan nephews whom he is educating here, according to the wishes of his sister, who married an American. Not a very romantic story, but it interested me, and I was glad to hear that Mrs. K. lends him her parlor for some of his scholars. There is a glass door between it and the nursery, and I mean to peep at him, and then I’ll tell you how he looks. He’s almost forty, so it’s no harm, Marmee.

“Not a very romantic story”? Bhaer couldn’t be more cloaked in the stuff of romance. He’s saintly, self-sacrificing, burdened by an awkwardly rendered accent that makes his good words sound utterly ludicrous, and so “good” that Jo doesn’t even notice his appearance. Their next encounter gives us some sense of this:  

The parlor door opened and shut, and someone began to hum “Kennst Du Das Land” like a big bumblebee ... I peeped in. Professor Bhaer was there, and while he arranged his books, I took a good look at him. A regular German—rather stout, with brown hair tumbled all over his head, a bushy beard, good nose, the kindest eyes I ever saw, and a splendid big voice that does one’s ears good, after our sharp or slipshod American gabble. His clothes were rusty, his hands were large, and he hadn’t a really handsome feature in his face, except his beautiful teeth, yet I liked him, for he had a fine head, his linen was very nice, and he looked like a gentleman, though two buttons were off his coat and there was a patch on one shoe. He looked sober in spite of his humming, till he went to the window to turn the hyacinth bulbs toward the sun, and stroke the cat, who received him like an old friend. Then he smiled, and when a tap came at the door, called out in a loud, brisk tone, “Herein!”

I was just going to run, when I caught sight of a morsel of a child carrying a big book, and stopped, to see what was going on.

“Me wants me Bhaer,” said the mite, slamming down her book and running to meet him.

“Thou shalt haf thy Bhaer. Come, then, and take a goot hug from him, my Tina,” said the Professor, catching her up with a laugh, and holding her so high over his head that she had to stoop her little face to kiss him.

The passage goes on—she’s willing to spy on him for a really long time. Bhaer speaks like someone out of Friendly Persuasion, a feat Alcott manages to match only with Tina’s repulsive baby talk. It’s hard to get past it, frankly; it’s as if the author is trying to render the situation wholly asexual by adding the baby chaperone. I’m trying my best to cast him as attractive in my head, but Alcott makes it hard. Bhaer is kind, certainly; good with kids, animals, plants—but he’s a stern taskmaster with elements of contained violence.

Remember that Jo is writing to her parents, who have already permitted her an extraordinary liberty in allowing her to travel, live, and work away from home. It’s not as though her letters home are going to be warm with passion. But it was Alcott’s choice to use spying as a framing device rather than simply introducing the pair. Maybe that’s part of what feels so un-hot about the whole thing. There’s none of the excitement of a flesh-and-blood crush, even if the level of scrutiny is borderline voyeuristic. And when, at last, they do meet, the most meaningful exchange comes after they’ve parted ways:

He departed, but it seems as if I was doomed to see a good deal of him, for today as I passed his door on my way out, by accident I knocked against it with my umbrella. It flew open, and there he stood in his dressing gown, with a big blue sock on one hand and a darning needle in the other. He didn’t seem at all ashamed of it …

Only Professor Bhaer could render this moment—a man en déshabillé, caught unawares—so unexciting. He is darning a sock. A few lines later—this is all in the context of one letter, by the way—she returns to the parlor to find “Mr. Bhaer down on his hands and knees, with Tina on his back, Kitty leading him with a jump rope, and Minnie feeding two small boys with seedcakes, as they roared and ramped in cages built of chairs.” I’m not going to suggest that there’s anything improper about Bhaer’s constant romping with small children. But I do find it striking that Alcott seems to feel these scenes are necessary to make him appealing to the reader. We get it: he’s kind and good with kids and unconventional and unthreatening. All very good—too good? 

The point is hammered home when Jo helps her landlady clean Bhaer’s room, which is endearingly chaotic. But again, the intrusion of private space is robbed of any erotic charge by the fact that “dirty little boots stood drying before the fire, and traces of the dearly beloved boys, for whom he makes a slave of himself, were to be seen all over the room.”

Jo offers to mend his socks, and he offers to teach her German. Soon they’re reading fairy tales and Shakespeare together. And there it begins, the pattern of their relationship. He’s the mentor, she’s the pupil. She domesticates and cares for him; when she cries they read fairy tales. It’s an awful lot of telling and not much showing; it’s as if Alcott felt she had to tack on their whole relationship in a few pages, where the others in the book had chapters and years to develop. But to remove all doubt, the author instructs us: 

While endowing her imaginary heroes with every perfection under the sun, Jo was discovering a live hero, who interested her in spite of many human imperfections. Mr. Bhaer, in one of their conversations, had advised her to study simple, true, and lovely characters, wherever she found them, as good training for a writer. Jo took him at his word, for she coolly turned round and studied him … Why everybody liked him was what puzzled Jo, at first. He was neither rich nor great, young nor handsome, in no respect what is called fascinating, imposing, or brilliant, and yet he was as attractive as a genial fire, and people seemed to gather about him as naturally as about a warm hearth. He was poor, yet always appeared to be giving something away; a stranger, yet everyone was his friend; no longer young, but as happy-hearted as a boy; plain and peculiar, yet his face looked beautiful to many, and his oddities were freely forgiven for his sake. Jo often watched him, trying to discover the charm, and at last decided that it was benevolence which worked the miracle …

I suppose what I feel, fundamentally, is that Alcott herself isn’t in love with him. She wants Jo to be with him; she wants what’s best for her. But the portrayal feels somewhat dutiful. It’s not his priggishness that’s the problem—the Marches are all prigs. These are nineteenth-century stories for young people, after all. But Bhaer’s “flaws”—his bohemian untidiness, his absentminded-professor-ness—feel like the tacked-on clumsiness of an otherwise perfect romance heroine. He’s “flawed,” and therefore flawless. 

Part of the problem is that he is a grown-up: adults—the good adults—are very reliable in Alcott’s stories. It’s as though once a character has formed, there’s no more room for the foibles she allows children. And to remove all doubt, we see Bhaer and Jo at a party of famous writers, where Jo is disillusioned by their sophisticated, godless talk:

Now, Mr. Bhaer was a diffident man and slow to offer his own opinions, not because they were unsettled, but too sincere and earnest to be lightly spoken. As he glanced from Jo to several other young people, attracted by the brilliancy of the philosophic pyrotechnics, he knit his brows and longed to speak … When he was appealed to for an opinion, he blazed up with honest indignation and defended religion with all the eloquence of truth—an eloquence which made his broken English musical and his plain face beautiful. He had a hard fight, for the wise men argued well, but he didn’t know when he was beaten and stood to his colors like a man. Somehow, as he talked, the world got right again to Jo … She remembered the scene, and gave the Professor her heartiest respect, for she knew it cost him an effort to speak out then and there, because his conscience would not let him be silent.

Then there’s the famous scene in which Bhaer sees a bunch of lurid potboiler stories in the newspaper and freaks out:

Mr. Bhaer caught sight of a picture on the hat, and unfolding it, said with great disgust, “I wish these papers did not come in the house. They are not for children to see, nor young people to read. It is not well, and I haf no patience with those who make this harm.”

Jo, of course, “makes this harm” in her way—she writes sensational stories—and Bhaer compels her to cast her pages into a fire, leaving her cash poor but rich in self-respect. As we know, Alcott herself wrote trashy fiction in her youth—more about this later—so she had strong feelings on the matter. Being paternalistic was hardly a novelty in storytelling of this period, and lord knows, for her era, the relationship is practically modern. Is this, ironically, what rings slightly false? The monastic purity and the gentle bohemianism? The godly philosopher? All plausible enough, and yet! The impending romance bears down like a particularly dreary train at five miles an hour.

When it’s time for Jo to return home to her ailing sister Beth, Bhaer gets the wrong end of the stick, and seems to assume (in classic romance fashion) that Jo is in love with Laurie. He declines her invitation and leaves, with a hearty “Gott bless you!” and a child on his shoulders, but we know he’s lonely for her. Jo, too, struggles with loneliness when she gets home, and her beloved Beth dies. Not coincidentally, perhaps, she begins to think of Bhaer: “So kind, so good, so patient with me always, my dear old Fritz. I didn’t value him half enough when I had him, but now how I should love to see him, for everyone seems going away from me, and I’m all alone.” Alcott asks, “Was it all self-pity, loneliness, or low spirits? Or was it the waking up of a sentiment which had bided its time as patiently as its inspirer? Who shall say?”

And this, of course, is the question. In one of the book’s most moving passages, she resigns herself to spinsterhood:

“An old maid, that’s what I’m to be. A literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children, and twenty years hence a morsel of fame, perhaps, when, like poor Johnson, I’m old and can’t enjoy it, solitary, and can’t share it, independent, and don’t need it. Well, I needn’t be a sour saint nor a selfish sinner, and, I dare say, old maids are very comfortable when they get used to it, but ... ” And there Jo sighed, as if the prospect was not inviting.

It seldom is, at first, and thirty seems the end of all things to five-and-twenty. But it’s not as bad as it looks, and one can get on quite happily if one has something in one’s self to fall back upon. At twenty-five, girls begin to talk about being old maids, but secretly resolve that they never will be. At thirty they say nothing about it, but quietly accept the fact, and if sensible, console themselves by remembering that they have twenty more useful, happy years, in which they may be learning to grow old gracefully. Don’t laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God’s sight.

It’s not poor Bhaer’s fault that his portrayal has not a whit of the honesty and passion of this small manifesto. I think people who feel Jo “settles” do so not because she doesn’t end up with the rich, handsome, conventional and physical Laurie but because she seems prepared to take on the “spinster’s” role and then abdicates. At the same time, I bet that’s what Team Bhaer likes, too. She could be single—she’s not with him out of desperation. Cut to the umbrella-proposal scene:

“Ah! Thou gifest me such hope and courage, and I haf nothing to gif back but a full heart and these empty hands,” cried the Professor, quite overcome.

Jo never, never would learn to be proper, for when he said that as they stood upon the steps, she just put both hands into his, whispering tenderly, “Not empty now,” and stooping down, kissed her Friedrich under the umbrella. It was dreadful, but she would have done it if the flock of draggle-tailed sparrows on the hedge had been human beings, for she was very far gone indeed, and quite regardless of everything but her own happiness. Though it came in such a very simple guise, that was the crowning moment of both their lives, when, turning from the night and storm and loneliness to the household light and warmth and peace waiting to receive them, with a glad “Welcome home!” Jo led her lover in, and shut the door.

I love this scene, however overwrought it may appear to modern eyes. It’s didactic, yes—of a piece with the rest of their relationship—and for all the avowals in the world, will never feel like a real proposal. Alcott can do real, true-to-life dialogue; this is not one of her better exchanges.  But I like what she’s trying to do. I have never wanted to kiss a character less than I do Professor Bhaer in this scene; you want to avert your eyes.

I still don’t buy the romance. But I don’t think Jo is settling, exactly: it is a pragmatic relationship, but that has its appeal. They are not marrying out of financial necessity or societal expectation. To the contrary. They are marrying, Alcott makes fairly clear, to assuage their loneliness. But what I did not understand when I was younger is that this is part of why people couple and partner, and that companionship is not a small thing. Jo has married someone she respects; she has managed to find someone with no family to compete with her own; she is able to be both child and lover. From Alcott’s perspective—and frankly the generations of readers who’d be influenced by her—there are worse things.

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