Last week, my parents saw Little Women. My mother immediately phoned me. “I think Professor Bhaer is Jewish,” she said, her voice vibrating with barely suppressed excitement. I said I didn’t think the facts supported this theory. But several days later, I got an email from her with the subject line “FYI!!!” When I clicked on the link, I saw it was a Forward piece by Eve LaPlante headed, “Discovering Louisa May Alcott’s Jewish History on Portuguese Tour.”
I knew her game: my mom regarded this as proof that Alcott, apparently proud of her Sephardic ancestry—which, I read, the family credited with some of its dark coloring—had, indeed, written in a sympathetic Jewish foil for Jo. I couldn’t help but suspect that my mother was projecting; just because she had married a Jewish guy didn’t necessarily mean her favorite childhood literary figure had. “I just don’t see the evidence,” I wrote back, not without regret. “Bhaer is pretty Christian in the later books. He’s probably a 48er. And fwiw, the actor Louis Garrel isn’t Jewish, I don’t think.”
“Look into it!” she wrote back. “You are the Bhaer detective!”
I knew what she meant, and my heart sank. You see, a couple of years ago, in these pages, I wrote a five-part investigation of the Little Women character Professor Bhaer. Why? I don’t know. There was no peg. There was certainly no clamoring demand. The resulting tell-all did not contain any dramatic reveals. Serial, it wasn’t.
It’s never fun to reread one’s own work, and less still when the text in question reveals slightly-younger-you to have been some horrible mixture of visibly mad and really boring. But in light of Greta Gerwig’s reimagined Little Women, with its truly disruptive interpretation of the Bhaer character, it seemed worth revisiting the subject. At least, according to my mom.
I’ll admit, I went into the film half skeptical. Louis Garrel, the sloe-eyed wraith of The Dreamers, as Bhaer? This seemed like the goofiest Bhaer casting since William Shatner’s glorious 1978 tour-de-force, in which he interpreted the professor as an injection-molded plastic baby doll who talks like a movie Nazi. I assumed that casting a cute, romantically appealing lead was just a sop to viewers. But I was wrong.
Certainly, Garrel’s smoldering, Beethoven-playing professor has been well-received. As Peter Bradshaw described him in the Guardian, “Professor Friedrich Bhaer, the middle-aged German academic who is to be Jo’s fatherly suitor-slash-mentor in New York, is reinvented as a considerably younger and dishier Frenchman played by Louis Garrel.” Added Samantha Vincenty for O, “with Louis Garrel, Little Women finally gave Jo March the hot professor she deserves.”
Obviously—deliberately—this Professor Bhaer bears very little resemblance to the character as written. Keep in mind that Alcott’s Bhaer was “rather stout … he hadn’t a really handsome feature in his face, except his beautiful teeth.” He’s also priggish, puritanical, totally asexual, and talks like Goethe put through Google Translate. Gerwig’s Bhaer, on the other hand, is … Louis Garrel. At only thirty-six, he actually seems like a more plausible romantic choice for Jo than the babyish (and only half French) Timothee Chalamet as Laurie. Even Garrel/Bhaer’s negging of Jo’s writing has an air of dickish fifth arrondissement flirtation rather than the fatherly, grieved moral disappointment of Alcott’s text. When Jo refutes his criticism in the film, she’s angry at an equal, not wrestling with father-figure displacement. Basically, in the book we’re given to understand that Bhaer is right. In Gerwig’s movie, it’s not nearly that simple.
Gerwig clearly understood that, in some way, Alcott didn’t want to give Jo March “the hot professor she deserves”—or, at any rate, if she was forced by publishers to marry off her heroine, just as the movie Jo is told her protagonist must end up “married or dead,” she wanted to do it on her own terms, redefining the idea of “romance” and imposing on her impressionable readers a new idea of partnership. Because this decision clearly arose as much from perversity as principle; it’s never really worked on a dramatic level in the original text. Simply put, if Bhaer is cast the way he’s written, the result is depressing and disappointing—just like in the book.
Gerwig goes meta with her ending. You want romance? says her pragmatic Alcott/Jo amalgam. Okay, you’ll get it, down to a rom-com dash to the station and a Notting Hill–style Greek chorus of supportive family and friends who are way too involved in your personal life. In acknowledging the contrivance, Gerwig frees the viewer up to actually accept the romance. For the viewers—many of whom are braced for this shoehorned-in conclusion to the book and the prior adaptations—it’s curiously freeing. We’re winking at the convention, but having winked, we can enjoy a neatly tied-up happy ending. We don’t have to choose: Jo is launched on her literary career, happily married to someone conventionally attractive, and is the driving financial force behind the idyllic progressive school we see in the movie’s final montage. (Bhaer is seen conducting a diverse orchestra of little girls, looking handsome.) Yes, it’s all a bit much, and Gerwig has shown us we’re in safely cynical hands. But I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt free to weep shamelessly.
There is, throughout, a basic fidelity and affection for the source text, which is just part of why I don’t think Bhaer is Jewish. If you want to be technical about it (and Emily Schneider, at the Jewish Book Council, very much did) there are Jews in the Little Women universe. Specifically, in the chapter “New Impressions,” in which Amy, on her Grand Tour, is exposed to the varied folk of the Old World. These include “haughty English, lively French, sober Germans, handsome Spaniards, ugly Russians, meek Jews, free-and-easy Americans.” Then she does some business with a banker named Avigdor. Last of all, Amy encounters “Baron Rothschild’s private secretary, a large-nosed Jew, in tight boots, [who] affably beamed upon the world as if his master’s name crowned him with a golden halo.” So, when it comes to her idealized hero—a sober German—I’m going to go with “Not a Jew,” William Shatner’s incredible performance notwithstanding.
As for my mom, she’s unconvinced. “This isn’t over,” she told me cryptically. For everyone’s sakes, I hope it is.
Sadie Stein is alive and well and living in New York City.