The Man under the Umbrella

I am well aware of Friedrich Bhaer’s unpopularity, but I don’t understand it. I am aware of it, because it has been so often stated and explained; I don’t understand it because nothing of it makes sense—personal preferences aside, everyone has a right to like (or dislike) whoever they want, after all.

“Me wants me Bhaer!”—Tina, the daughter of Mrs Kirke’s French maid, said as she flung herself into the arms of this controversial character, and her words express my own feelings perfectly.

The accusations are numerous: Bhaer was merely an afterthought, to screw the readers, he is unattractive and boring, suppresses Jos own freedom as a writer and forces her to express herself in a posh manner, and of course, he isn’t Laurie.

But we’ll start in the beginning. Little Women has originally been published in two parts: Little Women and Good Wives. Later editions often put them together, but the distinction between the two books is an important point in the discussion of Friedrich Bhaer.

After Little Women first came out, Louisa May Alcott received several letters from readers who asked about the further lives of the March sisters, and especially about whom the little women would marry. Ms Alcott was not delighted by this question, and of her character’s being reduced to the subject of matrimony, as was rather usual back then, and which, in return, brought many modern readers to the conclusion that marriage by itself were a sign of a lack of liberation in the heroines and could therefore not correspond with Ms Alcott’s own intentions.

In particular the still popular wish, that Jo and Laurie should become a couple and marry displeased the authoress. But that does not make the insinuation that Friedrich’s part was caused by mere spite true.

Criticism of Friedrich Bhaer comes from those who would have liked to see Jo with Laurie, as well as those would have preferred her to remain unmarried. An argument for the latter is that Louisa May Alcott herself has never been married, and that Jo was based on her in many respects. But Little Women is no direct autobiography and contains many elements that didn’t happen as described in the lives of the author and her sisters. The common attempt to equate Jo and Louisa cannot succeed. The Marchs are obviously based on the Alcotts, but they are not them. But this awkward mingling of real person and fictional character is applied nearly exclusively to Jo.

The desire for an unmarried role model is common and understandable, especially as many readers identify with Jo and often think differently about these things than the 19th century audience—although it cannot be denied that the marital status of a novel’s heroine continues to receive a great deal of attention.

But to say “For this reason I would have preferred Jo to stay unmarried,” would be a better choice than, “Jo was never really supposed to marry, it’s only in the book because Louisa May Alcott has been pushed to do so. Jo is in truth single!” But in truth Jo doesn’t exist, only Louisa, and in the book, Jo married, and she did so because the author wanted her to.

The question, whether a marriage of Jo and Laurie would have received as much rejection, nowadays, I mean, because even those would prefer Jo to be single, seem to rather tolerate Laurie than Friedrich. But this is not supposed to be a comparison of both men—I like Laurie a lot, and I would not have had any issue had he and Jo become a couple. But they didn’t: Jo didn’t want it, Louisa didn’t want it, and in the end it turned out that Jo and Laurie could continue their wonderful friendship, though in a matured way, and still find a different sort of love each.

The notion that it was a sign of conformation or even submission, shows a completely incorrect understanding of the societal context of the story’s time. It may come from the cliché of the young woman who has to marry a boring old man, and who liberates herself by eloping with a brooding young rake; or from the good social standing of Germans, especially German academics, in contemporary America.

But Friedrich is, according to all economical and societal standards of that time, no reasonable, let a lone conforming choice—not within the story, and not from the point of view of the then audience. To claim that his character had been created because of societal pressure is completely incorrect.

Friedrich is poor; the idea that older men used to be preferred was based on the fact that they usually had build an existence (or increased it) and this promised financial security. To prefer a poor, older man over a young, very rich man, who still had the prospect of becoming even richer, was no decision made of reason, and not at all understandable for onlookers.

Beyond that, Friedrich had a very bad position as a German. German immigrants were a fairly large minority in America back then; most of them were poor, and even more so very unpopular. One must not forget that the Hummels, from whom Beth contracted the scarlet fever that later led to her death, were Germans, too. But the Alcotts liked Germans—and so did, apparently, the Marchs. Louisa May Alcott’s parents were transcendentalists and felt very drawn to German culture, in particular literature. Louisa May Alcott was born in the same year that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died. She loved Goethe and visited his house in Frankfurt—thought she didn’t have time to go inside. It is obvious that Friedrich is a character whom she liked to write and who came very close to her personal literary ideal.

But what is much more important: Friedrich supports, respects, and values Jo.

It brings me nearly physical discomfort to read what’s claimed about Friedrich and his attitude towards Jo and her writing. That he would belittle her, keep her from writing, push her to betray herself and lose her way. Yes, even the fact that Jo writes in later years, is read as a rebellion and secret disobedience towards Friedrich.

It’s a mystery to me, how one could read a book and interpret it in such a twisted manner. It seems that, whenever Professor Bhaer appears, some readers throw all reading comprehension overboard. To think Friedrich had condemned Jos own stories and asked her to write what he considered “higher literature” is complete nonsense. And so is the idea that he had asked (or forced) her to stop writing altogether.

Friedrich knew that Jo wrote and was very enthusiastic about it. He also had reason to assume that she published stories in papers, but he could neither be sure about that, nor about what sort of stories they were. He saw a magazine of the sort, for which she hadn’t written anything, and criticised this sort of stories (and their title illustrations) in general, especially their accessibility for children, without referring to Jo’s own stories, as is commonly maintained.

He did worry however, that Jo, due to a lack of money, protection and experience, could possibly write for exactly this sort of paper, and, rather impulsively, made an effort to dissuade her. Jo argued that one could earn money that way, and Friedrich, a poor man, mind you, remarked that one should rather sweep dirt in the streets.

One can—and should—not deny that Friedrich wanted to influence Jo in this matter. But I’ll have to remark two things: For once, I don’t see what’s wrong about that. He didn’t take the decision away from her, which he neither could nor would do, he simply stated his opinion—an opinion she valued from her own free will. Jo wouldn’t have changed anything, had she not agreed with him. Jo was stubborn and headstrong, and would not even have her nearest and dearest change her mind. She wouldn’t have read her story with Friedrich’s eyes, if she hadn’t truly agreed with what he’d said. That aside, it’s Friedrich’s right to tell his opinion, regardless whether Jo or the reader liked it or not. The idea that a “good” man in a novel always has to tell the heroine what she wants to hear, is a horrible, pseudo-feminist trend, which goes hand-in-hand with the idea that a person (especially a woman) would betray themselves (herself) through learning and growth. Anyway—to claim that Friedrich oppressed Jo, and that she would let him do so, is an insult to both of them.

Secondly: Friedrich has not once talked degradingly about Jo’s own stories. He hadn’t read them, couldn’t even be sure whether she had published any. He also never criticised that she wrote. His criticism was directed towards a specific genre, one could even say business or even milieu, which he thought would be harmful to both Jo and her work. He wanted Jo to write, but he didn’t want her to do it only to earn money, instead to write what she truly wanted. Jo’s first reaction was to write an overtly moralist, sermon-like story, but with time she balanced it out and found her way (back) to what she truly liked.

Here, too, the criticism describes the absolute opposite: Friedrich never wanted Jo to stop writing what she liked. He wanted her to start. At that time, Jo cared more about her income than her own development and expression, which did her no good, and of which Friedrich couldn’t approve.

Later on, Jo wrote neither secretly, nor in rebellion—she wrote as she liked, and Friedrich always supported her.

Friedrich also didn’t consider (commercial) writing to be unsuitable for a woman, and wanted Jo to get published and be successful as a writer. He even took her to a symposium of famous writer, which in the end disillusioned and sobered Jo, but which also helped her not to feel intimidated by the so-called Greats. Friedrich, too, would not be intimidated and, reserved as he normally was, argued ardently for his convictions, which impressed Jo persistently.

Friedrich did not make Jo more womanly. In fact, Jo and Friedrich liked and respected each other’s characteristics and peculiarities that were often seen untypical for their respective gender. Jo became, as she grew older, less boyish, but that was partly due to her increasing maturity, as she mostly left behaviours behind that would also not have suited a grown man, and on the other hand, because her appreciation of other women had grown—Jo had, after all, the tendency to take men and “manly” things more seriously.

Friedrich liked and loved Jo just as she was. But he also supported her development and growth. And it’s funny that this of all things is so often criticised, even condemned, even though it is what Little Women is largely about.

No character in Little Women is perfect. Not Friedrich, not Jo, and nobody else either. But Jo is often seen as a perfect heroine, and her development as self-betrayal. But one cannot rob a book of its own essence to modernise it. The notion that Jo could only be a good role model if she would never think or act differently than she did at the age of fifteen, because all maturity, all learning, were a sign of submission and an antiquated world-view is a dreadful way of thinking by itself. But if one happens to be of that opinion, then one should also stand by it rather than selling it as the author’s own belief.

That aside, it seems that nobody is allowed to criticise Jo. No other character, and no reader. Her sisters have all been degraded cruelly, but Jo has to be considered perfect, just as she is. She is the representative of all strong girls and completely infallible, or else valuable only through her faults. That is the common opinion—though not the writer’s, who considered her protagonists mistakes, and her development, and to acknowledge them, very important. That does not make her a lesser character or a bad role model for young girls—on the contrary, it makes her human, and gives her room to grow.

Transcendentalism was an important influence for Louisa May Alcott, although she did not at all view or take it uncritically. Growing up is the central point of this novel, and, although I am sure that Jo would have managed to do so very well on her own, Friedrich was a great help for her, to look forwards, and to become a big woman, while always staying true to herself.

And, at last, the romance. I’ll say three things:

Every person feels differently. The interaction of romantic and other feelings, and the cognition of them, is highly individual, and Jo and Friedrich have found what is just right for themselves.

The chapter Under the Umbrella can be re-read over and over again. Those who have forgotten just how romantic Jo and Friedrich are, should read it again.

Thou is often a subject of criticism—and perhaps the most painful one of all. What is presented as Friedrich’s attempt of shaping Jo to his demanding ideals, is nothing but his way of approaching her. For thou is viewed quite wrongly nowadays—it’s old-fashioned, and thus often seen as posh or dusty, and as a distanced form of address. But the English you is much rather comparable to the German Sie, which is formal and impersonal, and used by strangers and people whose connections are merely business-like. Thou on the other hand, is Du, the informal, personal and intimate form of address, used by friends and family. It is also to be noted that children are always addressed Du, while children address all adults, aside from family and friends, with Sie, which indicates the adults’ authority. This is was much stricter in the 19th century, and through initiating thou, Friedrich opened towards growing intimacy, while raising Jo on the same level as him, a grown woman and his equal. It is a loving and respectful gesture.

2 thoughts on “The Man under the Umbrella

    1. ChiaraBlueberry says:

      I did. My name is Chiara Kilian, if that is what you meant. This blog is fairly new and with fairly little content, of course. But thank you very much for this comment! It means a lot to me.

      Like

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