Natural Women: A Transcendental Setting for Gilliam Armstrong’s LITTLE WOMEN
3 August 2014
Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 drama Little Women, adapted from Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical 19th century novel of the same title, works to represent Transcendentalism, a movement Alcott felt passionately about. In brief, Transcendentalism is a philosophical movement promoting the belief that innate goodness exists in Nature and natural beings (including people), and that Society corrupts Nature’s goodness. Transcendentalists, who are richly independent people, find power in their individuality and connectedness to the natural world.
Little Women, the novel, is written from the transcendental perspective, and Armstrong, offering the cinematic lens through which to play out her adaptation of this piece, enhances the transcendental philosophy through an abundance of exterior shots. Also, Armstrong focuses specific attention to natural references in certain interior shots to juxtapose this focus with other interior shots that have no references to Nature; the interior shot without references to Nature symbolize Society in Little Women.
Be it spring, summer, fall, or winter, Armstrong sets scenes in nature, highlighting the natural world as a significant setting for her film. Being attentive to detail and authenticity, Armstrong films several exterior scenes in Concord, Massachusetts, where Alcott lived. Even Alcott’s actual home, Orchard House (now historically preserved), which is also the name of the March family’s home, is filmed for Little Women. Not only is the natural world brought into the film, but Alcott’s Nature, the very spots she wrote, the woods she walked in, and the trees she was once shaded with, are all featured in Armstrong’s film, enhancing authenticity and the film’s transcendental setting.
Taking this point on exterior shots further, the three surviving March sisters—Meg, Jo, and Amy—each fall in love in the film. Love scenes between each sister and her respective lover are filmed in exterior shots. Meg and John share their (presumed) first kiss on Orchard House’s front step, underneath the door frame of the open front door. Additionally, they marry on Orchard House’s front lawn, surrounded by friends and family. Amy and Laurie fall in love in the parks of Paris, where Amy is training as an artist. Nearly all of their interactions, leading up to their return to Orchard House, takes place outside, under and amid trees. Lastly, Jo and Bhaer confess their love for one another on the road leading to Orchard House. It was necessary for Armstrong to set the film’s most romantic, love-filled scenes outside, in exterior shots, directly connecting the natural beauty of love with Nature itself.
Moreover, some of the film’s interior shots feature references to Nature, keeping the transcendental philosophy present throughout the film. In Orchard House, Nature is everywhere. The house is rustic, full of floral arrangements, floral patterns on linens and papers, fresh fruit, animals, animal images, and even garland. For example, when Jo writes Little Women and binds the pages for shipment to New York. Tucked in the rope, Jo slips a red flower. Even an interior close-up on the book includes Nature. Or, when Amy and Laurie arrive at Orchard House, after Beth’s death, and announce their marriage. Amy walks in carrying a bouquet of flowers, adding Nature in the interior shot. Even the name, Orchard House, alludes to trees, bountiful symbols of life.
Other interior shots, like Aunt March’s house, the dance Meg and Jo attend, and New York (excluding Jo’s room), have few to no allusions/inclusions to Nature. These interior shots seem to represent the opposite of Transcendentalism, Society. These interior shots are some of the darkest places, figuratively speaking, for the March sisters. Jo sits, bored and trapped, in Aunt March’s mansion when she is forced to read to her. Even later in the film, after Aunt March passes and Jo inherits the house, the audience believes Jo will turn the mansion into a school, but the last time viewers see the inside of Aunt March’s former home is it barren and lifeless. Hope exists in Jo’s plan, but the interior shot of this particular setting remains a place without Nature; a confining space in need of a transcendental renovation. Armstrong juxtaposes Aunt March’s house with Orchard House to demonstrate part of the transcendental philosophy: a poor home connected to Nature is richer than a mansion deprived of Nature.
In New York, Jo meets a much less natural world than she is used to. Wood planks replace dirt, buildings replace trees, and accessories replace flowers strewn around rooms. Aside from Jo’s bedroom, references to Nature are minimal in New York, which compliments Jo’s frustration and struggle in this city. Jo does not find success in New York, despite all her efforts to write and practice her skills. It is not until she returns home, to Orchard House, with Nature, that she achieves success as a writer. Armstrong intentionally omits references to trees, flowers, animals, and other common symbols of Nature in the New York setting to subtly reinforce Society and the hardship this unnatural institution causes people, namely Jo who is talented enough to be a published writer, but oppressed by Society in New York, far away from the transcendental roots which foster and nourish her individuality and power.
Alcott once wrote, “Wild roses are fairest, and nature a better gardener than art.” Figuratively, the March sisters are wild roses, each a natural, transcendental individual. And, to capture these “wild roses” in her film adaptation of Little Women, Armstrong went to the literal roots of Transcendentalism, nature. Her consistent and abundant use of exterior shots highlight the Transcendentalism as an intrinsic element of the film’s setting. Also, her juxtapositions of interior shots—those full of references to the natural world with other completely void of natural reference—subtly uses setting to claim the transcendental philosophy that people are limited and oppressed by Society when removed from Nature, but will thrive as individuals when connected to the natural world.