Ravishing as this is, it still disappointed many of Alcott’s contemporaries, because Jo didn’t marry Laurie. And it has disappointed many of our contemporaries, too, because why did Jo, our hero, have to marry at all, not to speak of marrying a man who told her to stop writing? The problem is made worse by the fact that Alcott herself appeared to vacillate. It seems unlikely that anyone would honor her claim that she came up with a “funny match” for Jo in order to spite the fans who were demanding a marriage plot. But this may actually have been the case, because she goes back and forth about matrimony. On one page, Marmee, the font of all wisdom, tells Meg and Jo that to be loved by a good man is the best thing that can happen to a woman, but, a few sentences later, Marmee says that it is better to be happy old maids than unhappy wives. Which did Alcott believe? Was she just fooling around? If so, she left a lot of confused feminists in her wake. Even more displeased were the queer theorists. In an 1883 interview, Alcott said, “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body . . . because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with a man.” Hmm. And so we are not surprised that she herself did not marry, but then why did she have to force a husband on her most Louisa-like character, and one who had expressed similar sentiments? (“I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy,” Jo says, in the novel’s first scene.) In recent “Little Women” scholarship, all this bewilderment was compounded by postmodern critics’ emphasis on ambivalence, on conflict, on the dark truths lurking in what had once seemed clean, honest books.

Rioux tries to make everything O.K. by saying that, if Jo married, at least she didn’t make a would-be romantic match, the kind that women have been historically bamboozled by, but a “companionate union.” Elizabeth Lennox Keyser, a children’s-literature scholar, has offered a more negative view: “Seeing no way to satisfy self, she adopts a policy of selflessness and, thus diminished, succumbs to the marriage proposal of fatherly Professor Bhaer.” Both interpretations assume that Jo, by marrying someone old and fat—a foreigner, too!—doesn’t so much take a husband as find a nice person to room with. I think that the situation is exactly the opposite, and that a “diminished” girl does not go running through the town, under so many horse noses, to find a booby prize. The heavens do not burst open when Meg says yes to John, or Amy to Laurie, but only when Jo and Bhaer, these two souls with no money or beauty or luck, come together.

There are other clues that Bhaer is a character very close to Alcott’s heart. When Jo, on her second day in New York, hears the professor singing in the next room, Alcott tells us what the song is. It was originally sung by a strange little character, Mignon, in Goethe’s 1795 novel, “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.” Mignon is a girl dressed as a boy, who, having been kidnapped in her native Italy by a gang of ruffians, is travelling with a troupe of actors. They treat her badly. She appeals to Wilhelm Meister to rescue her. Here, in Thomas Carlyle’s translation, is the start of the poem, “Kennst Du das Land,” that she sings to him:

Know’st thou the land where lemon-trees do bloom,
And oranges like gold in leafy gloom;
A gentle wind from deep blue heaven blows,
The myrtle thick, and high the laurel grows?
Know’st thou it, then?
’Tis there! ’tis there,
O my belov’d one, I with thee would go!

At first, it sounds as though Mignon is asking Wilhelm to take her back to Italy, but as the poem proceeds it becomes clear that she means someplace farther away. (She dies at the end of the book.) The poem was set to music by dozens of composers in the nineteenth century. Alcott does not tell us which version Bhaer is singing. All we know is that he is speaking of some lost paradise—such as, for example, the Eden that Bronson Alcott tried to emulate at Fruitlands. Goethe was an idol of the members of the Transcendental Club, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Emerson, generous as ever, had given Louisa the run of his library when she was in her teens. There she found a translation of a book, “Goethe’s Correspondence with a Child,” a collection of enraptured letters to the revered master from a young admirer, Bettina von Arnim. Louisa decided that she, likewise, would write a “heart-journal.” She would take the part of Bettina, and her correspondent would be Emerson, whom she adored. Years later, in her diary, she recalled, “I wrote letters to him, but never sent them; sat in the tall cherry-tree at midnight, singing to the moon till the owls scared me to bed; left wild flowers on the doorstep of my ‘Master,’ and sang Mignon’s song under his window in very bad German.”

When Bhaer arrives to visit the Marches, Jo asks him to sing “Kennst Du das Land” again. The first line, Alcott writes, was once Bhaer’s favorite, because, before, “das Land” to him meant Germany, his homeland. “But now,” Alcott writes, “he seemed to dwell, with peculiar warmth, and melody, upon the words ‘There, there, might I go with thee / O, my beloved, go’ and one listener was so thrilled by the tender invitation that she longed to say that she did know the land,” and was ready to start packing. These, I believe, are the fragments still floating in the air of “Little Women” after the combustion that, in Alcott’s brain, produced Professor Bhaer, a lover for her most cherished character. He is not a “funny match.” He, together with Beth, is a sort of angel, like the souls in the Divine Comedy, beings who turn to us and say exactly who they are and what they stand for.

Behind these two angelic beings stands another, this one not a literary character but a real person: Bronson Alcott. It is hard to like Bronson, because he took so little care of his family. For a long time, Louisa appears to have despised him, or at least regarded him with considerable irony. She once wrote to him that her goal in her work was to prove that “though an Alcott I can support myself.” It would be hard to find an English-language work of fiction more autobiographical than “Little Women.” For almost every person in Louisa’s immediate family, there is a corresponding character, an important one, in this book. The one exception is Bronson. Father March comes home from the war, stumbles into the back room, and thereafter mostly stays offstage, reading books. Occasionally, he wanders in and says something or other. Then he wanders back out. In one sense, we could say that Louisa erased him—a sort of revenge, perhaps. In another sense, this may just be an erasure of her feelings about him: she didn’t want to talk about it.

Yet, while Bronson was more or less written out of the book, the ideals to which he held so stubbornly inform every page. Bronson’s obsession was with the transcendence of the material world, with seeing through appearances to a moral and spiritual truth. He took this passion to extremes, and that is what made him eccentric, not to speak of irresponsible. But that is also the cast of mind that, with the addition of common sense and humor and an attachment to regular things—life, family, dinner—makes Alcott’s most admirable characters admirable.

In addition to supplying the book’s moral architecture, Bronson provided, by his neglect, the need for its creation. Louisa’s one wish, as an adult, was to make her mother’s life comfortable. With “Little Women” she did it, and then, with the work’s two sequels—“Little Men” (1871) and “Jo’s Boys” (1886), both having to do with a school that Jo and Bhaer eventually establish—she did it some more. When she was in the middle of a book, she wrote “in a vortex,” as she put it, often remaining at her desk for fourteen hours a day. “Little Women” was written in less than six months. “Her health is by no means yet restored,” Bronson wrote philosophically in his journal in 1869, soon after the book’s publication. But it didn’t bother him that she had just about killed herself to write it. In the words of his excellent biographer, John Matteson, Bronson regarded a physical person as “a lapsed soul, a debased descendant of pure being.” A soul did not need to go to bed. A soul could work fourteen hours a day.