Jo first meets Professor Frederick Bhaer in New York City where they live as fellow tenants and teachers in a large boarding house. He is in his forties and has emigrated from Germany to New York to start a new life. He has no money, he is not particularly handsome, and, although he was an esteemed professor in Germany, he is reduced to tutoring a few children for his income. Jo is immediately drawn to him, though she does not consciously realize it at first. Instead, we learn how highly she thinks of him by how much time she spends reflecting on him in her letters home.
One of the first traits Jo recognizes and admires in Professor Bhaer is his tendency toward joy. Like the March family, Professor Bhaer has experienced a loss of status and resources, but he seems delighted with his life in New York nonetheless. He genuinely loves his pupils, and he teaches because he likes teaching rather than for acclaim or recognition. Bhaer’s joy allows him to be childlike and connect with his pupils, even at the expense of his dignity. He joins his students in their games and finds ways to make learning enjoyable for them and for himself. Jo sees virtue in this quality, particularly as Marmee has tried to cultivate the same attitude of enthusiasm and generosity in Jo and her sisters.
As much as he is willing to forego the formalities of society, Professor Bhaer is deeply principled. He has an established idea of right and wrong which he is not willing to blur to make others comfortable. Jo justifies writing stories she doesn’t always approve of because she intends to use the money she makes to care for Beth. Bhaer does not share Jo’s view, and he sees the magazine Jo writes for as entirely harmful. It takes Professor Bhaer’s reprimand for Jo to realize she has been uncomfortable with her own actions. He is significantly older than Jo, and consequently he has had much longer to refine and build his principles. His moral firmness makes him an anchor for Jo as she seeks to find her balance between ambition and ideals.
Jo is a naturally adventurous person, and she does well for herself in New York. Professor Bhaer is part of her success because he reminds her of the values she knows from home. She is attracted to him because he matches what she has been taught to admire. Frederick Bhaer sees the same kinship in Jo, and later in her family when he comes to know them. The novel sets up Laurie and Bhaer as two potential love interests for Jo, but it is Bhaer’s maturity that makes him a better match for her untamed spirit. Laurie is like Jo, but Bhaer is similar to the people Jo loves most – namely, her father, her mother, and Beth. Little Women focuses on the growth of its main characters from children to established adults, and Bhaer represents the place Jo wants to reach in her growth.