by Louisa May Alcott
Analysis: What's Up With the Epigraph?
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
Go then, my little Book, and show to all
That entertain and bid thee welcome shall,
What thou dost keep close shut up in thy breast;
And wish what thou dost show them may be blest
To them for good, may make them choose to be
Pilgrims better, by far, than thee or me.
Tell them of Mercy; she is one
Who early hath her pilgrimage begun.
Yea, let young damsels learn of her to prize
The world which is to come, and so be wise;
For little tripping maids may follow God
Along the ways which saintly feet have trod.
The epigraph to Little Women is Louisa May Alcott's adaptation of a passage from John Bunyan's 1678 allegory The Pilgrim's Progress. By beginning her novel with this passage, Alcott emphasizes to her reader that all of the more everyday details of life in the story are less important than its broader religious meaning. The four March sisters are pilgrims on the road to Heaven, and just because they're "little tripping maids" is no reason that they can't follow "saintly feet" and go on a deep spiritual journey through life. Alcott borrows Bunyan's apostrophe (that's a fancy term meaning a direct address) to his book, and so the passage contains instructions for what the story is supposed to do. Unlike novels that are meant only to entertain their readers, Little Women is meant to entertain and to guide readers toward their own self-improvement and salvation.