Even if we didn't know from Louisa May Alcott's biography and journals that Little Women is loosely based on her own family life, we'd probably know it from the affectionate tone that she uses to describe her characters. Each sister's personal struggles are described with loving detail, as though the narrator sympathizes with everything they're going through. Sometimes the narrator even goes to great lengths to explain where the characters are coming from and why they react to things the way that they do. For example, when Amy is struck by her teacher, Mr. Davis, as punishment for bringing pickled limes to school, she pretty much freaks out, and so do all her sisters. Her mom even pulls her out of the school. To us, that seems pretty extreme, and to nineteenth-century readers, who were used to corporal punishment in the schoolroom, it probably seemed laughable. But the narrator really wants us to understand why they react so strongly:
"To others it might seem a ludicrous or trivial affair, but to her it was a hard experience, for during the twelve years of her life she had been governed by love alone, and a blow of that sort had never touched her before." (7.40)
The narrator's affection for Amy and sympathy for her situation is strongly communicated to us in this example, as it is throughout the novel for each of the sisters.
More than anything else, Little Women is a coming-of-age story – specifically for Jo March, but more generally for all of the March sisters and even their friend Laurie. How can we tell? Well, it's simple: we begin with children and teenagers who have dreams for the future, and then we watch them mature into adults who have to adapt their plans to their circumstances. In that sense, Little Women reminds us of other great nineteenth-century novels in which children grow into adults, like Jane Eyre and Great Expectations. In Little Women, however, things seem to be just a little bit softer, easier, and cozier; we're never as worried about what will happen to Jo as we are about what could happen to Jane or Pip, who are more alone and more exposed to the trials of the world around them. Jo's coming-of-age is difficult, but it's made easier by the supportive nature of her close-knit family. We're actually a bit jealous of that; the March family is almost a little too perfect!
You can also think of Little Women as a romance; after all, it's the love triangle between Jo, Laurie, and Professor Bhaer that seems to capture everyone's attention. Just Google the words "Jo Laurie fan fiction" and you'll see what we mean. People write stories in which Jo falls for Laurie, and they make "Jo + Laurie" YouTube montages with their favorite love songs playing over them. The romance in the novel is a lot of fun, and you can get caught up in it. But Little Women is more than just romantic drama. It unites the romance plot with Jo's attempt to find herself and find a way to express her talents in the world around her.
Little Women is often considered children's literature, although it's a pretty high reading level. Louisa May Alcott wrote it with the intention of creating a girls' book, and she succeeded spectacularly – the book has had a long afterlife as a children's classic. It has also inspired later writers, and we think we see a debt to Little Women in books like Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie. That's not to say that L. M. Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't have unique visions of their own; they certainly did. But Louisa May Alcott paved the way for audiences to receive the kind of stories that Montgomery, Wilder, and others had to tell.
Even if you've never read it, you've probably heard of Little Women; the title alone has become a cornerstone of American culture, spawning an entire industry of "girl books" and literature for and about young women. But all this girliness isn't just sweetness and light. Let's be real: the title Little Women is often criticized as suggesting the gender stereotypes that this book upholds. After all, if you interpret "little women" to mean "girls," then the implication is that girls are not free-spirited children but miniature versions of their adult counterparts. Alternatively, if "little women" describes the women that these girls grow into, then it seems rather demeaning – literally belittling the importance of the women.
Of course, Louisa May Alcott was really a very pro-woman writer and thinker, but even she became frustrated by the limitations of the world that she created in this book, and that troublesome adjective "little" holds the key to the problem. As you read the novel, or as you look back over it, think about what's "little" about these girls who grow into women – and also about what's larger-than-life.
There's also another title lurking in the shadows behind this book. Originally, Little Women was the title of Part 1 of the novel (Chapters 1-23), which was published on its own in 1868. It was an instant bestseller, and Alcott was swamped with requests for more. In 1869, she published a sequel, Good Wives. Today we read these two together, and editors add the text of Good Wives as Part 2 of Little Women (Chapters 24-47).
The title Good Wives rarely appears in the text of editions published these days, and it's interesting to think about why. Perhaps modern readers resist the idea that women all have to become wives, or perhaps it's just that we want to keep thinking of them as girls instead of married ladies.
Whatever the reason, Alcott herself shares our tendency to focus on the first half of the novel. After all, Part 1 is heavily autobiographical, recording Alcott's own girlhood and experiences with her sisters. However, because Alcott herself never married, but readers were clamoring to hear about the marriages of the characters, in Part 2 Alcott let her inventiveness take over and largely departed from her own personal story. As a result, it's the first part of the novel – the part originally titled Little Women – that really holds our attention and thus comes to be the name of the entire work.
Little Women lives up to every stereotype of a novel's ending: all the girls are married, except Beth, who is dead. Jo has paired off with Mr. Bhaer, Amy with Laurie, and Meg with John Brooke. The Bhaers, Laurences, and Brookes have gone on to establish homes of their own, and each of the surviving sisters has her own children now. The children are given names from the previous generations – Margaret's twins are named for her and for their father ("Daisy" is a nickname for Margaret and "Demi" is short for "Demijohn," after his father John), Amy's daughter is named Beth after the sister who died, and Jo has named her sons Teddy, after her best friend, and Rob, after her father. As each March girl becomes more and more like her "Marmee," the new generation is being primed to repeat the story of the old one.
However, to complement this cycle, the novel ends with a birthday party for Marmee. All of the different families gather together for a picnic, along with the boys from Jo's boarding school, and for this occasion there seems to be one extended family, instead of a series of satellite families splintering off from the original. The picnic reinforces Mrs. March's matriarchal role and the novel's suggestion that female influence has a strong moral role to play, not only within the family, but also within society as a whole.
The town where the March and Laurence families live is never given a name in the novel, but it's clearly somewhere in New England and loosely based on Concord, Massachusetts, where Louisa May Alcott's family lived all her life. Although the March sisters will at times travel the globe – Jo goes to New York, while her sister Amy embarks on a European tour – they always come back to the family home in the northeastern United States. We realize just how proud the March girls really are of their American heritage when Laurie hosts a picnic for some visiting British friends – their pride in the democratic ideals of independence and advancement through hard work is obvious. Being in New England in the mid-nineteenth century also means they're close to the philosophical community of the Transcendentalists – you know, people like Emerson and Thoreau. Mr. March, like the real-life Bronson Alcott on whom he is based, is one of these enlightened forward-thinking men.
There are a lot of clues to the time frame in which the book takes place. The first chapter begins at Christmastime in the middle of the Civil War; it's not clear exactly what year, but sometime in the early 1860s. The first volume of the novel – the original Little Women, which ends with Chapter 23 – spans one year, from Christmas to the next Christmas, and ends with the war still going. Over the course of this first part, Jo goes from being fifteen to being sixteen.
The second volume of the novel, beginning with Chapter 24 and originally titled Good Wives, starts three years later. Jo seems to be nineteen, and this part of the novel spans the events of about six years – Jo is almost 25 when she becomes engaged to Mr. Bhaer, and they marry a year later, when she's presumably almost 26. The novel ends with a birthday party for Marmee five years after Jo's wedding – so Jo is just about 30, going on 31. Take-away fact: from the beginning of the first chapter to the end of the last chapter, the novel covers around fifteen years, but the last five years are summarized really fast at the very end, and another three years get skipped in the middle.
Why does this timing matter? Well, it's long – a broad swath of years which gives us a picture of the March girls from childhood through to maturity. This wide-angle view is typical of the nineteenth-century novel, which often gives a complete picture of an individual, a family, or an entire society. By contrast, the Modernist novel in the early twentieth century has a narrower focus – think of James Joyce's Ulysses, which takes place in a single day! If the fifteen years covered by Little Women aren't enough for you, then you can read the sequels Little Men and Jo's Boys, which take Jo into her fifties!
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.
Little Women may be a children's book, and it may have a fluffy, cozy, domestic feel. But Louisa May Alcott was the daughter of a well-read philosopher, and her command of language is impressive. She writes complex, balanced sentences and uses an advanced vocabulary without becoming difficult to understand. For example, when the narrator explains why May Chester is being rude to Amy at the fair, Alcott writes,
But the chief grievance that rankled in her soul, and gave an excuse for her unfriendly conduct, was a rumor which some obliging gossip had whispered to her, that the March girls had made fun of her at the Lambs." (30.3)
Alcott keeps her complex prose accessible by making sure that none of her sentences are too long and by using a lot of dialogue.
For a stay-at-home novel about private, domestic concerns, Little Women sure is full of traveling, journeys, and pilgrimages, both metaphorical and literal: Jo's trip to New York to experience the big city and get away from Laurie's romantic feelings for her, Amy's trip to Europe to see the great art of the Old World, Laurie's trip to Paris to forget about Jo, Mr. March's journey to and from the Civil War, Beth and Mrs. March's trip to the seaside, Mr. Bhaer's journey out west to work as a professor, and the "pilgrimage" that the sisters embark upon as they imitate John Bunyan's allegory The Pilgrim's Progress.
Pilgrimage is a religious and spiritual journey, and each of the sisters discovers that she has metaphorical "burdens" to carry and obstacles to traverse. At first these obstacles are directly related to the geographical images in Pilgrim's Progress: when Amy is beaten at school for having the forbidden pickled limes in her desk, for example, Alcott describes her as going through the "Valley of Humiliation." The sisters' more literal journeys also have deeper significance. For example, when Amy goes to Europe to develop her artistic talent, she ends up marrying the boy from next door. Alcott's message is clear: no matter where you go, you can't get away from yourself. Sometimes it takes a journey of a thousand miles just to figure out what you had on your doorstep all along.
Several of the characters in Little Women are lovers of music. Beth's only passion is playing the piano and singing, and she reminds old Mr. Laurence of his musical granddaughter who died young. Laurie fancies himself a composer, until he realizes that he doesn't quite have the genius necessary to be truly great. And the entire March family, including Marmee, enjoys singing together before they go to bed. In each case, music seems to have an unearthly, almost divine quality, drawing the family closer to each other and to God.
From the thorny red rose that draws Laurie's blood when he tries to pick it to the simple orange blossoms that Meg wears on her wedding day, flowers play a constant but subtle symbolic role in Little Women. Luckily, Alcott is rarely too subtle to explain what they mean in her narrator's voice. When Laurie is forced to pick smaller, daintier flowers that are lower down, you don't have to wonder whether this means switching his affections from Jo to Amy – his narrated thoughts make it explicit. When Meg chooses simple, easily obtainable flowers to adorn herself for her wedding, you don't have to theorize that she's emphasizing her homely simplicity. The narrator says so. Thanks, narrator.
Flowers also remind us of the class differences between different families – the Laurences are wealthy enough to have their own greenhouse and grow exotic flowers that they frequently give to the neighboring Marches. But flowers also suggest poverty, such as when Amy uses flowers instead of jewelry to accessorize for a ball.
The March sisters are often defined by their clothing and accessories. Jo's tomboyishness comes out in her burned dresses and dirty gloves; Meg and John Brooke's romance is symbolized by one of her gloves which he adopts as a keepsake; Amy's class aspirations are carried by her makeshift boots, which she painted instead of buying a new pair. The use of clothing and accessories as a symbolic category in the novel contrasts strangely with the values that Alcott encourages – abandoning greed and materialism and focusing on love, family togetherness, and principle. Instead of nice clothes and nice principles being antagonistic to one another, they compliment each other. Looking good, but not too good, is the sign of a good woman. It means that you are demure and proper, but that you're not a spendthrift.
The narrator of Little Women is an omniscient, disembodied voice that knows everyone's thoughts and feelings and explores the characters from within and without. We get a good example of this in the first chapter, in which the narrator gives the reader a description of each of the March sisters – her appearance and her personality – as the girls sit by the fire knitting:
Margaret, the eldest of the four, was sixteen, and very pretty, being plump and fair, with large eyes, plenty of soft brown hair, a sweet mouth, and white hands, of which she was rather vain. Fifteen-year-old Jo was very tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of a colt, for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs, which were very much in her way. [. . .] Elizabeth, or Beth, as everyone called her, was a rosy, smooth-haired, bright-eyed girl of thirteen, with a shy manner, a timid voice, and a peaceful expression which was seldom disturbed. [. . .] Amy, though the youngest, was a most important person, in her own opinion at least. (1.35)
Most of the time, the narrator focuses on our protagonist, Jo March. For example, when Jo wakes up on Christmas morning, the narrator describes her actions and feelings:
Then she remembered her mother's promise and, slipping her hand under her pillow, drew out a little crimson-covered book. She knew it very well, for it was that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived, and Jo felt that it was a true guidebook for any pilgrim going on a long journey. (2.1)
But when it's necessary for the story, the narrator can delve into the mind of any character, from Marmee to John Brooke. In these cases, the narrator tends to drop into the perspective of that character in order to tell the reader things that no other character knows – at least not yet. For example, here's a passage told from Marmee's perspective:
Hoping to impress the lesson more deeply, Mrs. March, who had a good deal of humor, resolved to finish off the trial in an appropriate manner, so she gave Hannah a holiday and let the girls enjoy the full effect of the play system. (11.19)
And here's one from John Brooke's perspective:
Congratulating himself that a handsome repast had been ordered that morning, feeling sure that it would be ready to the minute, and indulging in pleasant anticipations of the charming effect it would produce, when his pretty wife came running out to meet him, he escorted his friend to his mansion, with the irrepressible satisfaction of a young host and husband. (28.8)
Most of the time, this omniscient narrator uses the third person. Occasionally, however, the narrator uses first-person pronouns I and We. For example, before the description of the four sisters, the narrator says, "We will take this moment to give...a little sketch of the four sisters" (1.34), and when Marmee returns home from Washington to take care of Beth while she is sick, the narrator writes, "I don't think I have any words in which to tell the meeting of the mother and daughters" (20.1). Don't let this strange use of the first person confuse you; the narrator's not a character in the story, but an omniscient storytelling voice that knows all.
OK, so we admit that this stage isn't a perfect fit for this novel, because the March family home is far from wretched. But despite the domestic paradise created by Marmee for her girls, Jo isn't completely happy there. She wants to do something fantastic with her life, but she can't figure out what. She's always wanted to travel in Europe, to be a famous author or playwright, or maybe an actress.
It's not the European Grand Tour that she's always dreamed of, but living in New York is a chance for Jo to move in different circles. She hears lots of interesting philosophical and intellectual conversation, she becomes a regular author for a sensational periodical, and she meets the knowledgeable, virtuous Professor Bhaer. She's getting experience of the public sphere, and it makes a strange contrast with her previous domestic existence.
This conflict isn't really a choice for Jo. Obviously, she's going to take Beth's place as the daughter who stays at home, filling her parents' lives with affection and kindness. The real crisis takes place within her – how can she reconcile herself to a life lived entirely in the private sphere? Will she be able to find an outlet for her ambitions and her dreams, or does she have to subordinate the creative and lively parts of her personality to her sense of filial duty?
The first part of this stage is a good fit for this novel. The narrator spends a lot of words explaining the way that Beth's death and her new role in the home changes Jo, making her sweeter and more serious, and even drawing her closer to God. However, Jo doesn't really have a "Final Ordeal" in which she faces down the villain. After all, the only villain in the novel is Jo herself; she's always been her own worst enemy, and what she's had to conquer is her own wayward nature. Deep, huh? Instead of a last battle with the villain, Jo has a comical series of misunderstandings that threaten to keep her separated from the man she now knows she loves.
Because Jo was willing to renounce wealth, personal fulfillment, and marriage in favor of a quiet life at home with her parents, the novel rewards her with all those things anyway.
At the beginning of the novel, Jo and her sisters are almost literally waiting for things to happen. They go through their everyday routines, working, keeping house, and trying to be good people. Each girl also cherishes certain ambitions – Jo wants to do something amazing, but she's not sure what. We don't know exactly how this will work out, but we're sure that it's going to be exciting!
This disconnection between Jo's platonic friendship for Laurie and his romantic interest in her has been building almost since they met. Jo sees Laurie as a pal, someone to hang around with who won't force her to be proper and ladylike. But Laurie sees Jo, despite all her peculiarities, as the kind of wife he'd like to have by his side.
It seems heartless to think of Beth's death as a "complication" rather than the center of the plot, but that's really what it is. After all, Beth is sickly from the beginning, and, as she herself points out, she never really has dreams or plans for the future. It's as though she knows that she's not meant to live long. Dealing with the loss of Beth helps turn Jo from a happy-go-lucky girl into a sweet and serious woman, but it's still not the most important development in her life – or in the plot of the book!
OK, so this isn't your typical climax where the hero battles the monster with a sword. Still, everything seems to be changing – Laurie leaves, Beth dies, Amy is away, and nothing is ever going to be the same.
For a while Jo exists in a strange limbo; she stops writing for money and becomes more introspective, writing truthfully from the heart. Instead of living in New York and moving in fast-paced intellectual circles, she stays at home, taking care of her parents in the wake of Beth's death. It seems like she might just stay there forever, a spinster in a small town with a rich inner life. After all, that's pretty much what Louisa May Alcott did as an adult.
Luckily, Jo figures out what you may have guessed already – she's in love with Mr. Bhaer, and she does want to get married! After a series of comical misunderstandings and miscommunications, they finally get engaged.
A marriage, an inheritance, moving out of your parent's house, and starting your own business? Yes, this is definitely the conclusion.
Tomboyish Jo March develops a friendship with her rich neighbor Theodore Laurence, who becomes infatuated with her.
Jo rejects Laurie's proposal of marriage. To avoid him, she goes to New York to seek her fortune, where she meets the kind and intelligent Professor Bhaer
Jo returns home to care for her dying sister Beth. In the wake of her loss, she discovers her love for Mr. Bhaer. Meanwhile, Laurie transfers his affections to Beth's sister Amy.