Study Guide

Little Women Poverty

By Louisa May Alcott


Chapter 1
Jo March

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

"It's so dreadful to be poor!" sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

"I don't think it's fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls to have nothing at all," added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

"We've got Father and Mother and each other," said Beth contentedly from her corner. (1.1-4)

The first thing we learn about the March girls is that they are poor – they can't afford presents at Christmas, their clothes are old, and they envy the other girls that they know. Only Beth seems to realize that they are rich in another, more intangible way.

Chapter 2

A poor, bare, miserable room it was, with broken windows, no fire, ragged bedclothes, a sick mother, wailing baby, and a group of pale, hungry children cuddled under one old quilt, trying to keep warm. (2.30)

Just when you thought the March girls were poor and pathetic, we meet the Hummel children. This is true poverty: starvation, cold, and misery. By contrast, the Marches are snug, happy, and comfortable.

Chapter 3
Jo March

"I don't believe fine young ladies enjoy themselves a bit more than we do, in spite of our burned hair, old gowns, one glove apiece, and tight slippers that sprain our ankles when we are silly enough to wear them." (3.124)

Early in life, Jo and Meg, along with their sisters, begin to realize that possessions can't make you happy, even when they're really nice.

Chapter 4
Marmee (Mrs. March)

"One discovered that money couldn't keep shame and sorrow out of rich people's houses, another that, though she was poor, she was a great deal happier, with her youth, health, and good spirits, than a certain fretful, feeble old lady who couldn't enjoy her comforts, a third that, disagreeable as it was to help get dinner, it was harder still to go begging for it and the fourth, that even carnelian rings were not so valuable as good behavior." (4.61)

Everywhere we turn, the March girls are learning Deep Moral Lessons about money! You know, that money can't buy happiness, that there are much worse fates than being poor, and all that sort of thing,

"We can't give up our girls for a dozen fortunes. Rich or poor, we will keep together and be happy in one another." (4.26)

Mr. and Mrs. March are described in the novel as "unworldly" – they don't have plans or schemes for getting rich, or even for coming up in the world. They're more interested in their family than in their bank account...if they even have one.

Margaret found a place as nursery governess and felt rich with her small salary. As she said, she was 'fond of luxury,' and her chief trouble was poverty. She found it harder to bear than the others because she could remember a time when home was beautiful, life full of ease and pleasure, and want of any kind unknown. She tried not to be envious or discontented, but it was very natural that the young girl should long for pretty things, gay friends, accomplishments, and a happy life. At the Kings' she daily saw all she wanted, for the children's older sisters were just out, and Meg caught frequent glimpses of dainty ball dresses and bouquets, heard lively gossip about theaters, concerts, sleighing parties, and merrymakings of all kinds, and saw money lavished on trifles which would have been so precious to her. Poor Meg seldom complained, but a sense of injustice made her feel bitter toward everyone sometimes, for she had not yet learned to know how rich she was in the blessings which alone can make life happy. (4.24)

The reason Meg has more trouble adjusting to poverty is that she has something to contrast it with. Both her childhood memories of a time that her family had more money and her present experience as a governess remind her just how easy life can be if you've got the cash to make it that way. Her sisters don't have the same experience, but Meg knows exactly what she's missing.

Chapter 9
Meg March

"Poor girls don't stand any chance, Belle says, unless they put themselves forward," sighed Meg.

"Then we'll be old maids," said Jo stoutly.

"Right, Jo. Better be happy old maids than unhappy wives, or unmaidenly girls, running about to find husbands," said Mrs. March decidedly. "Don't be troubled, Meg, poverty seldom daunts a sincere lover. Some of the best and most honored women I know were poor girls, but so love-worthy that they were not allowed to be old maids. Leave these things to time." (9.143-145)

Mrs. March advises Meg not to scheme and self-promote in order to marry well. It's more important to Marmee that her daughter be classy and well-bred than that she find a rich husband.

Chapter 44
Amy March

"Now, Laurie, don't be too fastidious and worldly-minded. If they love one another it doesn't matter a particle how old they are nor how poor. Women never should marry for money . . ." Amy caught herself up short as the words escaped her, and looked at her husband, who replied, with malicious gravity . . .

"Certainly not, though you do hear charming girls say that they intend to do it sometimes. If my memory serves me, you once thought it your duty to make a rich match. That accounts, perhaps, for your marrying a good-for-nothing like me."

"Oh, my dearest boy, don't, don't say that! I forgot you were rich when I said 'Yes.' I'd have married you if you hadn't a penny, and I sometimes wish you were poor that I might show how much I love you." And Amy, who was very dignified in public and very fond in private, gave convincing proofs of the truth of her words. (44.20-22)

Amy says she'd have married Laurie even if he was poor, and who are we to doubt her? Still, it is just a little too convenient that she gets to marry for love and get rich at the same time. Or maybe we're just jealous!

Chapter 46
Jo March

"I'm glad you are poor. I couldn't bear a rich husband," said Jo decidedly, adding in a softer tone, "Don't fear poverty. I've known it long enough to lose my dread and be happy working for those I love. . . ." (46.97)

Poverty suits Jo better than wealth would; if she married a rich man, she might have to learn how to behave properly and go around in Society and boring stuff like that.

Chapter 47

For a year Jo and her Professor worked and waited, hoped and loved, met occasionally, and wrote such voluminous letters that the rise in the price of paper was accounted for, Laurie said. The second year began rather soberly, for their prospects did not brighten, and Aunt March died suddenly. But when their first sorrow was over – for they loved the old lady in spite of her sharp tongue – they found they had cause for rejoicing, for she had left Plumfield to Jo, which made all sorts of joyful things possible. (47.1)

In the end, for all its morality and realism, Little Women is a romantic novel with a typical romantic novel ending. Jo's poverty is alleviated by a convenient inheritance from a rich relative, and she can have all the advantages of money along with the satisfaction of holding on to her principles.