Study Guide

Little Women Principles

By Louisa May Alcott


Chapter 1
Father (Mr. March)

"A year seems very long to wait before I see them, but remind them that while we wait we may all work, so that these hard days need not be wasted. I know they will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women." (1.75)

Mr. March's letter home describes the principles that will structure most of Alcott's novel: hard work, filial loyalty, and selflessness.

Marmee (Mrs. March)

"We are never too old for this, my dear, because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another. Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City. Now, my little pilgrims, suppose you begin again, not in play, but in earnest, and see how far you can get before Father comes home." (1.85)

Mrs. March – and Louisa May Alcott – use the structure of John Bunyan's allegory The Pilgrim's Progress to describe the spiritual journeys of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. For the March family, pilgrimage isn't just an allegory; it's real life that is just a stand-in for their gradual journey toward God.

Chapter 2

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 the long journey. (2.1)

The "little crimson-covered book" is the Bible, which is going to be Jo's refuge and solace in times of trouble. It's interesting that Alcott shows us scenes in which the members of the March family read the Bible and think about religion, but we rarely hear them talk about it, and the Bible is almost never quoted directly in the novel.

Chapter 4
Jo March

"Tell another story, Mother, one with a moral to it, like this. I like to think about them afterward, if they are real and not too preachy," said Jo, after a minute's silence. (4.58)

The kind of story Jo likes to hear is also the kind that Alcott is trying to write – something that has a moral center, but is also realistic and down-to-earth.

Chapter 19

The little girl was very sincere in all this, for being left alone outside the safe home nest, she felt the need of some kind hand to hold by so sorely that she instinctively turned to the strong and tender Friend, whose fatherly love most closely surrounds His little children. She missed her mother's help to understand and rule herself, but having been taught where to look, she did her best to find the way and walk in it confidingly. But, Amy was a young pilgrim, and just now her burden seemed very heavy. She tried to forget herself, to keep cheerful, and be satisfied with doing right, though no one saw or praised her for it. (19.21)

The safe, comforting quality that Amy associates with home and her mother is something that she is able to re-create for herself with the religious principles she's been taught.

Chapter 22
Father (Mr. March)

"In spite of the curly crop, I don't see the 'son Jo' whom I left a year ago," said Mr. March. "I see a young lady who pins her collar straight, laces her boots neatly, and neither whistles, talks slang, nor lies on the rug as she used to do. Her face is rather thin and pale just now, with watching and anxiety, but I like to look at it, for it has grown gentler, and her voice is lower. She doesn't bounce, but moves quietly, and takes care of a certain little person in a motherly way which delights me. I rather miss my wild girl, but if I get a strong, helpful, tenderhearted woman in her place, I shall feel quite satisfied." (22.29)

The March family's values require Jo to subordinate her tomboyish qualities and become both stronger and more feminine than she was inclined to be as a child.

Chapter 34
Jo March

"I think I haven't done much harm yet, and may keep this to pay for my time," she said, after a long meditation, adding impatiently, "I almost wish I hadn't any conscience, it's so inconvenient. If I didn't care about doing right, and didn't feel uncomfortable when doing wrong, I should get on capitally. I can't help wishing sometimes, that Mother and Father hadn't been so particular about such things."

Ah, Jo, instead of wishing that, thank God that "Father and Mother were particular," and pity from your heart those who have no such guardians to hedge them round with principles which may seem like prison walls to impatient youth, but which will prove sure foundations to build character upon in womanhood. (34.69-70)

Jo confronts the problem that is at the center of the March family's poverty – an unwillingness to compromise strict and idealistic ethical principles in order to make money and get on in the world. Alcott suggests that holding to your ethics is ultimately more important than being prosperous or successful, but she's realistic about the fact that it might be uncomfortable sometimes.

He bore it as long as he could, but when he was appealed to for an opinion, he blazed up with honest indignation and defended religion with all the eloquence of truth – an eloquence which made his broken English musical and his plain face beautiful. He had a hard fight, for the wise men argued well, but he didn't know when he was beaten and stood to his colors like a man. Somehow, as he talked, the world got right again to Jo. The old beliefs, that had lasted so long, seemed better than the new. God was not a blind force, and immortality was not a pretty fable, but a blessed fact. She felt as if she had solid ground under her feet again, and when Mr. Bhaer paused, outtalked but not one whit convinced, Jo wanted to clap her hands and thank him. (34.46)

It's interesting that Jo's first real attraction to Professor Bhaer begins when he defends religion – especially the existence of God and the nature of the afterlife. It's also interesting that Alcott allows Mr. Bhaer to be "beaten" during the discussion – he is "outtalked" by the intellectuals around him, but, she suggests, he still isn't wrong. After all, not everything that sounds convincing is true.

The conversations were miles beyond Jo's comprehension, but she enjoyed it, though Kant and Hegel were unknown gods, the Subjective and Objective unintelligible terms, and the only thing "evolved from her inner consciousness" was a bad headache after it was all over. It dawned upon her gradually that the world was being picked to pieces, and put together on new and, according to the talkers, on infinitely better principles than before, that religion was in a fair way to be reasoned into nothingness, and intellect was to be the only God. (34.43)

Both Louisa May Alcott and her heroine Jo are skeptical of the progressive ideas circulating in nineteenth-century intellectual circles. The extremes of German philosophy and its tendency to atheism are fascinating, but, according to Alcott, ultimately wrong because they reject traditional Christianity.

Chapter 42

Now, if she had been the heroine of a moral storybook, she ought at this period of her life to have become quite saintly, renounced the world, and gone about doing good in a mortified bonnet, with tracts in her pocket. But, you see, Jo wasn't a heroine, she was only a struggling human girl like hundreds of others, and she just acted out her nature, being sad, cross, listless, or energetic, as the mood suggested. It's highly virtuous to say we'll be good, but we can't do it all at once, and it takes a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull all together before some of us even get our feet set in the right way. Jo had got so far, she was learning to do her duty, and to feel unhappy if she did not, but to do it cheerfully, ah, that was another thing! (42.14)

One of the things that makes Jo such an attractive heroine for readers of every generation is that she's far from perfect. First she has to learn what's right and wrong, then she has to gear herself up to do the right thing, but even then she's not necessarily happy about it.