Study Guide

Little Women Themes

By Louisa May Alcott

  • Women and Femininity

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    Little Women considers the place of women in society by presenting the portraits of several very different but equally praiseworthy women. As we read the novel, we experience their different interpretations of femininity, and we see a range of different possibilities for integrating women into society. Because the novel was written in the mid-nineteenth century, historical context places limits on what women can do. However, modern readers may be pleasantly surprised by the novel's tendency to push the boundaries of women's traditional roles. This book insists that women have a great deal to contribute, certainly to the home and domestic sphere, but also to literature, art, and an ethical society.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. How would you describe this novel's vision of the place of women in society? What about in the home?
    2. What virtues does the novel depict as especially feminine? What character flaws? What's your own opinion of these stereotypes?
    3. What avenues does the novel explore for women who can't or don't want to get married? Describe the narrator's opinions about spinsters and old maids.
    4. Why does Mr. March describe his daughters as "little women" in a letter quoted at the beginning of the book? Does the meaning of this phrase change over the course of the novel?

    Chew on This

    Little Women envisions women as the stable moral center of a domestic paradise.

    Although many of the praiseworthy women in Little Women are wives and mothers, the narrator reserves a place in society for spinsters and professional or artistic women.

  • The Home

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    In Little Women, the home is more than a house where you sleep at night. The domestic sphere provides a moral center for men and women alike, and a comfortable home, full of love, is depicted as the basic unit of a stable society. As children grow up, they learn to contribute to the comfort and structure of the family home, which prepares them to develop homes of their own once they marry and "leave the nest." According to this view, joyless or unhappy homes are the root of most of the problems in the world.

    Questions About The Home

    1. What makes the March family home so attractive to Laurie? What do Marmee and her daughters have that the Laurences are lacking?
    2. What is Hannah's contribution to the March family home? Would they be able to get by without a servant?
    3. How does Beth's affinity for housework and homemaking contribute to her importance as a character?
    4. How does the home that Meg and John establish contrast with the home in which Meg grew up? Is Meg turning into Marmee, or is she a different kind of wife and mother?

    Chew on This

    In Little Women, the establishment of a comfortable, cozy domestic space by women exerts a positive moral influence on the men in their lives.

    Marmee teaches her girls to carry within them all the principles they need to create homes and homelike spaces wherever they go.

  • Principles

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    The girls in Little Women are raised to hold fast to their moral principles, listening to their own consciences before they pay attention to anything else. The principles in this novel are firmly based on Protestant Christianity, although the novel rarely makes explicit reference to the Bible or even to God. However, the novel makes an attempt to depict these principles as universal, so that disagreement with small details of doctrine doesn't get in the way of learning ethical lessons. Morality here is also connected with hard work, self-improvement, and the resourceful American spirit.

    Questions About Principles

    1. How does the novel's strong focus on morality and ethics make it different from other novels you've read?
    2. To what extent are the moral principles described in the novel based on Protestant Christianity? To what extent are they general ethical principles that apply more broadly?
    3. Do Jo and her sisters seem unrealistically good?
    4. Choose one principle that is articulated in the novel by Marmee or Father. Can you relate this principle to your own life? How so?

    Chew on This

    Although the March family is strongly Christian, most of their principles are general and have broad appeal to readers of many different backgrounds.

    Jo's struggle to behave ethically in all circumstances helps readers sympathize with her.

  • Literature and Writing

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    Little Women is a text about writing texts. The protagonist, herself an author, experiments with different genres and voices in order to find her own "truth" as a writer. Literature also provides inspiration, not only for childhood games, but also for adult lessons. Shakespeare is a particular touchstone for these characters, exemplifying both writerly talent and development of characters. The German Romantic poets and the American Transcendentalists are also sources of wisdom and interest, uniting Romantic ideas with social ideals. However, writing can also be dangerous in this novel; sensational or thrilling fiction divorces entertainment from ethics, and writing or reading texts of that kind can harm someone's character.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. What kinds of books do Jo and her sisters enjoy reading? How do they transform their reading experiences and take them off the page and into the world? (Hint: consider the Pilgrim's Progress game, the Pickwick Club, and the girls' morning Bible-reading ritual.)
    2. What types of stories, novels, and plays does Jo write? How do you think she would react to the advice commonly given to young writers to "write what you know"?
    3. Beth views her sister Jo as a fantastic writer, just as good as Shakespeare. What does Beth's hyperbolic praise really tell us about Jo? About Beth?
    4. Why do Mr. Bhaer and Mr. March disapprove of some of Jo's early attempts as a writer? What do they think she should do differently?

    Chew on This

    In order to find her own voice as a writer, Jo must write stories that are realistic, instead of sensational or moralistic.

    Jo's temptation to write sensational, thrilling stories in order to make money is one of the major moral challenges she must face.

  • Love

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    Love is everywhere in Little Women, a novel about four marriageable sisters and their various friends. Often it is romantic love, either reciprocated or unrequited. But there are many other kinds of love that sustain the characters, and it's even suggested that they could substitute for romantic love if necessary. These other forms of love include the different bonds of family, especially parent to child and sisters to each other. They also include more abstract affections, such as the love of country (patriotism) or the love of God (religion). Love is able to sweeten almost any sour situation, from poverty to loss to loneliness, and nothing can compensate for the lack of love.

    Questions About Love

    1. What are the different kinds of love that provide structure for this novel? Try to brainstorm at least 3-5 different types. How do these different forms of love complement one another?
    2. Do you find it frustrating that Jo can't make herself love Laurie? Why or why not?
    3. How does the realistic love that the March girls experience contrast with the passionate love in the romantic plays and stories that Jo writes? What do you make of this contrast?
    4. What kinds of love does the novel suggest are essential for people to have in order to lead happy, fulfilled lives? What kinds can they do without, if necessary?

    Chew on This

    Because the March girls have the strong foundation of their mother's love, they are able to make intelligent choices when faced with different prospects for romantic love.

    Little Women suggests that love between siblings, especially sisters, is more important than romantic love.

  • Marriage

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    In Little Women, marriage is depicted as a wonderful and beneficial institution, the culmination of all the different kinds of love and domestic lessons that women – and men – learn in their youth. Although the novel suggests that men and women have different and distinct roles within the marriage, it also insists that marriage must be a partnership, with both spouses working together to create a home and raise a family. The best marriages are not necessarily the most obvious ones, and sometimes youthful passions have to give way to more practical or unusual pairings.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Were you surprised that Jo got married at the end of the novel? Were you surprised by the husband she chose?
    2. What is Mr. and Mrs. March's marriage like? How does it set the tone for the other marriages that take place in the novel?
    3. Why are Meg's various marriage prospects so important to the March family in the early part of the novel? Why do her parents insist that she wait until she is twenty before getting married?
    4. Why does Amy think that she needs to marry for money? Do you sympathize with her reasons?

    Chew on This

    Although Marmee believes that marriage is wonderful and appropriate for most women, she has high standards for the kind of relationship worthy of marriage.

    In contrast to the standards of the time, the Marches believe that marriage is a relatively equal partnership between husband and wife.

  • Sacrifice

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    In Little Women, the ability to make sacrifices, both great and small, is an essential part of ethical behavior. Everyone must be able to show a certain degree of selflessness – doing without material comforts, letting go of pride, or giving up personal desires for the good of the family or community. Sacrifices might also be more extreme or serious; sisters must sacrifice their claim on their sisters, daughters must sacrifice their claim on their fathers, and lovers must sacrifice their claim on their beloveds when the situation requires. It's not surprising that sacrifice plays such an important role in a novel that, underneath it all, is structured around Christianity – a religion that centers around one great sacrifice.

    Questions About Sacrifice

    1. Little Women begins with a small but significant sacrifice – the March girls' gift of their Christmas breakfast to the Hummels. How does this act clarify the social, financial, and moral position of the March family for the reader?
    2. Name one major sacrifice that each of the March girls makes over the course of the novel. What moral lesson does each sister learn from her sacrifice?
    3. Does it ever seem like Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy are too self-sacrificing? What moments stand out in this respect?
    4. Recall the scene where Jo reveals to her family that she has sold her hair to help pay for Marmee's trip to Washington. What does this sacrifice reveal about Jo? Is it really necessary?

    Chew on This

    Each of the sisters in Little Women must learn to sacrifice some aspect of herself, such as pride or ambition, in order to contribute more to the family as a whole.

    The March family is defined by the few things they will not sacrifice: their family bond and ethical principles.

  • Poverty

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    There are many different kinds of poverty in Little Women. Most obvious is financial poverty, lacking money and material goods. Financial poverty comes in many strains, and the novel reminds us that even families that seem to have very little might be better off than those who are truly indigent. More serious than financial poverty, however, is spiritual poverty. Wealthy families and individuals sometimes lack the most important things in life – love, happiness, family togetherness, and morality. In the end, spiritual and material wealth are brought together in a variety of ways to create the happiest possible situations, but financial poverty remains bearable when necessary.

    Questions About Poverty

    1. Just how poor is the March family? What kinds of things do they have to go without that you consider important? What do they have that makes them, in a sense, wealthy?
    2. Compare and contrast the Marches with the Hummels. How does each family experience poverty differently? Which family is truly needy?
    3. Compare and contrast the Marches with the Laurences. Is there a way in which the Marches are actually richer than their wealthy neighbors?
    4. How do poverty, hard work, and morality seem to go together in this novel? Would it be more difficult for the Marches to hold on to their principles if they had more money? How does Meg's experience at the Moffats' house illustrate this point?

    Chew on This

    Genteel poverty, relieved occasionally by the charity of wealthy relatives and friends, provides an opportunity for the March girls to demonstrate their virtuous ability to work hard.

    The March family is only poor when compared to their wealthy, aristocratic friends; the scenes with the starving, suffering Hummel family show how snug and comfortable the Marches really are.

  • Ambition

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    Most of the characters in Little Women are ambitious – either they want to get rich, or they want to be famous, or they just want to see the world and have a good time. As they mature, each must learn to subordinate ambition to duty, or to shift his or her ambitions in different directions. Instead of seeking fulfillment outside the home, characters must redirect their ambitions into the domestic sphere. Characters with artistic talent must learn to distinguish between wanting to do brilliant work and actually being geniuses, and sometimes ambition has to give way to love and realism.

    Questions About Ambition

    1. How do you feel about Jo's decision to sacrifice her larger ambitions as a writer and thinker in order to create a "homelike" boarding school? Does this ending successfully unite her public ambitions with her domestic duties? Why or why not?
    2. In Chapter 13: Castles in the Air, Laurie notes that he and all four of the March sisters (with the possible exception of Beth) are extremely ambitious for the future. Are any of their ambitions realized? If so, how? If not, do they have regrets?
    3. Explain the distinction that Amy makes between "talent" and "genius." Do you agree with her that it isn't worthwhile to pursue artistic expression if you don't have "genius"? What might you gain from creating art even if you're not a genius? How does creating art – whether writing like Jo, drawing and painting like Amy, or composing music like Laurie – benefit the artist just as much as the audience?

    Chew on This

    Little Women suggests that there is a definite distinction between artists and audiences; no amount of ambition or hard work can make up for the lack of genius.

    Although Amy decides to give up painting and Laurie to give up music because they feel they do not have "genius," Jo's decision to continue writing in the face of criticism and mixed reviews suggests that she gains something important but intangible, even when her art is imperfect.