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Little Women

Published 1868-1869
Louisa May Alcott was born on November 29, 1832, in Germantown, Pennsylvania, where her father,
Bronson Alcott—a transcendentalist philosopher and an educator—directed a school for small children.
Bronson later founded the Temple School in Boston, but public opposition to his radical methods and a
declining enrollment forced him to close the school and incur a large debt. Suffering financially, the Alcotts
eventually moved to Concord, Massachusetts, where Bronson tried to support the family by farming a small
piece of land. This endeavor, too, failed. When Bronson became ill and suffered a nervous breakdown,
Alcott assumed various domestic jobs, took in sewing, and ran a small school to provide financial support
for her mother, Abigail, and the rest of the family. An advocate of women's rights, Alcott remained
unmarried in an age when marriage and motherhood were considered the central events of a woman's life,
and achieved such a degree of literary success that she was able to pay off the family's huge debt with
royalties from her writing.
Her first book, Flower Fables, was a collection of fairy tales that Alcott originally narrated for a young
neighbor: Ralph Waldo Emerson's daughter, Ellen. Into these stories of fairies, elves, and small animals,
Alcott wove observations about patience, duty, honor, and the power of love—themes that would recur in
her subsequent writings. During the 1860s Louisa wrote both sentimental stories and lurid, sensational
thrillers, the latter genre proving particularly successful.
In 1867 Thomas Niles, an editor at the Roberts Brothers publishing house, suggested that Alcott write a
novel for girls. With her father's encouragement, she began to write Little Women the following year. Part I
of the novel, first published on October 1, 1868, portrays a year in the life of the March family but is
essentially the story of Alcott's own family and its domestic adventures. Meg in the novel is Louisa's older
sister Anna; Jo is Louisa herself; Beth and Amy are her younger sisters Elizabeth and May; Marmee is
Louisa's mother, Abigail May; and Mr. March is Louisa's father, Bronson. She also memorializes her friend
Ralph Waldo Emerson as the kind and beneficent Mr. Laurence.
The book was so popular that readers demanded more. Alcott began writing Part II of Little Women at the
beginning of November, delivered the completed manuscript to her publishers on January 1, 1869, and saw
it published on April 14, 1869. Entirely fictional, Part II relates the girls' experiences as they attend college,
go abroad, and—with the exception of Beth, who dies—get married. Later published together in one
volume, the two parts are read today as one continuous novel.
Alcott published several collections of short stories and two sequels to Little Women during the 1870s and
1880s. When she died in Boston on March 6, 1888, two days after her father's death, she left behind a rich
legacy for generations of readers to enjoy.
Little Women is a well-told story that features suspense, humor, and engaging characters, as well as
lessons about the importance of honesty, hard work, true love, and family unity. Brilliant in its portrayal of
nineteenth-century American family life, the novel depicts a secure, placid world in which the home serves
as the center for children's religious and moral education.
In Alcott's novel, the family—as the most important of social units—gives its members strength to
overcome life's obstacles and teaches them the value of selflessness. Mrs. March, in particular, exemplifies
the courage and perseverance necessary to hold the family together through war and death. Although the
novel ends happily, it in many ways marks a departure from simplistic, romantic nineteenth-century fiction
for young adults. Alcott's characters change in response to serious life-events; their positive but realistic
attitudes inspire readers to identify their own strengths in the face of pain and adversity.
Little Women is set in the 1860s in a New England town modeled on Concord, Massachusetts. Most of the
action in Part I revolves around the March family home. With Father away, serving as a clergyman for
soldiers fighting in the Civil War, the four daughters and their mother remain at home, struggling to live as
comfortably as possible under the circumstances. Because Father lost most of his income helping an
'unfortunate friend,' the March girls—none of whom had expected to pursue careers—work feverishly to
support the family and, in the process, confront conflicts between domestic duties and independence. The
setting broadens in Part II as Alcott describes the girls' travels away from home and their eventual
Like John Bunyan's allegorical work Pilgrim's Progress, in which Christian faces many obstacles in his
journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, Alcott's novel chronicles the four March girls'
efforts to overcome individual character flaws and thereby become 'little women.' Sixteen-year-old Meg,
who cares too much about her appearance and too little about work, must learn to devote more time to her
family and less time to dreaming of a life of glamour and luxury. Fifteen-year-old Jo's burden is her violent
temper. An adventurous, rebellious, spirited girl who writes plays, poems, and short stories, she must
reconcile herself to being a girl of poise, grace, and patience. Thirteen-year-old Beth, an excellent pianist,
must overcome her shyness. Ten-year-old Amy, artistically talented but impractical, must overcome her
thoughtlessness and learn to help others.
At the end of Part I, Father returns home on Christmas Day and evaluates his daughters' year-long
struggles to emulate Christian in Pilgrim's Progress. He is pleased with what he sees. Meg is less vain. Jo is
less boyish, more ladylike and quiet. Beth has recovered from scarlet fever and is gradually conquering her
shyness. And Amy is less selfish, less concerned with her appearance.
Mr. March is away from home during the first half of the novel, and even after his return, he remains in the
background of the narrative. His presence is felt rather than seen. In his absence, Marmee runs the March
household and guides the girls when they are confused or troubled. She is selfless, devoted to her family,
and always available when needed. Like Jo, she has a temper, but she keeps it under control.
Next door to the Marches live wealthy Mr. Laurence and his grandson Theodore, called 'Laurie,' both of
whom contribute much excitement and adventure to the lives of the March girls. In his generosity, Mr.
Laurence throws a Christmas party for the girls, gives Beth a piano, and offers Jo access to his vast library.
His grandson is as wild and adventurous as Jo but is also studious and a lover of music. In Part II, Laurie
proposes marriage to Jo, is refused, and later marries Amy.
While emphasizing young people's right to independence, the novel also celebrates the importance of
family unity. Beth expresses this theme when she describes her greatest desire: ' stay home safe with
Father and Mother, and help take care of the family. ... I only wish we may all keep well and be together,
nothing else.' Disaster usually takes the form of a threat to the family circle; Alcott addresses large-scale
problems such as the Civil War by examining the effect of Father's absence on the March family.
Death is an omnipresent threat, with several instances of near-disaster foreshadowing Beth's ultimate
demise in Part II. Early in the novel, when Amy burns the book of fairy stories on which Jo has been working
for several years, Jo almost drowns her youngest sister. Father is hospitalized with pneumonia while away
on service, and Marmee is sent for to care for her husband. While the shadow of death hovers over the
home, Jo says, 'I feel as if there had been an earthquake,' and Meg comments that 'it seems as if half the
house was gone.' Father recovers, but all the characters must confront the tragedy of Beth's death.
Through these potentially devastating trials, the family pulls together and grows even stronger.
Alcott develops three major themes in the novel: ambition, domesticity, and true love. 'Girls write to ask
who the little women marry,' Alcott wrote in her journal following publication of the novel's first part, 'as if
that was the only end and aim of a woman's life. I won't marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.' Having
created Jo in her own image, Alcott was strongly tempted to end Part II of the novel with Jo a spinster. Torn
between independence and family life, ambition and self-sacrifice, Jo harbors an ambivalent attitude
toward marriage. On the one hand, she thinks it would be difficult to 'give up her own hopes, plans and
desires, and cheerfully live for others.' But she also comes to realize that 'the life I wanted then seems
selfish, lonely and cold.' After rejecting Laurie's proposal of marriage, Jo compromises and marries the
'learned and good' Professor Fritz Bhaer, a big, middle-aged German. Fritz's love for Jo enables him to
surmount the potential barriers posed by his poverty, age, and foreign heritage; he is a warm and
supportive husband who encourages Jo to learn to write good fiction. Eventually Jo raises two children of
her own and helps her husband in the operation of Plumfield, a school for boys.
Married life for John and Meg Brooke, meanwhile, is quite different from the life Meg knew at home.
Dependent upon her husband's income for all of her expenses, both household and personal, Meg
sometimes behaves like an impulsive child. John does not share in the domestic chores, except for
disciplining their son. Meg's challenge is to overcome her docility—the trait that has allowed her to become
dependent and even somewhat dowdy, living in a little cottage with her two children, isolated from the rest
of the world. After Marmee reminds Meg that a strong marriage is built upon mutual interests and
responsibilities, Meg begins to pay more attention to her clothing, tries to keep up on current affairs, and
works toward establishing an egalitarian marriage.
Amy continues to struggle against her burden of frivolity. She and Laurie spend time together in Europe;
both are fashionable, talented, and inclined to indolence and coquetry. Amy paints and Laurie plays the
piano. When they return from Europe, they announce their romance.

From Little Women

By Louisa May Alcott

Why everybody liked him was what puzzled Jo, at first. He was neither rich nor great, young nor handsome,
—in no respect what is called fascinating, imposing, or brilliant; and yet he was as attractive as a genial
fire, and people seemed to gather about him as naturally as about a warm hearth. He was poor, yet always
appeared to be giving something away,—a stranger, yet every one was his friend; no longer young,—but as
happy-hearted as a boy; plain and odd,—yet his face looked beautiful to many, and his oddities were freely
forgiven for his sake. Jo often watched him, trying to discover the charm, and, at last, decided that it was
benevolence which worked the miracle. If he had any sorrow “it sat with its head under its wing,” and he
turned only his sunny side to the world. There were lines upon his forehead, but Time seemed to have
touched him gently, remembering how kind he was to others. The pleasant curves about his mouth were
the memorials of many friendly words and cheery laughs; his eyes were never cold or hard, and his big
hand had a warm, strong grasp that was more expressive than words.
His very clothes seemed to partake of the hospitable nature of the wearer. They looked as if they were at
ease, and liked to make him comfortable; his capacious waistcoat was suggestive of a large heart
underneath; his rusty coat had a social air, and the baggy pockets plainly proved that little hands often
went in empty and came out full; his very boots were benevolent, and his collars never stiff and raspy like
other people's.
“That's it!” said Jo to herself, when she at length discovered that genuine good-will toward one's fellow-
men could beautify and dignify even a stout German teacher, who shovelled in his dinner, darned his own
socks, and was burdened with the name of Bhaer.
Jo valued goodness highly, but she also possessed a most feminine respect for intellect, and a little
discovery which she made about the Professor added much to her regard for him. He never spoke of
himself, and no one ever knew that in his native city he had been a man much honored and esteemed for
learning and integrity, till a countryman came to see him, and, in a conversation with Miss Norton, divulged
the pleasing fact. From her Jo learned it,—and liked it all the better because Mr. Bhaer had never told it.
She felt proud to know that he was an honored Professor in Berlin, though only a poor language-master in
America, and his homely, hard-working life, was much beautified by the spice of romance which this
discovery gave it.
Another and a better gift than intellect was shown her in a most unexpected manner. Miss Norton had the
entrée into literary society, which Jo would have had no chance of seeing but for her. The solitary woman
felt an interest in the ambitious girl, and kindly conferred many favors of this sort both on Jo and the
Professor. She took them with her, one night, to a select symposium, held in honor of several celebrities.
Jo went prepared to bow down and adore the mighty ones whom she had worshipped with youthful
enthusiasm afar off. But her reverence for genius received a severe shock that night, and it took her some
time to recover from the discovery that the great creatures were only men and women, after all. Imagine
her dismay, on stealing a glance of timid admiration at the poet whose lines suggested an ethereal being
fed on 'spirit, fire, and dew,' to behold him devouring his supper with an ardor which flushed his intellectual
countenance. Turning as from a fallen idol, she made other discoveries which rapidly dispelled her romantic
illusions. The great novelist vibrated between two decanters with the regularity of a pendulum; the famous
divine flirted openly with one of the Madame de Staël’s of the age, who looked daggers at another Corinne,
who was amiably satirizing her, after out-manœuvreing her in efforts to absorb the profound philosopher,
who imbibed tea Johnsonianly and appeared to slumber,—the loquacity of the lady rendering speech
impossible. The scientific celebrities, forgetting their mollusks and Glacial Periods, gossipped about art,
while devoting themselves to oysters and ices with characteristic energy; the young musician, who was
charming the city like a second Orpheus, talked horses; and the specimen of the British nobility present
happened to be the most ordinary man of the party.
Before the evening was half over, Jo felt so completely désillusionnée, that she sat down in a corner, to
recover herself. Mr. Bhaer soon joined her, looking rather out of his element, and presently several of the
philosophers, each mounted on his hobby, came ambling up to hold an intellectual tournament in the
recess. The conversation was 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. Jo knew nothing about philosophy or metaphysics of any sort, but a curious
excitement, half pleasurable, half painful, came over her, as she listened with a sense of being turned
adrift into time and space, like a young balloon out on a holiday.
She looked round to see how the Professor liked it, and found him looking at her with the grimmest
expression she had ever seen him wear. He shook his head, and beckoned her to come away, but she was
fascinated, just then, by the freedom of Speculative Philosophy, and kept her seat, trying to find out what
the wise gentlemen intended to rely upon after they annihilated all the old beliefs.
Now Mr. Bhaer was a diffident man, and slow to offer his own opinions, not because they were unsettled,
but too sincere and earnest to be lightly spoken. As he glanced from Jo to several other young people
attracted by the brilliancy of the philosophic pyrotechnics, he knit his brows, and longed to speak, fearing
that some inflammable young soul would be led astray by the rockets, to find, when the display was over,
that they had only an empty stick, or a scorched hand.
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, out-talked, but not one whit convinced, Jo wanted to clap her
hands and thank him.
She did neither; but she remembered this scene, and gave the Professor her heartiest respect, for she
knew it cost him an effort to speak out then and there, because his conscience would not let him be silent.
She began to see that character is a better possession than money, rank, intellect, or beauty; and to feel
that if greatness is what a wise man has defined it to be,—“truth, reverence, and good-will,”—then her
friend Friedrich Bhaer was not only good, but great.
Source: Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Penguin Books.

In writing Little Women, Alcott broke much new ground while adhering, structurally, to many conventions
of mid-nineteenth-century young adult literature. The novel is an unusual example of young adult literature
of the time because Alcott endows her characters with both faults and virtues; avoids preaching to the
reader; writes in a simple but accurate style; employs simple and often humorous dialogue; and
demonstrates great skill as a local colorist. Little Women is typical of young adult books of the time in that
it is episodic in structure, with chapters often devoted to individual sisters. Each sister's quest to overcome
her 'burden' in life, to become a 'little woman,' and to find true love serves as the unifying theme of the
Alcott's application of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress reflects both the traditional and the innovative
strains in her work. By structuring the moral development of her characters around the story of the pilgrim
who travels from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City—facing internal and external demons en route
to his destination—Alcott combines allegorical tradition with nineteenth-century literary techniques. Alcott
fleshes out Bunyan's one-dimensional Christian in the forms of her protagonists. Her characterization of Jo
in particular offers a portrait of a complex young woman who struggles to reconcile the goals of her own
'pilgrim's progress' with the expectations of her society.
In her preface to Little Women, Alcott restates a portion of Bunyan's allegorical work; the novel's first
chapter also makes explicit reference to Bunyan's text, as Mrs. March reminds her daughters of their
childhood game of 'Pilgrim's Progress.' Mrs. March later urges the girls to take up the game again, 'not in
play, but in earnest.' Alcott suggests that the quest for a morally fulfilling life can be achieved through a
conscious effort to overcome individual faults. 'We never are too old for this, my dear,' she says, '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.' Just as Mrs. March presents each of her daughters with an
individual copy of Pilgrim's Progress, so too does Alcott intend her novel to be a handbook for her young
readers. The last chapter of Little Women shows the sisters gathered at Jo's school to assess their progress
as pilgrims; by concluding the book with this scene, Alcott lends structural unity to her novel.
Although Alcott herself was politically active and cared deeply about the social and ethical issues of her
time, she preferred to keep Little Women on a happy, domestic level. She includes only the subtlest of
references to women's suffrage, abolition of slavery, the temperance movement, educational reform, and
social welfare programs. There is relatively little violence in the novel and there are no 'evil' characters.
Compared with modern young adult literature, Little Women portrays a safe world, seemingly free of sexual
relations, drug abuse, or divorce. Alcott emphasizes good behavior and honest hard work as solutions to
personal and societal problems. Modern critics, however, have questioned traditional interpretations of
Little Women, noting Alcott's anger at the subjugation of women to domestic roles. Jo, Alcott's strongest
character, forges through life determined to be independent, and in Alcott's later novels, Jo counsels young
women to seek careers rather than matrimony.

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