Little Womenby Louisa May Alcott(1832-1888)Type of Work:Sentimental, life dramaSettingA small New England town; mid 1800sPrincipal CharactersMrs.
March (“Marinee”), mother of fourdaughtersMr. March, her husband, and army chaplainin the U. S. Civil WarMeg, their 16-year-old daughterJo, 15, wants to be an independent writer(and serves as the novel’s narrator)Beth, a frail girl of 13, the “heart”of her familyAmy, 12, the beautiful pampered youngestdaughterTheodore Lawrence (Laurie), the boy whomoves in next doorStory OverveiwThe upcoming Christmas looked like itwould be a bleak affair to the four March girls. With their father at theCivil War battlefront, and their saintly mother, Marmee, as they calledher, working to support her family, the holiday would be void of many ofits traditional pleasures. With the dollar Marmee said they might spend,the girls each settled on buying simple gifts for their mother and forthe Hummel family down the road; and receiving, in kind, surprise treatsof ice cream and bonbons from rich old Mr.Order now
Lawrence next door. The girls resolved to face life as Pilgrims,to overcome their weaknesses, and be “good little women” by the time theirfather returned. The oldest, Meg, determined to enjoy her work more andfret less about her looks. The tomboy, Jo, pledged to better control hertemper, upgrade her writing abilities and develop feminine qualities.
Amydesired to be less selfish and less vain concerning her beautiful goldenhair. Everyone believed Beth, the home-body, to be perfect, but she earnestlyprayed to overcome her fear of people. The girls labored for the next yearto acquire these qualities, with much success and occasional failure. At year’s end, Meg confidently and excitedlyattended a fashionable New Year’s dance. She talked Jo into accompanyingher, but Jo didn’t care much for “girls or girlish gossip,” and felt asmuch out of place as a “colt in a flower garden.
” Running from a prospectivedance-mate, Jo hid behind a curtain. But she wasn’t the only bashful one. To her surprise, there she met little Theodore Lawrence, or “Laurie,” aseveryone referred to him, the new next-door-neighbor boy. Awkwardly, theyintroduced themselves, but as they peeped through the curtain together,gossiping and chatting, they soon felt like old acquaintances. A lifelongfriendship was formed.
Laurie had been orphaned as a baby and now livedwith his crusty Grandfather Lawrence in his great mansion. In the Marchfamily, Laurie found a circle of sisters and a mother he never knew; andthey found, in him, a brother and a son. Through that year, the girls learned tobe happy in their work. Meg, by spending two weeks at the estate of a wealthygirl friend, discovered how wonderful her own home life was, even if herfamily was poor. Jo detected that she was not the only one struggling withoutbursts of anger. Much to her amazement, her mother also possessed ahidden temper.
This knowledge helped Jo believe she could, with effort,control hers. After all, her great wish was to become a famous romancewriter; reaching that goal would require discipline. Jo’s romantic novelswere soon published. Amy continued to grow more beautiful, but also cameto understand the need for humility. After being embarrassingly reprimandedbefore the whole school, she began to understand that “conceit spoils thefinest genius.
” And Beth remained extremely shy, but was still the heartand joy of her family. Everyone, especially Jo, came to gentle Beth forcomfort. One winter day, a telegram arrived fromthe war department: Mr. March was critically ill.
Heartsick by this news,Marmee felt she needed to be with her husband. With no money to spare,Joe offered to sell her only vanity – her long, flowing chestnut hair. The sacrifice, though tearfully made, brought twenty-five dollars, andfinanced the trip. Mr.
Lawrence sent along John Brooke, Laurie’s tutor,to assist Mrs. March in her journey. Both Mr. and Mrs. March grew to bevery fond of John – and he, in turn, became very fond of Meg. Back at home, dark days were to visit thelittle women.
Patterning herself after her mother, Beth continued to carefor the large, impoverished Hummel family. One night she returned homedepressed and crying. She had just held the Hummel baby in her arms ashe died of Scarlet Fever. Beth also contracted the fever, becoming muchmore infirm than anyone expected. It was a somber time for all, as shehovered near death.
Fearing the worst, the girls finally telegraphed theirmother of Beth’s deteriorating condition. But the very night Marmee returned,Beth’s crisis passed and her health improved. It was a happy family thatwelcomed their mother home. As the second Christmas arrived, the girlsanticipated their father’s homecoming.
Their joy was complete when Lauriearrived and announced, “Here’s another Christmas present for the Marchfamily,” and in walked their father. During the jubilant family reunion,Mr. March admired his family, reflecting on how the girls had changed overthe years. Meg had defeated much of her vanity, and had cultivated industryand the womanly skills to create a happy home. Jo had become a gentle younglady, who dressed properly and no longer used slang. He noticed that Amynow took the poorer cut of meat, waited on everyone with patience and humor,and seldom gazed at herself in the mirror.
As for Beth, her father simplyheld her near, grateful she was still alive. They all agreed Mr. March’sabsence had been a productive period, and that the girls were becominglittle women of great talent, beauty and grace. Three years passed. Much to Jo’s initialhorror, she saw the family begin to split up when Meg became Mrs.
JohnBrooke. Like all new wives, Meg learned the art of homemaking and how toorganize and spend money frugally. Shortly, twins, Daisy and Demi, arrived. Meg discovered that John, too, could help take care of the children, asshe began to include him even more in her life.
Jo also had matured, and her friend, Laurie,fell more deeply in love with her. Despite all her efforts to change hisheart, Laurie proposed marriage. Jo, devoted to her writing and publishing,was dismayed because she could never love Laurie more than as a brother,and refused his proposal. Brokenhearted, Laurie left with his uncle ona tour of Europe.
But Laurie was not the only one voyaging to Europe; Amywas traveling there, accompanying her rich aunt. She soon learned someof life’s harsher lessons. To her initial disappointment, she first detectedthat she would never be a great artist. She also came to recognize thatmarrying for money rather than love would not lead to happiness.
Inevitably,Amy’s and Laurie’s paths crossed and they each gradually grew in love forthe other. To the delight of all, they too were wed. But at home the family grieved a greatloss. Beth, never fully recovered from the fever, had slowly faded away,no longer to sit contentedly by the fire knitting and smiling.
Jo uneartheda great emptiness in her heart and life after her sister’s death. Meg andJohn, and Amy and Laurie were happily married. Though Jo had resolved neverto marry, still she felt an awful loneliness as she wondered what directionher life should take. While struggling with these feelings, a tutor enteredher life, Professor Bhaer.
He was an older, German gentleman, filled wit’na genteel love. People turned to him because of the compassion he so freelygave, akin to Beth’s spirit. This love healed Jo. They married and openeda “school for lads, a good, happy homelike school.
” Jo looked after theboys while the professor taught them in the large, Plumfield home, willedto Jo by her aunt. As the sisters gathered together to celebrateMarmee’s birthday, they agreed that their lives were happy, rich and full. The little women had become cultured, confident young ladies. There atthe table, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, along with oneempty chair, symbolizing their love for Beth, sat the contented mother. She wished that such a moment could last forever.
CommentaryLouisa May Alcott’s most famous novel,Little Women is based on her own family life in Concord, Massachusetts. Like Jo, the book’s heroine, Louisa hungered to gain independence and toimprove her family’s situation by writing successful novels. Little Womenis a cheerful, wholesome account of the daily life of a highly principledfamily. It is considered one of the earliest realistic novels suitablefor older children; and, as a children’s story, the language is often stilted.
Alcott also tends to moralize. But the book also holds a personal charmfor grownups, who may see their own carefree childhood – the simple joysof youth and deep love of family – mirrored in its pages.