Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) Type of Work: Sentimental, life drama Setting A small New England town; mid 1800s Principal Characters Mrs. March (“Marinee”), mother of four daughters Mr. March, her husband, and army chaplain in the U.S. Civil War Meg, their 16-year-old daughter Jo, 15, wants to be an independent writer (and serves as the novel’s narrator) Beth, a frail girl of 13, the “heart” of her family Amy, 12, the beautiful pampered youngest daughter Theodore Lawrence (Laurie), the boy who moves in next door Story Overveiw The upcoming Christmas looked like it would be a bleak affair to the four March girls. With their father at the Civil War battlefront, and their saintly mother, Marmee, as they called her, working to support her family, the holiday would be void of many of its traditional pleasures. With the dollar Marmee said they might spend, the girls each settled on buying simple gifts for their mother and for the Hummel family down the road; and receiving, in kind, surprise treats of ice cream and bonbons from rich old Mr. Lawrence next door.
The girls resolved to face life as Pilgrims, to overcome their weaknesses, and be “good little women” by the time their father returned. The oldest, Meg, determined to enjoy her work more and fret less about her looks. The tomboy, Jo, pledged to better control her temper, upgrade her writing abilities and develop feminine qualities. Amy desired to be less selfish and less vain concerning her beautiful golden hair. Everyone believed Beth, the home-body, to be perfect, but she earnestly prayed to overcome her fear of people. The girls labored for the next year to acquire these qualities, with much success and occasional failure.
At year’s end, Meg confidently and excitedly attended a fashionable New Year’s dance. She talked Jo into accompanying her, but Jo didn’t care much for “girls or girlish gossip,” and felt as much out of place as a “colt in a flower garden.” Running from a prospective dance-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,” as everyone referred to him, the new next-door-neighbor boy. Awkwardly, they introduced themselves, but as they peeped through the curtain together, gossiping and chatting, they soon felt like old acquaintances.
A lifelong friendship was formed. Laurie had been orphaned as a baby and now lived with his crusty Grandfather Lawrence in his great mansion. In the March family, Laurie found a circle of sisters and a mother he never knew; and they found, in him, a brother and a son. Through that year, the girls learned to be happy in their work. Meg, by spending two weeks at the estate of a wealthy girl friend, discovered how wonderful her own home life was, even if her family was poor.
Jo detected that she was not the only one struggling with outbursts of anger. Much to her amazement, her mother also possessed a hidden temper. This knowledge helped Jo believe she could, with effort, control hers. After all, her great wish was to become a famous romance writer; reaching that goal would require discipline. Jo’s romantic novels were soon published.
Amy continued to grow more beautiful, but also came to understand the need for humility. After being embarrassingly reprimanded before the whole school, she began to understand that “conceit spoils the finest genius.” And Beth remained extremely shy, but was still the heart and joy of her family. Everyone, especially Jo, came to gentle Beth for comfort. One winter day, a telegram arrived from the 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, and financed 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 be very fond of John – and he, in turn, became very fond of Meg. Back at home, dark days were to visit the little women. Patterning herself after her mother, Beth continued to care for the large, impoverished Hummel family. One night she returned home depressed and crying. She had just held the Hummel baby in her arms as he died of Scarlet Fever. Beth also contracted the fever, becoming much more infirm than anyone expected.
It was a somber time for all, as she hovered near death. Fearing the worst, the girls finally telegraphed their mother of Beth’s deteriorating condition. But the very night Marmee returned, Beth’s crisis passed and her health improved. It was a happy family that welcomed their mother home. As the second Christmas arrived, the girls anticipated their father’s homecoming.
Their joy was complete when Laurie arrived and announced, “Here’s another Christmas present for the March family,” and in walked their father. During the jubilant family reunion, Mr. March admired his family, reflecting on how the girls had changed over the years. Meg had defeated much of her vanity, and had cultivated industry and the womanly skills to create a happy home. Jo had become a gentle young lady, who dressed properly and no longer used slang.
He noticed that Amy now 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 simply held her near, grateful she was still alive. They all agreed Mr. March’s absence had been a productive period, and that the girls were becoming little women of great talent, beauty and grace. Three years passed. Much to Jo’s initial horror, she saw the family begin to split up when Meg became Mrs. John Brooke.
Like all new wives, Meg learned the art of homemaking and how to organize and spend money frugally. Shortly, twins, Daisy and Demi, arrived. Meg discovered that John, too, could help take care of the children, as she 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 his heart, 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 on a tour of Europe.
But Laurie was not the only one voyaging to Europe; Amy was traveling there, accompanying her rich aunt. She soon learned some of life’s harsher lessons. To her initial disappointment, she first detected that she would never be a great artist. She also came to recognize that marrying 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 for the other. To the delight of all, they too were wed. But at home the family grieved a great loss.
Beth, never fully recovered from the fever, had slowly faded away, no longer to sit contentedly by the fire knitting and smiling. Jo unearthed a great emptiness in her heart and life after her sister’s death. Meg and John, and Amy and Laurie were happily married. Though Jo had resolved never to marry, still she felt an awful loneliness as she wondered what direction her life should take. While struggling with these feelings, a tutor entered her life, Professor Bhaer. He was an older, German gentleman, filled wit’n a genteel love.
People turned to him because of the compassion he so freely gave, akin to Beth’s spirit. This love healed Jo. They married and opened a “school for lads, a good, happy homelike school.” Jo looked after the boys while the professor taught them in the large, Plumfield home, willed to Jo by her aunt. As the sisters gathered together to celebrate Marmee’s birthday, they agreed that their lives were happy, rich and full. The little women had become cultured, confident young ladies. There at the table, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, along with one empty chair, symbolizing their love for Beth, sat the contented mother.
She wished that such a moment could last forever. Commentary Louisa 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 to improve her family’s situation by writing successful novels. Little Women is a cheerful, wholesome account of the daily life of a highly principled family. It is considered one of the earliest realistic novels suitable for 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 charm for grownups, who may see their own carefree childhood – the simple joys of youth and deep love of family – mirrored in its pages.