by Louisa May Alcott
Type of Work:
Sentimental, life drama
A small New England town; mid 1800s
Mrs. March (“Marinee”), mother of four
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
Theodore Lawrence (Laurie), the boy who
moves in next door
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
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.
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.