Introduction to Little Women
A coming of the age novel, Little Women, was written by Louisa May Alcott, a popular American writer. The book was originally requested by the publisher after which Alcott wrote it in two volumes. The novel was published in the United States in 1869 after which the second volume appeared shortly next year. The story comprises the lives of four sisters and their growth into adulthood. It is argued that the story has some autobiographical elements from the life of the author, as she had three sisters too. The book has been translated into numerous languages, and frequently adapted for stage and screen.
Summary of Little Women
Referring to The Pilgrim’s Progress in the preface of her novel, the author starts her story of the four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy engaged in discussing the situation of their poverty and the arrival of Christmas. It is an allegorical novel that focuses on leading a Christian life. The four sisters decide that they will buy Christmas gifts for themselves to enjoy it but later they change their decision and decide that their mother, Marmee, needs a good gift instead of them. Meanwhile, Marmee comes with a letter in her hand from their father, who is serving as a Union chaplain in the Civil War, advising them not to complain regarding their poverty. When Christmas arrives, the girls find The Pilgrim’s Progress on their bed in the morning.
Meanwhile, their mother asks them to distribute their breakfast to the poor family of the Hummels after which they are brooding over their good action when Mr. Laurence, the neighbor, arrives with a good feast for the girls. Sally Gardiner, the friend of Meg, too, arrives with an invitation to enjoy the New Year’s party at her house. When Jo and Meg, both, attend the party, At the party, Jo retreats to an alcove and meets Laurie, a boy who lives with Mr. Laurence while Meg enjoys dancing. Later, Meg causes injury to her ankle and Laurie comes to escort both of them home. The holiday enjoyments last for a few days after which the girls have to revert to their daily academic routine.
After a few days, the girls come to know about Laurie being ill. Jo visits Mr. Laurence, his grandfather, to ask about his grandson’s health. She also passes insulting comments on his painting but the old man admired her spunk. He then befriends the girl, and when all the girls go to meet him one day, he makes Beth his chum and donates his granddaughter’s piano to her. Life is going on as usual when one day Amy is caught in school for playing hooky, inviting the teacher’s fury. Fed up of these mischievous acts, Mrs. March then withdraws her from school. When Jo visits the theatre, she does not allow Amy to accompany her. Amy then burns Jo’s manuscript and Jo in return nearly allows Amy to drown during ice-skating. On the other hand, Meg also enjoys parties with Annie Moffat, her friend, and learns how appearances and beauty are not everything. She also hears rumors about her wanting to marry Laurie for his money.
Soon the family starts a newspaper, The Pickwick Club, that becomes a popular paper in the area. Jo also brings Laurie secretly to the meetings after which he starts a postbox activity for the paper. Although the family often neglects work and even the mother takes a day off, the whole family enjoys it. They also enjoy a picnic when Laurie brings his English friends over there. Later, Jo succeeds in publishing her story in the paper for the first time that the whole family enjoys. After some time, the family receives a telegram about Mr. March falling ill and is admitted in the hospital in Washington, D.C. Marmee is going to him and Jo is selling her hair to help finance her trip. However, the girls soon find themselves in hot waters for neglecting everything at home, while Beth, too, catches scarlet fever on account of her visits to Hummels. Marmee has to make a run to the home to save her from dying until Meg falls in love with Laurie’s teacher, Mr. Brooke, and they finally get engaged.
Three years after that, Mr. March returns from the war. Meg marries and leaves with Mr. Brook while Laurie is also free from schooling. Jo publishes her first novel after meeting the publishers’ demands, while Meg starts her own home, giving birth to twins. Meanwhile, Amy leaves for Paris after which Jo leaves for New York to leave Laurie and Beth to engage with each other. However, she herself meets her German professor, Bhaer, to have his advice on her writing and after some time returns to find Beth dead. Laurie, after this, leaves for France and meets Amy where they marry, while Jo marries Bhaer, her German professor. Jo opens a school on the Plumfield and the novel ends on the sister reunion, thanking each other.
Major Themes in Little Women
- Feminism: The book shows a female perspective through the lives of four girls and their families. Four March’s daughters grow up living together with their chaplain father, Mr. March, and homemaker mother, Marmee. They teach them how to live in the best possible way. Although they leave schooling, their upbringing, enjoyment of festivities, and matchmaking continue until all of them settle and gather together to recall their childhood memories. The novel shows how personal responsibilities are ignored in the larger interests of the family when Joe abandons her career and Amy follows suit. The life of Meg and Beth as they care for each other. Their father, Mr. March, too, points to this domination of feminism in the novel.
- Anti-Stereotyping: The novel shows the theme of anti-stereotyping by presenting girls taking up unconventional roles in the family. First, the family, having four girls, could hardly afford their education as it happened during those times. For example, Jo wants to work to earn for the family, a patriarchal responsibility that is unconventional during those times. Similarly, when Laurie goes to learn music, that too is unconventional and doesn’t suit him when it is considered a purely feminine pursuit. Therefore, the novel shows the major characters breaking stereotyping.
- Necessity of Work: Although femininity and domesticity were intertwined at that time, the novel shows that even women can choose professions and work. The March sisters demonstrate their activities that femininity cannot stay confined to homes and domestic chores. Whereas Jo and Amy follow what they want to do in life, Laurie starts learning music. In fact, this shows the Puritan ethic of working to show one’s passion for religion.
- Integrity: The novel shows the theme of integrity in the family and among the characters through the March family. A down-to-earth family living in a relatively tight situation demonstrates how its girls should and should not behave. It seems that the March girls have been put into contrast with other ladies such as Sally and Amy. The constant struggle of Amy and Meg to shed their vanity shows that they want to be honest and down-to-earth sincere persons in their lives. When it comes to showing this cultivation of attributes, Amy shows it during her rejection of Fred which if accepted would have caused an uproar about her acceptance based on Fred’s riches. Even the presentation of their New England home seems to communicate this idea of Alcott that it is better to be content than to be dissatisfied and be displeased.
- Family: The novel, Little Women, shows the thematic strand of family through the little girls, their assistance to each other, their help to their father, and their simple way of living with each other. All of their efforts and behavioral traits point to their one goal; keeping the family united and supported. Even the family stays united to oppose Aunt March’s proposal of adopting some child. When the March sisters do not see money coming easily, they start clubs and create situations where they can enjoy even without riches. Even some of the familial issues are resolved within the family with the help of each other.
- Marriage: With the familial thematic strand runs the idea of a happy marriage. The novel, Little Women, shows that when given proper training within a good family structure, girls can learn when and whom to marry. The very first lesson of Marmee, the mother of the girl, is to teach her daughters that they must have a good family and a loving husband rather than riches. She also raises them to be loving to each other and their parents. When Mr. March falls ill, almost all of them remain with him. They also impact the neighbors, eventually, Laurie becomes their household name and a family member because of the family first approach.
- Poverty: The theme of poverty is significant in the novel that though it draws the family and family members. It teaches a person how to keep his head high in the midst of raging materialism. Amy knows that “poor gentle folks fare badly” when talking to Laurie, but she also knows that the March family is going through difficult times. So, Amy and Meg mostly think of ways out of their tight situations to live within their means. They also teach the same to Meg who marries Brooke. Within this little context, the Gardiners and the Moffats are given to remind the readers that poverty does not mean happiness.
- Work: The theme of work and its reward is also apparent through the March family where it has become a norm to work honestly and earn a reward for it even though it might break conventions prevalent in society. Meg who is an introvert by nature realizes her value when rewarded by Mr. March for her work. That is also the reason for Brooke’s defense of her. Similarly, Joe also sees her achievement in writing, while she learns to be happy to work with Mr. Bhaer, her German teacher.
- Morality: The novel shows the theme of morality through the March family and the four March girls. The reference to John Bunyan in the preface and then the description of Mr. March in the initial pages point to the ethical framework the novel is going to follow. This shows that the sharing of their breakfast with the Hummels, assistance to Laurie and even getting assistance from Mr. Laurence are the morals prevalent in that society that good Christians always take care of their neighbors.
Major Characters Little Women
- Meg: Meg March is the eldest among the four March girls whose consciousness of her poverty leads her to desire a luxurious lifestyle. However, she accepts her life as it is and learns to be happy quite early when she marries a man for love instead of riches. She is the main representative of goodness and social conventionality that syncs with her mother’s character whom she follows in letter and spirit. Although she, sometimes, follows the public agenda of pleasing people around her, she comes to her senses after marrying John Brooke, knowing that he likes politics and simple middle-class life.
- Jo March: Although she could not be termed as the protagonist, she is a central character who harbors a passion for writing, an unconventional profession at the time when mostly patriarchy followed it. Jo has a tomboy personality who dares to spurn Laurie’s offer and accept Bhaer as her husband. In both ways, this proves a surprising move on her part, for she loses her independence to domesticity, marrying the man beneath her status. The rebellious and outspoken attitude of Jo March echoes the good March household until she becomes a conventional submissive lady, leaving an example to follow.
- Beth March: The third significant character of Little Women, Beth March is quiet by nature, yet she is known for her caring attitude. Her concern for family unity and her penchant for keeping others happy is highly noticeable. It seems that the author has made her very soft, with angelic nature, to survive the pragmatic lifestyle. When she dies, she leaves the March sisters to learn a lesson from her good nature. Despite her resemblance to Jo, she does not compete to live anymore where social conventions stifle one’s personality.
- Amy March: A very dexterous and amiable, Amy is the youngest of the March sisters who not only pleases but also manipulates people around her. She wins popularity as well as Laurie in the end and also visits Europe. Although she seems quite in contrast to her elder sister, Jo, by the end of the story she submits to the social norm and becomes a household woman after marrying Laurie.
- Laurie Laurence: One of the charming male characters in Little Women, Laurie is the neighbor of the March and son of the Laurence family. Although he seems on the verge of marrying Jo, he ends up with Amy, though, his life experiences are more similar to Jo than others. Instead of entering the business world, he defies his grandfather’s desires and takes up music instead.
- Mr. Robert March: Mr. Robert March heads the March family with his wife, Mrs. March, and his four daughters. He appears highly irresponsible for leaving her with her daughters to take care of the family when he leaves with the army to fight in the Civil War. However, he wants to set moral examples for his daughter with the assistance of his wife when he returns which seems quite contrary to the idea he preaches.
- Mrs. Margaret March: She is addressed as Marmee in the novel. Mrs. March is a gentle character who only takes care of the household and almost the entire responsibility when Mr. March leaves for the Civil War to work as a chaplain. Her character seems an epitome of calmness and morality who she takes it upon herself to teach the girls to be content, even in poverty, and keeps themselves balanced.
- James Laurence: The head of the neighboring family, the Laurence, Mr. James Laurence is an educated person and also benevolent when it comes to helping the poor. However, his piquant behavior often makes the girls play fun at him when he becomes their guardian, though, he always complains about his daughter-in-law, Laurie’s mother.
- Esther: Working as the maid with the March family, Esther is French by birth and catholic by religion. She helps Amy to learn French and becomes her best friend.
Writing Style of Little Women
Little Women shows Louisa May Alcott’s mastery in describing people and their behavior. The author paints realistic pictures through the dexterous use of different images, evoking the feelings of the readers toward their favorite character. Despite being written in the style of the last century, the sentences show variety in phrases and clauses where the suitability of the diction is excellent and fitting to the modern era. The author has relied heavily on metaphors and similes along with personifications.
Analysis of the Literary Devices in Little Women
- Action: The main action of the novel comprises the childhood, poverty, and maturing of the four March sisters. The falling action occurs when Beth dies after a long illness and Amy marries Laurie. The rising action, however, occurs when it transpires to the father that the sisters have started growing in character and career after meeting Laurie.
- Allusion: The novel shows excellent use of different allusions as given in the examples below,
i. Mrs. March broke the silence that followed Jo’s words, by saying in her cheery voice, ‘Do you remember how you used to play Pilgrims Progress when you were little things? (Chapter-II)
ii. They had a charming time, for THE SEVEN CASTLES OF THE DIAMOND LAKE was as brilliant and wonderful as heart could wish. (Chapter-VIII)
iii. They called themselves the Pickwick Club. With a few interruptions, they had kept this up for a year, and met every Saturday evening in the big garret. (Chapter-X)
iv. ‘I’ll teach you whether we play HAMLET or not. It’s grand fun and will straighten you up capitally. (Chapter-XV)
These examples allude to different books such as the first to John Bunyan’s, the second to The Seven Castle and the last alludes to The Pickwick Papers. The last one alludes to the Shakespearean tragedy of Hamlet.
- Antagonist: There is no antagonist or villain in the novel but it could be stated that Jo March is the protagonist and also the antagonist of the novel as she always obstructs her own avenues to progress and maturity.
- Conflict: The novel shows both external and internal conflicts. The external conflict is going between the world and the March family girls’ struggle to ward off the wolves of pangs of hunger from their doorsteps. The internal struggle is going on in the minds of Jo March about her ways and her character.
- Characters: The novel shows both static as well as dynamic characters. Both Jo and Amy are dynamic characters as they show a considerable transformation in their behavior and conduct by the end of the novel. However, all other characters are static as they do not show or witness any transformation such as Mr. Bhaer, Laurie, the grandfather, Marmee, and even Mr. March himself.
- Climax: The climax in the novel occurs when Jo March rejects the proposal of Laurie and shows her autonomy in thinking and acting.
- Foreshadowing: The novel shows many instances of foreshadows as given in the examples below,
i. Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. ‘It’s so dreadful to be poor!’ sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress. (Chapter-1)
ii. ‘It seems so long to wait, so hard to do. I want to fly away at once, as those swallows fly, and go in at that splendid gate.’. (Chapter-XIII)
The mention of Christmas and poverty shows that the March family is going to have hard times ahead.
- Hyperbole: The novel shows various examples of hyperboles as given below,
i. ‘Well, I do believe the world is coming to an end. (Chapter-VII)
ii. Everyone scattered like leaves before a gust of wind, and the quiet, happy household was broken up as suddenly as if the paper had been an evil spell. (Chapter-VI)
Both of these examples exaggerate things as the world and a gust of wind have been exaggerated when giving in the description. For example, the world is not going to end in this way, nor the gust of wind could come quietly.
- Imagery: Little Women shows the use of imagery such as given in the below examples,
i. Margaret, the eldest of the four, was sixteen, and very pretty, being plump and fair, with large eyes, plenty of soft brown hair, a sweet mouth, and white hands, of which she was rather vain. Fifteen-year-old Jo was very tall, thin, and brown, and reminded one of a colt, for she never seemed to know what to do with her long limbs, which were very much in her way. (Chapter-I)
ii. Jo was very busy in the garret, for the October days began to grow chilly, and the afternoons were short. For two or three hours the sun lay warmly in the high window, showing Jo seated on the old sofa, writing busily, with her papers spread out upon a trunk before her, while Scrabble, the pet rat, promenaded the beams overhead, accompanied by his oldest son, a fine young fellow, who was evidently very proud of his whiskers. (Chapter-XIV)
These two examples show images of feelings, sight, color, and sound.
- Metaphor: Little Women shows excellent use of various metaphors as given in the examples below,
i. ‘If Jo is a tomboy and Amy a goose, what am I, please?’ asked Beth, ready to share the lecture. (Chapter-I)
ii. Oh, my goodness! That little goose means a centaur, and she called him a Cyclops,’ exclaimed Jo, with a burst of laughter. (Chapter-VII)
These examples show that several things have been compared directly in the novel as the first shows the comparison between a girl and a goose, and the second shows it again with the addition of Cyclops and a centaur.
- Mood: The novel shows various moods; it starts with a very funny and jolly mood but becomes tragic at times when the girls face poverty and again turns to happiness and jubilation when it comes to an end.
- Motif: Most important motifs of the novel are weather, family, poverty, and marriage.
- Narrator: The novel is narrated from a third-person omniscient point of view, who is the author, Louisa May Alcott.
- Parallelism: The novel shows examples of parallelism as given below,
i. So Beth lay down on the sofa, the others returned to their work, and the Hummels were forgotten. (Chapter-XVII)
ii. I think it very appropriate to you, and feel very grateful for your efforts to make it so pretty, but we must give up our private wishes, of course, and I will see that you have a good place elsewhere. (Chapter-XXX)
The phrase in both of these examples shows the use of parallelism in that the conjoining phrases are equal in the word count.
- Personification: The novel shows examples of personifications as given below,
i. There was a simultaneous sigh, which created quite a little gust, as the last hope fled, and the treat was ravished from their longing lips. (Chapter-VII)
ii. Perhaps curiosity might have conquered resentment, if Beth had not been there to inquire and receive a glowing description of the play. (Chapter-VIII)
iii. She did earn several that year, and began to feel herself a power in the house, for by the magic of a pen, her ‘rubbish’ turned into comforts for them all. (Chapter-XXIX)
These examples show as if the gusts, curiosity, and rubbish have life and emotions of their own.
- Protagonist: Jo March is the protagonist of the novel on account of her central role, her dynamism as well as her obstruction to her dreams.
- Rhetorical Questions: The novel shows good use of rhetorical questions at several places such as,
i. Why should I complain, when we both have merely done our duty and will surely be the happier for it in the end? ‘I never dreamed of such a thing. What will Mother say? I wonder if her…’. (Chapter-IX)
ii. “Once more, how do you know? By what instinct do you pretend to distinguish between a fallen seraph of the abyss and a messenger from the eternal throne—between a guide and a seducer?” (Chapter-XV)
This example shows the use of rhetorical questions posed but different characters not to elicit answers but to stress upon the underlined idea.
- Setting: The setting of the novel is New England, Boston, and Massachusetts.
- Simile: The novel shows good use of various similes as given in the below examples,
i. ‘Never mind, you’ve got the tarlatan for the big party, and you always look like an angel in white. (Chapter-IX)
ii. Like bees swarming after their queen, mother and daughters hovered about Mr. March the next day, neglecting everything to look at, wait upon, and listen to the new invalid, who was in a fair way to be killed by kindness. (Chapter-XXIV)
iii. Just now it’s the fashion to be hideous, to make your head look like a scrubbing brush, wear a strait jacket, orange gloves, and clumping square-toed boots. (Chapter-XXV)
These are similes as the use of the word “like” shows the comparison between different things.