Little Women is a study in contrasts and juxtapositions: At times seriously didactic and moralistic, the novel’s tone can also be playful and humorous, even satirical at times. Genuine in its appreciation of motherhood, marriage, and domesticity, it also calls these traditional values into question, most often through the character of Jo March. These artistic and thematic tensions are often attributed to Louisa May Alcott’s own ambivalence about her conflicting roles of dutiful daughter and aspiring author. Little Women is predominantly autobiographical, especially in part 1, and it reveals the disappointments as well as the triumphs of Alcott’s life.
The characteristics typical of domestic fiction’s heroines—piousness, obedience, charity, industriousness, self-control—are reflected in the four “little women” of the March family. Jo struggles the most to acquire these traits, especially because of her quick temper and her rebellion against social prescription. In time, however, she learns to channel her energy and spirit into her art and her work, as she fulfills her lifelong dream of being a “mother” to boys when she establishes her school at Plumfield.
Throughout the novel, female community—here, the March family itself—is presented as one of the most important social institutions. Women educate and support one another, they form bonds of friendship and sisterhood, and they struggle against hardship together, often sacrificing their own needs and wants for those of others. The March sisters learn to overcome their own selfishness and self-centeredness through hard-won lessons: the absence and nearly fatal illness of their father, Beth’s ongoing illness and death, the callous gossip of acquaintances (which is often concerned with the family’s lack of wealth and social standing), the loss of suitors, and the hard compromises that must be made in marriage.
The novel is episodic in form, focusing on specific events in the lives of the March and Laurence families. These episodes end with moral lessons but also reveal more about the character of each sister and of Laurie. Realistic portrayals of nineteenth century social customs (making calls, society balls, touring the European continent) extend the setting of the novel outside its primary focus of the March family home.
Although the novel’s primary focus is domestic, concerned with family education and acculturation, it also expresses some feminist views. Jo rejects Laurie’s proposal—even through he is an outstanding “catch”—and with it, the idea of marriage. Jo has difficulty in accepting Meg’s marriage to John Brooke, for it begins the process of separating the close-knit community of sisters. The nineteenth century feminist ideal of equality in marriage is one that Jo herself strives toward and finally achieves in her own marriage to Professor Bhaer: He is a willing partner in her Plumfield school, an experienced surrogate parent (to his orphaned nephews), and secure in his own identity, as evidenced by his adaptation from renowned professor in Berlin to successful immigrant in America.
Long viewed as a moralistic and even superficial children’s novel, Little Women is far more complex than earlier generations of critics have acknowledged. Issues central to sociocultural debates of Victorian America—partnership in marriage, the positive aspects of spinsterhood, female community, and male-female friendship—are all treated with sensitivity and depth. Through the character of Jo March, Alcott was able to criticize social norms and mores while still appealing to her audience’s expectations of morality and social propriety through portrayals of the other characters.
The two most interesting characters in the novel, Jo and Laurie, form an androgynous pair, as their names suggest. Their friendship in the first part of the novel reveals that Jo’s development as a woman owes much to her “romps” with Laurie, for in them she learns independence, assertiveness, and courage. Likewise, through his acquaintance with the March family, and especially his close association with Jo, Laurie learns the concern for others, charity, and industriousness that are crucial to his development as a proper young gentleman. Though they do not mary (as Alcott’s readers wished they would, before the publication of part 2), they maintain a lifelong friendship, a testimony to the enduring bond they formed as adolescents.
Table of Contents
2.1 “Marmee” – the centre of the family
2.2 Spirituality and Matter
3. Sexual definitions
3.1 Female stereotypes
3.2 Jo March: Alcott`s rebellious heroine
5. Works Cited
I. Primary Source
II. Secondary Literature
III. Online Source
When Louisa May Alcott wrote part one and two of her famous novel “Little Women” in 1868/69 the main reason for this was money. Being already 35 and having a lot of experience with writing in different genres, she tried to produce a girl`s story and followed her editor`s request. She never expected it to be such a success. Until today the story about Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy has never been out of print and has been translated into twenty-seven languages. In 19th century New England it was regarded modern and unique in children`s literature and despite time has changed, it is still popular with young readers today.
But what is it that distinguishes Alcott`s work from that of other children authors of that period and makes her so unique? One central aspect in “Little Women” is the education of the four March-sisters and their growing-up into womanhood. They are accompanied by their loving mother who introduce them into society by giving helpful advice. In how far does this process and the novel at all reflect real life and cultural values of Victorian age? What picture of family life, society and the position of women within it did Alcott develop?
To solve this question special attention shall be paid to educational values and sexual definitions of the 19th century described in the book, the importance of work on the one hand and domesticity on the other, the different characters with their individual features, especially of Alcott`s alter ego Jo March. Education plays a very important role in solving the question because it sets the foundation of every individual life and might define the development of a whole society. It will be interesting to analyse the children`s novel and perhaps find both modern and contemporary components in it. With the help of secondary literature – biographies, critical essays, statements of the author herself – it will be possible to answer the question what role society and feminist ideas play in “Little Women”. Since Alcott obviously used her own autobiographical background as inspiration for writing the novel, it is sometimes necessary to look at the author`s life, acquaintances and surroundings as well as to consider the customs, mores and the situation of women and society at all in the 19th century.
2.1 “Marmee” – the centre of the family
When discussing about education in “Little Women” this is not possible without examining the role of Mrs March. The mother of Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy seems to be ideal at first glance; for the sisters she is the “most splendid mother in the world”. In the absence of her husband, who works as a clergyman in the Civil War, she has the full responsibility for the family. Together with her oldest daughters Meg and Jo she earns the money and works for a social organisation called Soldiers` Aid Societies. Mrs March`s educational methods are very modern: first of all, she loves her children and is not afraid to show it (e.g. she kisses and embraces them, cries with them, etc.). She respects every single girl and knows their characters including the faults, e.g. she says to Amy, “You are getting to be rather conceited, my dear.” or to Jo, “... you must keep watch over your ´bosom enemy´”. Her relationship with the children is not superficial but very close and sympathetic. Even in the second part of the novel when they are marrying, Mrs. March remains the centre of their lives as Meg states in chapter 25, “Don`t feel that I am separated from you, Marmee dear,... I shall come every day”. The mother-daughters-relationship sometimes even seems to be symbiotic and too close and sentimental.
It is the aim of Mrs. March to teach their girls to be modest, satisfied and caring for each other. She herself is social engaged and feels responsible for her fellow creatures. Of course, she expects the same of her daughters. A good example for the “loving-your-neighbour-better-than-yourself-behaviour” is shown at the very beginning in chapter 2: The girls follow their mother`s will and sacrifice the Christmas breakfast to a poor German immigrant family although they are hungry themselves. The Hummels, how the family is called, are overwhelmed and entitle them “Engel-kinder”. But besides little Beth, who really seems like an angel, innocent and too good to be true, every girl has her typical flaw and acts more or less sinful during the novel. Their mother is always there when they are regretting their deeds. But in opposite to Aunt March who gives long lectures on the girl`s sins and is therefore unpopular with them she shows sympathy and is never impatient. Instead of preaching Mrs. March tells their daughters how to act better and gives practical tips (e.g., “Watch and pray, dear, never get tired of trying, and never think it is impossible to conquer your fault.”). Her education is oriented to reality and adapted to real-life situations. Sometimes she even lets the children try out their wishes although she knows the negative result before: In “Experiments” (chapter 11) Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy get to know the value of work for a happy life. They thought it would be satisfying to live without any work and only spend one`s time on leisure. One week later they are wiser and understand their mother`s message better because they have experimented it by themselves. This method is very modern; the same goes for Mrs. March`s opinion about punishment: She clearly prefers nonviolence in education, neither at home nor in school: “I don`t approve of corporal punishment, especially for girls”.
Not always typical for her time, Mrs. Marchs`s education is based on mutual true love and sympathy. She wants her children to be happy, respected “little women” which does not mean that they should necessarily be married to reach this state (“…hope that our daughters, whether married or single, will be the pride and comfort of our lives.”). This opinion is unusual because for most mothers, especially for poor ones, it was the one and only aim to see their daughters married so that they could take care of themselves.
One the one hand the girls are made aware of their flaws but on the other hand their mother is not sparing with praise when they act in a good, social way and try to improve their manners, e.g. she writes a letter to Jo which says, “I write a little word to tell you with how much satisfaction I watch your efforts to control your temper”.
Although Mrs March could be called a model of a mother, “she is also quite human” and shows similar character qualities like her daughter Jo because she also has “a temper which she can control but cannot conquer”. This confession is surprising to the reader but makes “Marmee” more believable. In fact, Alcott used her own mother – Abigail May – as an example for Mrs. March. Louisa had a very close relationship with her. Like Jo and “Marmee” their tempers were similar. This could explain why Alcott gave Mrs. March such an important and powerful status in the novel and just send her husband away to the war in the first part, giving him a comparable lower role. For 19th century New England this literary model of a family was not common since the husband and father was regarded as the head of the family and normally had a lot of influence.
 Sarah Elbert, A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1984) x.
 Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (New York: Signet Classic, 2004) 8. All following quotations of Little Women refer to this text.
 Alcott 76.
 Alcott 236.
 Alcott 75.
 Alcott 110.
 Alcott 93.
 Alcott 113.
 Ruth K. MacDonald, Louisa May Alcott, ed. Lewis Leary (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983) 17.