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Little Women

Status

Book

Author

Louisa May Alcott

Publisher

Roberts Brothers

Date of publication

1868

Preceded by

None

Followed by

Good Wives

Little Women is a story that revolves around the lives of four sisters growing up during and after the Civil War. With their father off fighting the war, the girls create their own theatre company as they write and perform skits for each other. Follow the heartaches and laughs as each daughter overcomes her flaws.

Characters

Margaret "Meg" March

Sixteen at the opening of the book, Meg is the oldest sister. She is referred to as a beauty, and is well-mannered. As the oldest, Meg runs the household when her mother is absent. This includes trying to keep her sisters from arguing, and they sometimes accuse her of lecturing them too much.

Meg is employed as a governess for the Kings, a wealthy local family. Though the March family is poor, their background is what was called 'genteel', and Meg attended some society balls and parties.

Meg marries John Brooke, Laurie's tutor. They had twins, Daisy and Demi (short for Demi-John).

Josephine "Jo" March

The second-oldest of four sisters, Josephine March is a tomboy; Robert March has referred to her as his "son Jo" in the past, and her best friend Laurie sometimes calls her "my dear fellow." When her father went to volunteer in the Civil War, Jo wanted to fight alongside him. She is as clumsy, blunt, opinionated, and jolly. The tomboy embodied in Jo March “spoke to changing standards of girlhood. Tomboys first became a major literary type in the 1860s. They were not only tolerated, but even admired — up to a point, the point at which girls were expected to become women.”

Jo has a hot temper which often leads her into trouble in spite of her good intentions, but with the help of her own sense of humor, her sister Beth, and her mother she works on controlling it.

Jo loves literature, both reading and writing. She composes plays for her sisters to perform and writes short stories. She initially rejects the idea of marriage and romance, feeling that it would break up her family and separate her from the sisters she adores. While pursuing a literary career in New York City, she met and began to love Friedrich Bhaer, a German professor, as an equal partner. “They decide to share life’s burdens just as they shared the load of bundles on their shopping expedition.”

Elizabeth "Beth" March

Beth, thirteen when the story starts, is described as shy, gentle and musical. As her sisters grow up they begin to leave home, but Beth has no desire to leave her house or family. She's especially close to Jo, and when Beth develops scarlet fever it's Jo who does most of the nursing, rarely leaving her side. Though she recovers, her health is permanently weakened.

As she grows, Beth begins to realize that her time with her loved ones is coming to an end. Finally, the family accepts that Beth will not live much longer. They make a special room for her, filled with all the things she loves best: her kittens, piano, father's books, Amy's sketches, and her beloved dolls. She is never idle; she even knits and sews things for the children that pass under her window on the way to and from school. But eventually even that becomes too much for her, and she puts down her sewing needle, saying that it grew "so heavy". Beth's dying has a strong impact on her sisters, especially Jo, who resolves to live her life with more consideration and care for others.

Amy March

The youngest sister—age twelve when the story begins—Amy is interested in art. She is described by the author as a "regular snow-maiden" with curly golden hair and blue eyes, "pale and slender" and "always carrying herself" like a very proper young lady. Often "petted" because she is the youngest, she can behave in a vain and spoiled way, and throws tantrums when she is unhappy.

Her relationship with Jo is sometimes strained. When Laurie and Jo go skating, Amy tags along after them, but she arrives at the lake too late to hear Laurie's warning about thinning ice. Under Jo's horrified stare, Amy falls through the ice, and is rescued by Laurie's prompt intervention. Realizing she might have lost her sister, Jo's anger dissolves and the two become closer. When Beth is ill with scarlet fever, Amy is sent to stay with Aunt March as a safety precaution. Aunt March grows fond of her, and makes the suggestion that Aunt Carroll take Amy with her to Europe. There she meets up with Laurie, and shortly after Beth dies, they marry. Later, Amy gives birth to daughter Elizabeth ("Beth" or "Bess"), named after her deceased sister. Her daughter appears to have similarities with Beth, as she is very ill.

Other characters

Margaret "Marmee" March

The girls' mother and head of household while her husband is away. She engages in charitable works and attempts to guide her girls' morals and to shape their characters, usually through experiments. She once confesses to Jo that her temper is as volatile as Jo's, but that she has learned to control it.

Theodore "Laurie" Laurence

The grandson of James Laurence and a good friend of the March family. He later marries Amy March.

Robert "Father" March

Formerly wealthy, it is implied that he helped friends who could not repay a debt, resulting in the family's poverty. A scholar and a minister, he serves as a colonel in the Union Army and is wounded in December 1862.

Hannah Mullet

The March family maid and cook, their only servant. She is of Irish descent and very dear to the family. She is treated more like a member of the family than a servant.

Response

G. K. Chesterton notes that in Little Women, Alcott "anticipated realism by twenty or thirty years," and that Fritz's proposal to Jo, and her acceptance, "is one of the really human things in human literature." Gregory S. Jackson said that Alcott's use of realism belongs to the American Protestant pedagogical tradition, which includes a range of religious literary traditions with which Alcott was familiar. He has copies in his book of nineteenth-century images of devotional children's guides, which provide background for the game of "playing pilgrim" that Alcott uses in her plot of Book One.

When Little Women was published, it was well received. According to 21st-century critic Barbara Sicherman, during the 19th century, there was a "scarcity of models for nontraditional womanhood", which led more women to look toward "literature for self-authorization. This is especially true during adolescence". Little Women became "the paradigmatic text for young women of the era and one in which family literary culture is prominently featured." Adult elements of women's fiction in Little Women included "a change of heart necessary" for the female protagonist to evolve in the story.

Little Women's popular audience was responsive to ideas of social change as they were shown "within the familiar construct of domesticity". While Alcott had been commissioned to "write a story for girls", her primary heroine, Jo March, became a favorite of many different women, including educated women writers through the 20th century. The girl story became a "new publishing category with a domestic focus that paralleled boys' adventure stories." One reason the novel was so popular was that it appealed to different classes of women along with those of different national backgrounds, at a time of high immigration to the United States. Jewish immigrant women found a close connection to Little Women. Through the March sisters, women could relate and dream where they may not have before. "Both the passion Little Women has engendered in diverse readers and its ability to survive its era and transcend its genre point to a text of unusual permeability."

However, the novel has not escaped criticism. In the late 20th century, a more negative view of the novel arose. Sarah Elbert, for instance, wrote that Little Women was the beginning of "a decline in the radical power of women's fiction," partly because women's fiction was being idealized with a "hearth and home" children's story. Several women's literature historians and juvenile fiction historians have agreed that Little Women was the beginning of this "downward spiral". However, Elbert did state that Little Women did not "belittle women's fiction" and that Alcott stayed true to her "Romantic birthright".

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