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Little Women | Context

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Little Women and the Alcott Family

Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women at the request of her publisher, who wanted a "girl's book." Alcott had ambiguous feelings about writing what she first called "moral pap for the young" since she was expected to instruct as well as entertain, but later, she thought the novel read "better than I expected." She drew on her own childhood experiences, noting that she and her sisters had lived through much of what she included in Little Women.

On the surface, the novel is a coming-of-age story and a guidebook for how good "little women" should act. However, the narrator's discontent and indignation bubbles up on occasion when she notes the inequities in treatment and opportunities based on gender. As a result, the reader must approach the novel with the expectation that at times the author will deliver a covert message in conflict with the overt message of the novel. Whether these seemingly covert messages are conscious or unconscious (or maybe both) is something that each individual reader must determine.

The first part of Little Women closely follows the real story of the Alcott family (probably around the years 1845–48) when Alcott and her sisters were teenagers. According to Daniel Shealy, the editor of an annotated edition of the novel, the family lived on a property called Hillside in Concord, Massachusetts, at that time. The family was much more impoverished than the Marches during Alcott's childhood and young adulthood. Mr. March and Marmee are modeled on Alcott's parents, although Mr. March—a chaplain, minister and wise man—is noticeably absent from the text, perhaps because Bronson Alcott was absent from his family as a provider. The philosophies of self-denial, self-conquest, and self-restraint the book promotes are based on Bronson Alcott's approach to righteous living.

The model for Meg is Alcott's older sister Anna. A year separates both the real Anna and Louisa and the fictional Meg and Jo. Beth is based on Elizabeth Alcott, and the age difference between Alcott and Elizabeth is about the same as the fictional sisters, Jo and Beth. Both died of scarlet fever, although Beth was 16 at her death and Elizabeth Alcott almost 23. Amy is based on Abigail May Alcott, who shared her mother's name and was more than seven years younger than Alcott. Abigail became a successful painter, married late at age 37, and died shortly after of childbed fever. Alcott raised Abigail's daughter, Louisa, after Abigail's death.

Jo was modeled on the author herself—passionate, headstrong, and resentful of the restrictions girls suffered. Like the real Alcott, Jo is also a writer who wishes to help her family by wielding her pen. Alcott's alter ego was forced to marry on the insistence of the author's publishers, although Alcott would have preferred Jo to remain single.

The Abolitionist Movement and the Civil War

The novel opens in December 1861, the first year of the Civil War. The American Civil War was fought from April 1861 to May 1865, primarily between the Northern and Southern states, with some action occurring in the territories. The source of disagreement was the use of slavery on the farms and plantations in the South. The North was concerned that the wealth accumulated through slavery would create an imbalance of power, with the states that did not rely on slavery having a greater disadvantage.

Slaves were also subject to unspeakable abuses by slave owners. An abolitionist movement calling for the emancipation of slaves and the granting of civil rights developed in the 1830s. As slavery abuses became more widely known, abolitionists pushed the country toward war by demanding what amounted to regime change in the South. After Abraham Lincoln was elected president, South Carolina immediately withdrew from the Union, triggering the Civil War.

Boston and its environs were a hotbed of antislavery agitation, and while Alcott does not name the setting of her novel, it is likely a version of Concord, Massachusetts, not far from Boston. Like the Alcott family, the March family are abolitionists. Since Mr. March is too old to serve as a soldier, he goes as a chaplain. In real life, Mr. Alcott, the model for Mr. March, did not serve, but Louisa May Alcott worked as a nurse before she contracted typhoid fever.

Literary Influences

The Pickwick Papers

Alcott was an enthusiastic reader of Charles Dickens, the English novelist, as were her sisters. In Little Women, the four March sisters belong to a Pickwick Club modeled after Dickens's The Pickwick Papers, in which a wealthy man founds the Pickwick Club with four members. Their job is to travel throughout England and report back on interesting experiences. First published serially as The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club in 1836–37, it was Dickens's first novel. The members, each portrayed by one of the sisters in Little Women, are Samuel Pickwick (Meg), Tracy Tupman (Beth), Augustus Snodgrass (Jo), and Nathaniel Winkle (Amy). The Alcott girls also created The Pickwick Portfolio, a family newspaper much like the one mentioned in the novel.

19th-Century Sensationalist Fiction

Alcott wrote "blood & thunder" tales for several newspapers that published sensationalist fiction, and she drew upon her personal experience to create the Weekly Volcano in Little Women. Americans were reading Gothic tales from England by the end of the 18th century. By Alcott's time, American writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne had created a Gothic tradition stateside. These "potboilers" got their lifeblood from taboo subjects, such as murder, revenge, lust, incest, scandal, thievery, trickery, arson, blackmail, madness, and the like.

Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism was an American movement stressing the sacredness of nature. Major American transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau preached self-reliance and independence and favored original insight over book knowledge or expertise. Emerson and Thoreau were good friends of the Alcotts, and young Louisa had a crush on both men. Bronson Alcott himself was a philosopher and talented educator ahead of his time, but he had no talent for making money. For this reason, his family was often impoverished. After one social experiment in 1843, where the family lived commune-style on a farm, they came close to the brink of starvation.

Gender Restrictions

In Little Women, Jo expresses frustration over the restrictions of gender, which were considerable in 1861. People assumed men and women were naturally different and meant to inhabit different spheres. A woman was supposed to be obedient, submissive, and loving toward her father, brothers, husband, and all the other male figures in her life. Women could not vote and were treated like children and, to some degree, like property—passed on from father to husband. The first suffragette movement in the United States launched in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, but the women's movement slowed down with the advent of the Civil War, which put the more pressing issue of slavery at the forefront. Women's rights are not directly addressed in Little Women, but they are indirectly alluded to in Jo's continual knocking against the barriers that restrict her as a female.

Scarlet Fever

Scarlet fever is the result of a bacterial infection that often begins with strep throat. Symptoms include a red rash all over the body accompanied by a sore throat and fever. The disease is common in children. Today, scarlet fever is treated with antibiotics and does not pose a serious health risk. But in the days before antibiotics, it could be a death sentence. In the 19th century people knew that if a person had the disease once they were not likely to get it again. This is why it makes sense for Meg and Jo to stay (they have both experienced the fever) and Amy to leave when Beth gets sick. Scarlet fever can also cause complications, and this happens to Beth. She has likely contracted rheumatic heart disease, which may be why she never fully recovers. Alcott based the progress of Beth's illness on the real case of her own sister Elizabeth, who died two years after contracting and recovering from scarlet fever.

Popularity and Critical Reception

Little Women and its sequels and spinoffs (Alcott's domestic stories) made Alcott a multimillionaire by today's standards. Originally conceived as a girl's book, the novel has been read by both genders and people of all ages and is quoted as an influence by many famous people. It has been adapted for the stage, opera, ballet, and film and remains popular today.

Although it revolutionized what is now called "young adult" fiction, for nearly a century, critics did not pay much attention to the novel as a literary work worthy of consideration. Before Little Women, children's books were oppressive in their focus on didactic moral lessons, but Alcott was able to both teach and entertain while presenting young girls as fully human, paving the way for many young people's novels that followed. Little Women began to receive serious scholarly attention in the 1940s and 1950s with the work of Alcott scholars Madeleine Stern and Leona Rostenberg. The novel has drawn a wide range of responses from academic critics, and sometimes their views are diametrically opposed. Feminist scholars have become more interested in the novel not only for its own sake but also in the light of Alcott's sensationalist fiction that has been uncovered, beginning in the middle of the 20th century.

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