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Little Women | Motifs

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The Pilgrim's Progress

The Pilgrim's Progress, written by English preacher John Bunyan, is a deliberate and recurring motif in the novel, which begins with an excerpt from this religious text. The excerpt mentions that allegorical Mercy has begun her pilgrimage early, and young women will do well to take her example and follow God. The first chapter of Little Women specifically mentions the text and recalls how the March sisters used to act out scenes from the book when they were little. Now they are teenagers, and they plan to become pilgrims again, but this time their goal will be to reach moral perfection. They take up their burdens of anger (Jo), vanity (Meg), pride and selfishness (Amy), and self-consciousness (Beth). Jo comments that their mother has pulled them out of the "Slough of Despond" as the allegorical character called Help did in Bunyan's tale. References to characters and scenes from The Pilgrim's Progress are abundant in the novel. For example, the Laurence house is called The Palace Beautiful, a place in The Pilgrim's Progress where Christian stops, and Amy faces the Valley of Humiliation in school, another reference to Bunyan's text. Jo meets Apollyon, a symbol of worldliness, in Chapter 8 when her fierce anger over Amy's burning of her stories causes her to turn her back on her sister and allow her to fall into the ice.

Sometimes the characters in Little Women reference Bunyan's text, and sometimes the narrator does. Many of the chapter titles also reference this spiritual text. Alcott wants the reader to understand that the March girls are on a spiritual journey, and she also uses the symbolism of journeys to emphasize this point. Characters who take journeys in Little Women include Mr. March, Mrs. March, Mr. Brooke, Jo, Amy, Beth, Laurie, Mr. Laurence, and Professor Bhaer.

Womanhood

The use of the term "little women" or "little woman" occurs not only in the title but several times in the novel. In Chapter 1, a letter from Mr. March refers to his daughters as little women, and Jo says she will try to be his little woman instead of running wild. Meg is referred to as a "womanly little woman" by the narrator, completely absorbed by motherhood. Laurie asks Amy to be a sensible little woman in Chapter 17 when she must go to Aunt March's to avoid coming down with scarlet fever, and he refers to her as a "capital little woman" in Chapter 20 when she "restrained her impatience to see her mother." He later refers to Amy in the same vein after they are married and have come home from Europe. He tells Jo she is a "captivating little woman" in Chapter 43, and announces to the March family that he can't do without his "little woman" in Chapter 44.

The quaint title of "little woman" has an overt and covert meaning in the novel. The obvious meaning is of a young woman between childhood and adulthood who is cultivating the virtues of womanliness. The term also refers to a young girl or woman facing up to the trials of life with fortitude and bravery. On the other hand, a "little woman" is a diminutive female who has metaphorically been cut down to size to fit the requirements of the patriarchy. It is no coincidence that most of the references to a little woman are attached to Amy, who is the most successful example of conventional female virtue. Also significant is the fact that, while Jo says she will try to be a little woman, no one ever refers to her as one, and neither does the narrator.

Fire and Burning

The novel includes references to fire and burning, generally connected to Jo. Jo burns her dress, Meg's curls with curling papers and hot tongs, and her "blood & thunder" stories in the fireplace after Professor Bhaer tells her she is poisoning the minds of her readers. Amy burns a manuscript Jo has been working on for years. When Jo is in one of her writing frenzies, her family playfully asks her, "Does genius burn, Jo?" Burning represents her anger at having to fulfill a prescribed and restricted gender role as well as her passion as an artist. In the first two instances, Jo's accidents are connected to her inept performance as a female—she has a hard time keeping her clothing presentable, and she doesn't know how to curl hair properly. Jo's passion is connected to her creativity, which is why her family imagines her burning as she writes. Two acts of literary destruction involve fire. In the first instance, Jo is inconsolable and turns her considerable anger on Amy. In the second, she voluntary sacrifices her own work to satisfy the conventional notions of the patriarchal male she is destined to marry.

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