Literature Study GuidesLittle WomenPart 1 Chapters 1 3 Summary

Little Women | Study Guide

Louisa May Alcott

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Little Women | Part 1, Chapters 1–3 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1: Playing Pilgrims

Written in omniscient third-person narration, the novel begins in December 1861 and introduces the four protagonists, the March sisters, named Amy (age 12), Beth (short for Elizabeth, age 13), Jo (short for Josephine, age 15), and Meg (short for Margaret, age 16), who are sitting around a hearth. The March girls are grumbling because they won't get any presents for Christmas. "It's so dreadful to be poor," Meg says, although Beth reminds her, "We've got Father and Mother, and each other." The father of these girls, Mr. March, is away serving as a chaplain for Union soldiers fighting in the American Civil War. The March family lives in a small New England town. Meg and Jo can remember when the family was more prosperous. The narrator breaks into the conversation to address the reader, as she will do from time to time, sometimes using the authorial "we" and sometimes referring to herself as "I." She describes the girls: Meg is very pretty; Jo is a bookworm and a tomboy, and she also writes and directs family plays; Amy is a budding artist who is especially "mindful of her manners"; and Beth is timid and loving and the "pet of the family." Beth also loves music and can play the piano. The girls each have a dollar but decide to spend their money on Marmee (their mother, Mrs. March) instead of themselves.

When Marmee gets home she shares a letter from their father, which inspires the girls to imitate his sacrifice by conquering themselves so well that when he returns he will be prouder than ever of his "little women." Marmee then reminds them how they used to act out scenes from The Pilgrim's Progress and invites them to take up their "burdens" (shortcomings) and embark on a serious effort of self-improvement. The girls have identified their burdens as vanity (Meg), temper (Jo), timidity (Beth), and selfishness (Amy).

Chapter 2: A Merry Christmas

On Christmas morning, each girl finds a copy of the same religious text (probably the New Testament) underneath her pillow, although the covers are in four different colors. Marmee asks them to give their Christmas breakfast to the Hummels, a poor family with six children, and they cheerfully agree and help their mother deliver the gift. Afterward, they eat bread and milk and give Marmee her presents. On Christmas night several neighborhood girls are invited to watch the March girls' amateur theatricals. At suppertime the March sisters are delighted to learn that their neighbor, Mr. Laurence, has sent over sweets and hothouse flowers "in honor of the day." He had learned of their charity and decided to reward them. Mr. Laurence is an old family friend, but he is not especially friendly with his neighbors. His grandson now lives with him, but the Marches have not yet met the young man.

Chapter 3: The Laurence Boy

Jo is in the garret (attic) reading when Meg interrupts her to tell her the pair of them have been invited to a New Year's Eve dance by Mrs. Gardiner, the mother of Meg's friend Sallie. Meg laments their lack of finery, but the girls make themselves presentable even though Jo's dress is burned and she accidentally burns Meg's hair with hot curling papers. At the dance Jo slips into a corner to better hide her gown and runs into young Theodore Laurence, nicknamed Laurie. He is handsome and gentlemanly, and he and Jo immediately become friends. Jo learns he's been abroad for several years and now studies at home, preparing for college. Laurie is turning 16 in February. When Meg sprains her ankle, Laurie takes the girls home in his carriage.

Analysis

Money was always on Alcott's mind, and as a child her family tottered, at times, on the brink of starvation. The Marches are not as poor as the Alcotts were, yet money is very much on their minds. The second sentence in the novel is "It's so dreadful to be poor!" An important overt theme is that wealth cannot buy happiness, as Beth March, the "saint" among the sisters, implies in her answer to Meg. When their mother arrives at the end of Chapter 1 and reads their father's letter, a second theme emerges: the value of sacrifice. These girls are expected to wrestle with their own shortcomings, sacrificing themselves in the service of perfection.

Two motifs that run through the novel are introduced in these first chapters: The Pilgrim's Progress and the idea of the "little woman." The allegorical text The Pilgrim's Progress was much beloved by Alcott's family. The first part of The Pilgrim's Progress takes the character "Christian" on a journey to the "Celestial City," or heaven. He must face many trials and tribulations along the way. The March sisters, at the suggestion of their mother, decide to emulate this noble quest in their own lives, and she rewards them on Christmas morning with copies of the New Testament—the second part of the Christian canon that begins with the life of Jesus and continues with the letters and teachings of the early followers of Jesus. The second motif, introduced in Chapter 1, is the "little woman," an adolescent girl on the verge of adulthood; it also refers to a girl who is willing to shoulder a burden, as the March girls agree to do. Their first act of sacrifice is giving up their Christmas breakfast to the impoverished Hummels. In turn, they receive an immediate reward for their generosity from Mr. Laurence, who will soon emerge as an important benefactor.

The third-person omniscient narration of the novel is generally unobtrusive, but the narrator does periodically address the reader, as she does in the first chapter in describing the March girls. Thus, she makes it clear from the beginning that she is to be the reader's guide, and her comments and observations are reliable and trustworthy.

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