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Little Women | Study Guide

Louisa May Alcott

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Little Women | Symbols



Journeys in the novel often represent not only physical movement but psychological and spiritual movement—a change in consciousness. The first chapter of Little Women references pilgrimage and The Pilgrim's Progress. Marmee recalls how the girls would play at being pilgrims, making an imaginary sojourn that took them from the cellar (the City of Destruction) to the top of the house (the Celestial City). Marmee invites her daughters to take up the game again, but this time in a more serious way: "Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles." The girls are enthusiastic about the plan as well as the guidebook that Marmee promises to put under their pillow—probably a copy of the New Testament. Thus, the girls take on a spiritual journey toward perfection.

Real journeys in the book also produce a growth in knowledge or consciousness. Jo's journey to New York, in which she puts distance between herself and Laurie, is also a journey from childhood to adulthood. Taking on a job far away from home forces Jo to grapple with society's expectations. In New York, she also meets the man who will become her husband and changes her mind about marriage. Amy's journey to Europe is also one from childhood to adulthood. She realizes, when she sees the great art of Europe, that she is not a genius but only a talented amateur. Although she persists with her drawing, she lets go of her grandiose notions of becoming the best artist in the world. She also meets the man she will marry—who happens to be her old friend from next door. Laurie's trip to Europe is also a growth experience, and Amy's prodding helps him to come to terms with his broken heart and get on with his life. When Jo comes back from New York, she takes a journey with Beth to the seashore; this trip is the occasion for both girls to accept that Beth will soon die.


Money symbolizes the distances among the working poor, the middle class, and the well-to-do. The degree to which poor people have to think about money is a measure of their need. The March girls spend a lot of time pondering the subject: Meg can't stop thinking about the family's lost prosperity and imagines herself well-to-do as a grown woman. Amy keeps track of the exchanges of pickled limes at school and knows that she has a social debt to pay. Jo is ecstatic when she wins a writing contest and is awarded $100, enough money to send her mother and Beth to the seashore for a few months. Jo spends a lot of time thinking about the best way to make further financial use of her pen. On the other hand, Laurie and Mr. Laurence never think about money nor mention it since Mr. Laurence is rich and has no need to worry about it. The Marches are hesitant at first about their friendship with the Laurences because of the financial distance between them. The trueness of the friendship between the families is evident in the Marches' ability to take material gifts from Mr. Laurence, which they cannot reciprocate in kind. The exchange of love—especially the love coming from the March family—more than compensates for their inability to keep up with the Laurences in the material realm.

A distance also exists between rich Aunt March and the March sisters, and Jo feels it keenly. At one point she tells Aunt March and Aunt Carrol that she doesn't like favors: "They oppress and make me feel like a slave." Meg also experiences a distance between herself and the prosperous Moffats. When she visits them, the girls don't understand why Meg can't simply send home for another gown—something they would not think twice about. Belle Moffat tries to close the gap between herself and Meg by loaning her a pretty gown and dressing her up like a beautiful doll, but Meg can't help but feel uncomfortable in her borrowed feathers. The gap between herself and the Moffats cannot be breached, and Meg is relieved to return home to her comfortable surroundings.


Umbrellas symbolize the protection a man offers to a woman. When Jo realizes that Mr. Brooke is a serious threat to her circle of sisters, she becomes angry, and the narrator says she "was seen to shake her fist at Mr. Brooke's umbrella, which had been left in the hall." After Mr. Brooke comes back to get his umbrella and check on the recovering Mr. March, Jo confuses him with the umbrella in a Freudian slip, saying, "It's very well, he's in the rack. I'll get him, and tell it you are here." Toward the end of the novel, Jo herself is ready to be embraced in a circle of male protection. She goes out to the store but is secretly hoping to run into Professor Bhaer. Although her mother reminds her to take an umbrella, she forgets to do so and begins to be drenched in a downpour. As she rushes across the street and barely escapes being run over, she suddenly finds herself under the "dilapidated" umbrella of the Professor, who greets her and offers to carry her bundles. She accepts his ministrations, and he proposes marriage.

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