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Little Women | Study Guide

Louisa May Alcott

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Little Women | Themes


Gender and Femininity

Jo March consistently rebels against the strictures of both gender and class. Jo breaks things and burns things and would rather be a child in braids and a short dress so that she can put off the obligations of womanhood. She is sorry she was not born a boy because she prefers "boy's games and work and manners" and would like to fight in the war. Jo tries to ignore the rules based on gender and class which bind her.

This attitude often results in problems for herself and the people she loves. Jo's progress through the novel is marked by her growing ability to accept the restrictions of femininity and fulfill her obligations as a woman. Jo's greatest aspiration is to be a writer, but she gives that up after she embraces marriage and motherhood. Little Women is a story meant to provide moral education for females; thus, Jo's ending is meant to be a happy one. Nonetheless, the author creates a subtext that may be either conscious or unconscious on her part, in which the reader cannot help but lament the taming and caging of Jo as she becomes comfortable in her feminine role.

Family as a Model Society

The March family is presented almost as a self-contained unit. Each person has a place and a role, is respected for their gifts and abilities, and is accepted even with their shortcomings. The family society works together toward individual and group improvement. The sisters strive to live up to the standards set by their parents. They live communally, sharing chores and resources. The older girls contribute to their own upkeep with outside jobs; in Jo's case, she uses her earnings to make life easier for her sisters. Jo values the family unit so much that she impetuously remarks she would rather marry Meg herself than give her up to Mr. Brooke.

The family also extends itself to the community, making Laurie a family member and keeping the impoverished Hummels afloat with gifts of food and help with childcare. The glue that holds the family society together is love, and that love is extended to the community. The implicit message of the novel is that the model family is the basis for creating a model society.

Value of Sacrifice

In Mr. March's letter to his girls in the first chapter of the novel, he predicts they will "conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women." Thus, he sounds the clarion call for the journey the March sisters now consciously undertake, which is to put the needs of others before their own and conquer themselves through self-denial. Specifically, self-conquest requires sacrifice, and sacrifice leads to perfection. These ideas are based in Christianity, especially as it is interpreted by John Bunyan in The Pilgrim's Progress. The virtue of self-abnegation, as espoused in this text, was enthusiastically taken up by Alcott's father. Alcott also accepted this virtue, even as she fought for self-expression and personal freedom. Her character Jo does the same. The novel provides both covert and overt messages in expressing this theme.

In Chapter 2, the March family gives their Christmas breakfast to the less fortunate Hummels, a symbolic dress rehearsal for subsequent sacrifices: Meg gives up her dream of material comfort to marry John Brooke and gradually learns to be happy with less; Jo gives up her dream of financial independence and authorship to marry Professor Bhaer; Amy lets go of her dream to become a famous artist, embracing the role of benefactress as the wife of Theodore (Laurie) Laurence; Beth resigns herself to the fact that she is dying, going gently and happily to her fate. Since Little Women counsels young girls to embrace the traditional roles of wife and mother to ensure their happiness. Moreover, the sacrifices they make along the way are in the service of their own perfection and done for the good of others. Nonetheless, the author leaves the reader with a sad feeling about all the sacrifices Jo and Amy are forced to make.

Wealth and Happiness

The March girls are brought up to believe happiness results from living a good and moral life and practicing Christian values, such as love, kindness, compassion, generosity, and selflessness. Since a woman was dependent on marriage to secure her financial future, it was not uncommon for a mother to think of a prospective groom's wealth first when considering her daughters' futures. But despite the importance of "marrying well" to secure a girl's future, Mrs. March tells Meg and Jo that she wants her daughters to lead "useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to try them as God sees fit." Being "chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman," she says. Money is "needful and precious," but it is not "the first or only prize to strive for." She would prefer they be poor men's wives if they are happy rather than rich men's wives "without self-respect and peace."

Nonetheless, a subtext exists in the novel with regard to this idea. Jo spends a lot of time thinking about how she can earn money for her family. Why would she do so if it were not tied to happiness? Meg's early marriage trials are related to money, and a lack of money delays Jo's happy marriage. Amy boldly proclaims her intention to marry Fred Vaughn for money and then changes her mind, but she ends up with Laurie, who is conveniently rich and able to help other members of her family once she is married.

Woman as Artist

Three of the four March sisters have artistic talent or aspirations. The importance of artistic expression runs throughout the novel, but the narrator is ambiguous in her attitude about women artists and whether their making art is a good thing. Beth is a talented musician, and while she has no desire to go out in the world to share her gift, she becomes supremely happy when she is allowed access to Mr. Laurence's piano. Amy has artistic talent and spends much of her time cultivating this gift. However, the narrator sends mixed messages about the extent of Amy's talent. For example, the narrator makes fun of Amy's failures when trying different artistic mediums. At the same time, her sisters consistently praise her artwork, as does Laurie when he meets her in Europe. Jo is a talented writer who is described as going into a writer's trance when she is in a period of inspiration. She begins making money with her pen at an early age. Her first novel receives mixed reviews, but again the narrator in unclear about its merits. Jo takes up the writing of thrillers in earnest in New York but then stops because of Professor Bhaer's disapproval.

Throughout the novel, the importance and necessity for the March women to create art is stressed, and yet the narrator is ambiguous about the degree of their talent or the worth of their art. In the end both Amy and Jo give up art for the sake of becoming model wives and mothers.

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