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What are the themes in Little Women?  

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pippaisawsome | Student, Grade 11 | eNotes Newbie

Posted August 21, 2011 at 11:38 PM via web

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What are the themes in Little Women?

 

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted August 22, 2011 at 3:09 AM (Answer #1)

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For its time, Louisa Mae Alcott's Little Women was radical in its portrayal of such independent young women, especially the character Jo.  But, because of this avant-garde challenge of gender roles and its compelling narrative, Little Women remains a beloved classic, one that both boys and girls enjoy.  Here are three prevailing themes of Alcott's novel:

Gender Roles

With the husband and father gone to fight in the Civil War, the March family is composed solely of females.  Rather than following the traditional role of women in the nineteenth-century, however, the March girls and their mother develop minds and spirits that are independent.  Mrs. March, for example, unlike Mrs. Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, does not groom her daughters solely to become wives; rather, she instructs her girls that they should develop themselves into educated and interesting women so that they can live happy lives.  It is "...[B]etter [to] be happy old maids than unhappy wives," she tells them. 

Josephine March, who is sixteen at the beginning of the narrative, is the most independent of the girls.  Considered a tomboy, she is exuberant, self-confident, and very bright.  Uninterested in marriage, she is upset when her sister Meg marries because she feels that the family is being broken apart.  Nevertheless, Jo herself later separates from the family, but she realizes that she must pursue her own dream of becoming a writer.  After she moves away, she meets Professor Bhaer, who encourages her and is supportive, rather than chauvanistic as was customary for the times. 

Another member of the family who does not follow the norm is Meg.  For instance, when she visits her friend Anne Moffat and feels uncomfortable in her old dress, her friends dress her for a dance, yet Meg feels foolishly like some doll that has been dressed by its owner.

Maturation

Alcott's novel is greatly concerned with the girls' search for self.  Meg, for example, is very family-orientated and is concerned about pleasing others while Jo is fiercely independent.  Beth is selfless and Amy is more concerned with herself and her acquistion of things than are the other girls; like the others she, too, seeks her own identity.

While the Marches are poor, they are not so impoverished that they cannot charitably help others.  In addition, they are not ashamed of their condition and unabashedly visit the Laurence home and marvel at the wonderful library. Never are they envious or petty; instead they embrace Laurie as their friend, especially Jo. For, the Marches realize that they are wealthy in ways that the Laurences are not as they have parents while Laurie does not.  Clearly Miss Alcott demonstrates through the relationship of the March girls with Laurie that there is wealth that supercedes economic wealth.

 

 

 

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted August 22, 2011 at 3:10 AM (Answer #2)

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For its time, Louisa Mae Alcott's Little Women was radical in its portrayal of such independent young women, especially the character Jo.  But, because of this avant-garde challenge of gender roles and its compelling narrative, Little Women remains a beloved classic, one that both boys and girls enjoy.  Here are three prevailing themes of Alcott's novel:

Gender Roles

With the husband and father gone to fight in the Civil War, the March family is composed solely of females.  Rather than following the traditional role of women in the nineteenth-century, however, the March girls and their mother develop minds and spirits that are independent.  Mrs. March, for example, unlike Mrs. Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, does not groom her daughters solely to become wives; rather, she instructs her girls that they should develop themselves into educated and interesting women so that they can live happy lives.  It is "...[B]etter [to] be happy old maids than unhappy wives," she tells them. 

Josephine March, who is sixteen at the beginning of the narrative, is the most independent of the girls.  Considered a tomboy, she is exuberant, self-confident, and very bright.  Uninterested in marriage, she is upset when her sister Meg marries because she feels that the family is being broken apart.  Nevertheless, Jo herself later separates from the family, but she realizes that she must pursue her own dream of becoming a writer.  After she moves away, she meets Professor Bhaer, who encourages her and is supportive, rather than chauvanistic as was customary for the times. 

Another member of the family who does not follow the norm is Meg.  For instance, when she visits her friend Anne Moffat and feels uncomfortable in her old dress, her friends dress her for a dance, yet Meg feels foolishly like some doll that has been dressed by its owner.

Maturation

Alcott's novel is greatly concerned with the girls' search for self.  Meg, for example, is very family-orientated and is concerned about pleasing others while Jo is fiercely independent.  Beth is selfless and Amy is more concerned with herself and her acquistion of things than are the other girls; like the others she, too, seeks her own identity.

Concepts of Wealth

While the Marches are poor, they are not so impoverished that they cannot charitably help others.  In addition, they are not ashamed of their condition and unabashedly visit the Laurence home and marvel at the wonderful library. Never are they envious or petty; instead they embrace Laurie as their friend, especially Jo. For, the Marches realize that they are wealthy in ways that the Laurences are not as they have parents while Laurie does not.  Clearly Miss Alcott demonstrates through the relationship of the March girls with Laurie that there is wealth that supercedes economic wealth.

 

 

 

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hoodymalik | Student, Grade 9 | eNoter

Posted May 20, 2013 at 6:00 PM (Answer #3)

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The Danger of Gender Stereotyping

Little Women questions the validity of gender stereotypes, both male and female. Jo, at times, does not want to be a conventional female. In her desires and her actions, she frustrates typical gender expectations. She wants to earn a living, for example—a duty conventionally reserved for men. Also, she wears a dress with a burn mark to a party, evidence that she does not possess tremendous social grace, a quality that nineteenth-century American society cultivated in women. Similarly, there are times when Laurie does not want to be a conventional man. He wants to pursue music, at that time a culturally feminine pursuit, instead of business, a culturally masculine pursuit. Even his nickname, Laurie, which he uses in favor of his much more masculine given name, Theodore, suggests his feminine side. Alcott bestows the highest esteem upon Jo and Laurie, who, in their refusal to embody gender stereotypes, willingly expose themselves to particular obstacles.

Work

Over the course of Little Women, the March sisters try to find happiness through daily activities, their dreams, and each other; but when they do not engage in any productive work, they end up guilty and remorseful. When they indulge in selfishness by dressing up in finery, hoarding limes, neglecting chores, or getting revenge, the girls end up unhappy. The only way they find meaningful happiness is when they are working, either for a living or for the benefit of their families. The novel demonstrates the importance of the Puritan work ethic, which dictates that it is holy to do work. This work ethic, in line with the transcendentalist teachings with which Alcott grew up, thrived in New England, where many Puritans lived and where the novel takes place. Alcott ultimately recommends work not as a means to a material end, but rather as a means to the expression of inner goodness and creativity through productivity.

The Importance of Being Genuine

Little Women takes great pains to teach a lesson about the importance of being genuine. To make this point, Alcott contrasts the Marches with more well-to-do young women like Amy Moffat and Sally Gardiner. Transcendentalists emphasized the importance of paying more attention to the inner spiritual self than to temporary, earthly conditions like wealth and impressive appearances, and Alcott incorporates this philosophy into Little Women. For instance, Meg and Amy constantly struggle with vanity, and eventually overcome it. Amy turns down Fred Vaughn’s offer of marriage, even though he is rich, because she does not love him. The March sisters all learn to be happy with their respective lots in life and not to yearn for meaningless riches. The Marches’ snug New England home is presented as more desirable than mansions in Paris. This theme is particularly American, especially distinctive of New England. Unlike their counterparts in Europe, many middle-class Americans at the time did not mind having come from humble origins and did not crave titles or other superficial trappings of wealth. These Americans wanted only what they deserved and believed that what they deserved depended on how hard they worked.

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