Little Women is a study in contrasts and juxtapositions: At times seriously didactic and moralistic, the novel’s tone can also be playful and humorous, even satirical at times. Genuine in its appreciation of motherhood, marriage, and domesticity, it also calls these traditional values into question, most often through the character of Jo March. These artistic and thematic tensions are often attributed to Louisa May Alcott’s own ambivalence about her conflicting roles of dutiful daughter and aspiring author. Little Women is predominantly autobiographical, especially in part 1, and it reveals the disappointments as well as the triumphs of Alcott’s life.
The characteristics typical of domestic fiction’s heroines—piousness, obedience, charity, industriousness, self-control—are reflected in the four “little women” of the March family. Jo struggles the most to acquire these traits, especially because of her quick temper and her rebellion against social prescription. In time, however, she learns to channel her energy and spirit into her art and her work, as she fulfills her lifelong dream of being a “mother” to boys when she establishes her school at Plumfield.
Throughout the novel, female community—here, the March family itself—is presented as one of the most important social institutions. Women educate and support one another, they form bonds of friendship and sisterhood, and they struggle against hardship together, often sacrificing their own needs and wants for those of others. The March sisters learn to overcome their own selfishness and self-centeredness through hard-won lessons: the absence and nearly fatal illness of their father, Beth’s ongoing illness and death, the callous gossip of acquaintances (which is often concerned with the family’s lack of wealth and social standing), the loss of suitors, and the hard compromises that must be made in marriage.
The novel is episodic in form, focusing on specific events in the lives of the March and Laurence families. These episodes end with moral lessons but also reveal more about the character of each sister and of Laurie. Realistic portrayals of nineteenth century social customs (making calls, society balls, touring the European continent) extend the setting of the novel outside its primary focus of the March family home.
Although the novel’s primary focus is domestic, concerned with family education and acculturation, it also expresses some feminist views. Jo rejects Laurie’s proposal—even through he is an outstanding “catch”—and with it, the idea of marriage. Jo has difficulty in accepting Meg’s marriage to John Brooke, for it begins the process of separating the close-knit community of sisters. The nineteenth century feminist ideal of equality in marriage is one that Jo herself strives toward and finally achieves in her own marriage to Professor Bhaer: He is a willing partner in her Plumfield school, an experienced surrogate parent (to his orphaned nephews), and secure in his own identity, as evidenced by his adaptation from renowned professor in Berlin to successful immigrant in America.
Long viewed as a moralistic and even superficial children’s novel, Little Women is far more complex than earlier generations of critics have acknowledged. Issues central to sociocultural debates of Victorian America—partnership in marriage, the positive aspects of spinsterhood, female community, and male-female friendship—are all treated with sensitivity and depth. Through the character of Jo March, Alcott was able to criticize social norms and mores while still appealing to her audience’s expectations of morality and social propriety through portrayals of the other characters.
The two most interesting characters in the novel, Jo and Laurie, form an androgynous pair, as their names suggest. Their friendship in the first part of the novel reveals that Jo’s development as a woman owes much to her “romps” with Laurie, for in them she learns independence, assertiveness, and courage. Likewise, through his acquaintance with the March family, and especially his close association with Jo, Laurie learns the concern for others, charity, and industriousness that are crucial to his development as a proper young gentleman. Though they do not mary (as Alcott’s readers wished they would, before the publication of part 2), they maintain a lifelong friendship, a testimony to the enduring bond they formed as adolescents.