Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Written in response to a publisher’s request for a “girls’ book,” Little Women is an enduring classic of domestic realism, tracing the lives of four sisters from adolescence through early adulthood. The narrator is omniscient and intrusive, frequently interrupting the narrative to provide moral commentary. Often didactic and sentimental, the novel nevertheless realistically portrays family life in the mid-nineteenth century United States. Like female counterparts of John Bunyan’s Christian from Pilgrim’s Progress, the four “little women” of the March family journey into womanhood, learning difficult lessons of poverty, obedience, charity, and hard work along the way.
The novel is arranged in two parts; Alcott wrote and published part 1 first, gauging its reception before continuing with part 2. Part 1 covers approximately one year in the life of the March family, during which time the father is away, serving his country as a chaplain during the Civil War. “Marmee” and her daughters learn to live with meager resources; the two older girls work outside the home to help support the family, and all four girls keep busy with sewing, housekeeping, and helping the one family servant, Hannah, with the household chores.
Their experience of poverty, hardship, and their father’s absence is counterbalanced by many occasions of fun and good humor. The sisters put on plays for the neighborhood, have picnics with their...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
March home. Home of the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, in an unspecified northern city. The house is probably based on the Orchard House in Concord, where Alcott herself spent much of her youth. Alcott reveals few physical details about the March house; it seems to be threadbare but comfortable. The Marches live frugally because the girls’ father has suffered financial reverses trying to help a friend. They often gather around the fireplace during the winter months, and Jo has scorched one of her best gowns by standing too close to the heat. The Marches’ comfortable home contrasts with the dwelling of German immigrants to whom Mrs. March and the girls take food on Christmas Day. The Hummels’ home has broken window panes, no heat, and no food; however, the Marches try to set things right before leaving.
Gardiner house and Moffat house. The comfortable but plain home of the Marches also contrasts with the more luxurious homes of the social-climbing Gardiners and Moffats. At a party at the Gardiner residence, Jo meets Theodore Laurence (Laurie), who is hiding in a curtained recess and realizes that he lives next door. Later, the novel follows Meg’s activities at a party at the Moffats. It is here at “Vanity Fair” that Meg becomes troubled and angered when she overhears Mrs. Moffat suggesting that Mrs. March is scheming for one of her girls to marry Laurie.
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Little Women is a classic of children’s literature and of domestic realism. Read even today by young girls, it is perhaps the most successful girls’ book ever written. Since its publication, Little Women has never been out of print; it has been translated into more than two dozen languages, has been made into a movie, and has inspired several generations of young women who, like Jo March, went on to become famous writers.
The ongoing appeal of Little Women stems from its realistic portrayal of the struggles of adolescents to become women, a process that is never presented as easy or unequivocally acceptable. Even Marmee, who seems saint-like in her placidity, charity, and generosity, has had to learn to control her temper and develop as an equal partner in her marriage to a man who, because of his work, must often leave her with the primary responsibility for their children. The fully drawn and very different “little women” of the March family appeal to a wide range of tastes, for they range from romantic to rebel, sentimental to socialite.
The character of Jo, modeled after Alcott herself, is most often cited as the reason for the novel’s enduring popularity: She rebels against conformity but succeeds in both her professional work as a writer and in her personal life as a wife and mother. Despite the conflicted feminist message inherent in Jo’s eventual marriage—for even though she disparages marriage...
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The Role of Women in Nineteenth-Century America
In the nineteenth century, women were responsible for creating warm, happy homes for their husbands and children. While some families hired servants, most could not afford to hire help. The duties of running a household were staggering. A woman prepared three rather elaborate meals every day. Housecleaning, laundry, mending, and ironing were all done with painstaking care. Daughters were expected to help with housework to expedite chores and also to learn skills for their own future households.
Women were also accountable for the actions of the family outside the home. If a man took up excessive drinking or gambling, for example, his wife was blamed for not creating a suitable home environment. To create an ideal home, the wife handled all housework in addition to being polite, selfless, virtuous, and loving.
Despite the heavy domestic demands placed on a woman, it was sometimes necessary for her to seek additional work for economic reasons. While many tried to take work they could perform at home, such as laundry or sewing, others worked as governesses, teachers, or companions to the elderly. In some cases, women were able to make a living in the creative arts, such as writing. This was quite challenging because women were assumed to be inferior to men, and proper women were not expected to know very much about the outside world.
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Little Women is set in the 1860s in a New England town modeled on Concord, Massachusetts. Most of the action in Part I revolves around the March family home. With Father away, serving as a clergyman for soldiers fighting in the Civil War, the four daughters and their mother remain at home, struggling to live as comfortably as possible under the circumstances. Because Father lost most of his income helping an "unfortunate friend," the March girls—none of whom had expected to pursue careers— work feverishly to support the family and, in the process, confront conflicts between domestic duties and independence. The setting broadens in Part II as Alcott describes the girls' travels away from home and their eventual marriages.
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Point of View
Little Women is written from a third-person omniscient perspective. The narrator knows the girls' personalities, thoughts, and feelings intimately. This allows the reader to see happenings that the family often does not, such as when Jo cries because she is secretly disappointed that Amy is the one going to Europe.
The narrator also knows the girls' futures, as there are occasional references to what will happen at a future time. Alcott uses both subtle foreshadowing and explicit references to future events. When the Marches and the Laurences set up their makeshift post office, the Laurence's gardener sends a secret love letter to Hannah, the March's housekeeper. Alcott comments, "How they laughed when the secret came out, never dreaming how many love letters that little post office would hold in the years to come!" This statement not only intrigues adolescent readers, but also foreshadows future pleasant letters as well as the cruel joke Laurie plays on Meg by sending forged love letters.
The omniscient narrator does not abuse her power by censoring the characters' faults and mishaps. On the contrary, flaws and bad judgment are included in the story to add a dimension of realism and make the characters believable. Laurie's cruel joke on Meg, Meg's silly domestic dramas as a wife, Jo's intentionally not telling Amy to be careful on the ice—all of these show the characters as human...
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In Little Women, Alcott blends the children's moral tale of her day with the domestic novel, a popular form of nineteenth-century women's fiction. The narrative structure is episodic, with alternating chapters focused on either each girl in turn, or on the group, in order to convey lessons on right behavior. Alcott lightened the moralistic tone found in other children's fiction by stressing family approval and social rewards rather than personal religious salvation. Reinforcement of the domestic theme also lightens the tone. Episodes are often festive, constructed around reunions, reconciliations, events when family life is celebrated. Moments of moral realization often revolve around conversations, which demonstrate Alcott's capacity for artfully crafted dialogue. The novel also is lighter on sentimentality than other tales.
An important aspect of Alcott's technique is realism. In Little Women, Alcott drew heavily upon her own life experiences. She built her characters around people she knew. Meg is modeled after Alcott's older sister Anna, Jo after Alcott herself, Beth after a younger sister Elizabeth, and Amy after the youngest sister, artist May. Marmee strongly resembles Alcott's mother. Critics identify scholarly Mr. March with Alcott's father, the philosopher Bronson Alcott, and some also link Bronson with Friedrich, seen as the type he might have been. Mr. Laurence was modeled on Alcott's grandfather, Joseph May. Critics identify Laurie as a...
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In writing Little Women, Alcott broke much new ground while adhering, structurally, to many conventions of mid-nineteenth-century young adult literature. The novel is an unusual example of young adult literature of the time because Alcott endows her characters with both faults and virtues; avoids preaching to the reader; writes in a simple but accurate style; employs simple and often humorous dialogue; and demonstrates great skill as a local colorist. Little Women is typical of young adult books of the time in that it is episodic in structure, with chapters often devoted to individual sisters. Each sister's quest to overcome her "burden" in life, to become a "little woman," and to find true love serves as the unifying theme of the novel.
Alcott's application of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress reflects both the traditional and the innovative strains in her work. By structuring the moral development of her characters around the story of the pilgrim who travels from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City— facing internal and external demons en route to his destination—Alcott combines allegorical tradition with nineteenth-century literary techniques. Alcott fleshes out Bunyan's one-dimensional Christian in the forms of her protagonists. Her characterization of Jo in particular offers a portrait of a complex young woman who struggles to reconcile the goals of her own "pilgrim's progress" with the expectations of her society....
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In Little Women, Alcott is concerned with the maturation and socialization of girls. She treats the issues through the experiences of the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, who range in age from twelve to sixteen when the novel begins. The ages of the characters at the novel's outset suggests that late adolescence launches a particularly important stage in the developmental process. From the outset it is clear also that strong parental guidance and a sheltered, domestic setting are essential elements. Additionally, as the earliest chapters suggest, the inculcation of cheerful and unselfish qualities will help young people endure war and shifting social and economic times.
The narrative begins with the four March girls seated before the hearth waiting for their mother to arrive, and grumbling about the lack of money to buy themselves gifts, "Christmas wont be Christmas without any presents," Jo says. "It's so dreadful to be poor!" Meg says. "I don't think it's fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things," Amy says, "and other girls nothing at all." Only Beth takes an unselfish approach. She suggests that they buy a gift for their mother "Marmee" instead of for themselves. When Mrs. March arrives, she reads aloud a letter from Father, who is serving as a Union chaplain in the Civil War. In the letter, Mr. March ratifies the approach of self-denial. He expresses his hope that his girls will "conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Little Women cannot fail to provide ample opportunity for lively discussion. Groups should enjoy comparing current standards of behavior, especially as they are publicized in the media or in literature, to the nineteenth-century moral life which Alcott depicts. Discussion groups interested particularly in women's issues should find Little Women an intriguing novel to consider. A good line to pursue is the extent to which readers believe, as many critics do, that subversive feminist elements are detectable in the novel's depictions of domestic values and women's self-denying virtues. The novel might be discussed in light of a reading of Behind a Mask (1866), or another of Alcott's thrillers. Little Women draws considerably on Alcott's personal experiences and can be seen as a resource for historical information about children's play, child-rearing practices, household activities, family entertainment, fashion, work outside the home, patriotic and social attitudes, and treatment of the needy. In conjunction with its sequels, the novel can be used as a springboard to information about the era following the Civil War. Groups might wish to read Little Men or jo's Boys to determine whether or how much Alcott developed her approach to feminism after Little Women, or what she thought about education.
1. Do you find Alcott's choice of title suggestive? Is a belittling of women implied, as some critics believe?
2. There is general agreement that reader...
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Compare and Contrast
1860s: Children's books generally depict innocent, flawless children in innocent stories. Characters are one-dimensional and stories are strongly oriented toward teaching virtue.
Today: The Newbery Medal is awarded to Christopher Paul Curtis' Bud, Not Buddy, a story about a ten-year-old boy who runs away from his foster home in search of his father. One of the Caldecott Honor Books is Audrey Couloumbis' Getting Near to Baby, which tells the story of two sisters dealing with the death of their baby sister. Another Caldecott Honor Book is Molly Bang's When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry, a story about a little girl's temper tantrum.
1860s: Scarlet fever, which typically afflicts children between the ages of two and ten, is often fatal, as treatments are terribly inadequate. Even when children survive, they often suffer poor health for years.
Today: Since the discovery of penicillin, scarlet fever rarely claims lives. In fact, patients treated for the disease rarely even suffer lingering problems. In addition, scarlet fever is not as severe as it once was, either because the strain has weakened or because people have become more resistant to the disease.
Early 1860s: The best-selling fiction books are Charles Dickens'
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Topics for Discussion
1. What motivates and shapes the character of each of the March girls? What are some of the lessons the girls learn from their experiences at home and away? What conflicts do they face with others and within themselves?
2. Although Father is absent for most of the novel, his presence is felt in every scene. What influence does he have on the family?
3. What does Little Women suggest about parental authority?
4. What are the sources of delight and adventure in the girls' lives?
5. Each of the sisters is able to overcome her character flaw—or "bosom enemy"—by the end of the novel. What happens to bring about these changes of character, and what new challenges does each sister face in marriage?
6. How does Alcott use John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress to develop the characters and themes of her novel?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. What attitudes toward marriage does Alcott present in Little Women, and how do they compare to contemporary attitudes?
2. Why do you think Little Women—in many ways a dated, sentimental, and moralizing work—has endured in popularity for more than one hundred years? What lessons can modern readers learn from the book that would help them to live better lives?
3. Little Women is the first of three March family books. Read either Little Men or Jo's Boys and compare it to Little Women. What new information are you given about the family in the sequel? Do you notice any differences in Alcott's telling of the story?
4. What does Alcott seem to be saying in her novels about the conflict between women's quest for political, economic, and educational equality and the demands of domestic life?
5. Louisa May Alcott's father, Bronson Alcott, was a leading figure in the philosophical school known as transcendentalism, as was the Alcotts' neighbor in Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson. What does the term "transcendentalist" mean? Research and report on the history of transcendentalist thought in America.
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Topics for Further Study
Imagine you are assigned to create a soundtrack for Little Women. Think about each of the four March girls, Laurie, and Marmee. Choose a song or musical composition that best reflects each character's personality, dreams, and emotional landscape. What are the songs that you choose?
Research birth-order theories and consider how the dynamics among the sisters support or refute such theories. Report on your findings.
Although modern wars have important roles for women, the Civil War was much more of a man's war. See what you can learn about women during the time of the Civil War. In what ways did they contribute to the war effort both on the front (in hospitals, for example) and at home?
Examine the lives of other prominent American women writers to see if there are parallels between their life experiences and Louisa May Al-cott's. Do you find that they are vastly different, or that there are significant similarities? Also, did most women use their given names, or did they take pseudonyms, perhaps even male pseudonyms (such as British author George Eliot)? How do you account for the decision to reveal female gender (or not) as a writer in the nineteenth century?
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Little Women falls inside and outside a "family novel" tradition traceable to Jane Austen in England, whose Pride and Prejudice for adults, published in 1813, was marked by depictions of manners and sisterly bonds. Novels written by and for women became popular in both England and America in the nineteenth century. In the decades just before Little Women appeared, Susan Warner in the United States and Charlotte Yonge in England wrote in the nineteenth century's most popular fictional form, the sentimental domestic novel. These works, read by both adults and young people, presented morally good characters as role models.
Jo March is seen in Chapter 11 reading The Wide, Wide World, published in 1850 by Warner writing under the pseudonym of Elizabeth Weatherell. Warner's novel does not portray a happy family unit, but its heroine Ellen Montgomery, age ten at the outset, meets and conquers tribulations to achieve moral maturity. Jo is seen in Chapter 3 reading Yonge's enormously popular The Heir of Redclyffe, published in 1853. Closer to Little Women is Yonge's novel The Daisy Chain, first serialized in a young people's magazine and published in book form in 1856. It portrays a family of children named May interrelating and maturing, primarily in a home situation.
Little Women, like the novels of Warner and Yonge, reflects the domestic ideology of its day, but it is far more advanced in its stress on realism over sentiment, and secularism over...
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There are two sequels to Little Women. Little Men is set at Plumfield School, which Jo and her husband run accord- ing to educational theories similar to those espoused by Bronson Alcott. Jo's Boys is also set at Plumfield. Both sequels were written primarily to satisfy the public's demand to know more about the March family.
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Little Women has been adapted for the screen on numerous occasions. The first was a silent movie produced by G. B. Samuelson in 1917. In 1918 William A. Brady Picture Plays produced another silent version, adapted by Anne Maxwell. One of the best-known adaptations was produced in 1933 by RKO Radio Pictures, adapted for film by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman, starring Katharine Hepburn as Jo. In 1949, an adaptation by Mason, Heerman, and Andrew Solt was produced by MGM, starring June Allyson as Jo, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, Janet Leigh as Meg, and Peter Lawford as Laurie. In 1994, Columbia Pictures produced a film adaptation by Robin Swicord, starring Winona Ryder as Jo, Kirsten Dunst as Amy, Claire Danes as Beth, Eric Stoltz as Mr. Brooke, and Susan Sarandon as Marmee.
Little Women was adapted for television in 1958 in a production by CBS Television. Another television production was released in 1970, directed by Paddy Russell. In 1978, an adaptation for television by Susan Clauser was produced by Universal TV, starring Meredith Baxter as Meg, Susan Dey as Jo, Eve Plumb as Beth, Greer Garson as Aunt March, and William Shat-ner as Professor Bhaer.
Numerous audio adaptations have been made for listeners to enjoy the story on tape. These include releases by Books in Motion, 1982; Audio Book Contractors, 1987; Harper Audio, 1991; DH Audio, 1992; Dove Entertainment, 1995; Soundelux Audio Publishing, 1995; Sterling...
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What Do I Read Next?
Little Men (1871) is the sequel to Little Women, and tells of Jo's life at Plumfield, where she runs a school for boys. Although the boys are often rowdy, Jo and her husband enjoy teaching them, along with their own two sons.
In Jo's Boys (1886), Alcott continues the adventures of the boys from Jo's school at Plum-field. Now that the boys have grown into men, they follow very different paths in life.
Nina Baym' s Women's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870 (1978) provides a useful overview of trends in women's literature in the mid-nineteenth century. Baym considers 130 novels by forty-eight authors.
Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic The Secret Garden (1911) is the story of Mary, Colin, and Dickon, whose moody dispositions are lightened by the discovery of a secret garden that inspires their imaginations. As they restore the little paradise, they learn about life and personal growth.
Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables (1908) is the story of a lively, mischievous orphan sent to a family who was expecting a boy. As she and her new parents learn about each other, they learn that their finding each other was lucky after all.
Louisa May Alcott: A Reference Guide is Alma J. Payne's 1980 guide to the work of one of...
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For Further Reference
Burrows, Alvina Treut. "A Critical Study of Little Women." Elementary English 37 (May 1960): 285-292. Interprets the novel as a biography of Alcott's family and evaluates her style, technique, themes, and conflicts.
Curtis, David. "Little Women: A Reconsideration." Elementary English 45 (November 1968): 878-879. Argues that the novel should be given more critical attention and discusses the qualities that warrant its century of popularity.
Elbert, Sarah. A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and "Little Women. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1984. Discusses Alcott's concerns with the woman's role both at home and at work.
MacDonald, Ruth K. Louisa May Alcott. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Offers a close reading of Alcott's works for children and adults. Places the works for children within the context of Alcott's life.
Payne, Alma J. Louisa May Alcott: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. This annotated bibliography attempts to include "all scholarship of any substance on Louisa May Alcott." Includes an introduction in which Payne provides an overview of available criticism.
Russ, Lavinia. "Not to Be Read on Sunday." Horn Book 44 (1968): 521-526. Praises Little Women for its presentation of bravery and goodness.
Stern, Madeleine B. Critical Essays on Louisa May Alcott. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. Includes major reviews of all of her...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Brophy, Brigid, "A Masterpiece, and Dreadful," in New York Times Book Review, January 17, 1965, pp. 1, 44.
Chesterton, G. K., "Louisa Alcott," in A Handful of Authors: Essays on Books and Writers, Sheed and Ward, 1953, pp. 163-67.
Elbert, Sarah, A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and "Little Women," Temple University Press, 1984.
Gabin, Jane S., "Little Women: Overview," in Reference Guide to American Literature, 3rd edition, St. James Press, 1994.
Janeway, Elizabeth, "Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and Louisa," in Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature, edited by Sheila Egoff, G. T. Stubbs, and L. F. Ashley, Oxford University Press, 1969, pp. 286, 288, 290.
Lurie, Alison, "She Had It All," in New York Review of Books, March 2, 1995, pp. 3-5.
Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson, eds., Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them, Vol. 2: Civil Wars to Frontier Societies (1800-1880s), The Gale Group, 1997.
Review of Little Women, in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 39, August 1869, pp. 455-56.
Review of Little Women, in Nation, Vol. 7, No. 173, October 22, 1868, p. 335.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Delamar, Gloria T. Louisa May Alcott and “Little Women”: Biography, Critique, Publications, Poems, Songs, and Contemporary Relevance. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1990. Goes beyond a biography of Alcott to include a comprehensive bibliography of Alcott’s works and analyses of her work. Includes critical analysis of Little Women and selections from letters by Alcott and her close associates.
Elbert, Sarah. A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott’s Place in American Culture. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987. Elbert provides both biographical background and critical coverage, tracing the two predominant themes in Little Women and in Alcott’s work generally: domesticity and feminism. The chapters “Writing Little Women” and “Reading Little Women” are particularly useful.
Graham, Peter W. Don Juan and Regency England. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990. Six essays that examine Byron’s comic poem in the context of various aspects of Regency English culture, from politics to pantomime.
Kaledin, Eugenia. “Louisa May Alcott: Success and the Sorrow of Self-Denial.” Women’s Studies 5 (1978): 251-263. Kaledin argues that Alcott’s need to succeed financially prevented her from becoming a true literary success. Kaledin...
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