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 friends, and set up the “Pickwick Club,” where they create a literary newspaper and soon include their neighbor, Laurie, among the group.
Each sister has her particular identity, including an artistic talent, character flaws, and positive traits. Meg, the oldest, bears the responsibility for her younger sisters but longs for a rich life full of beautiful things and free from material want and hardship. Jo is the literary genius, spending much of her free time in the attic, scribbling away at the stories she writes first for her family’s amusement and later for publication and for money. She is courageous, strong, and active, but she has to learn to control her temper and her rebellious nature. Beth is cheerful and good but suffers from ill health and shyness. She learns to overcome her timidity when she begins to visit the Laurences, after receiving permission to play their piano. Amy develops a wide range of artistic talents (drawing, painting, sculpture) and insists upon social correctness, sometimes to the point of prissiness, but her polite and charming ways offset this flaw.
Part 1 ends with Mr. March’s homecoming and Beth’s successful recovery from scarlet fever. Part 2 continues the little women’s lives three years later, when Meg marries John Brooke and the other sisters continue with their artistic endeavors and outside occupations. The family has become more diffuse, with Meg in a house of her own, Jo working as a governess in New York, and Amy on her grand tour of Europe. Laurie is away at college and then also in Europe; his boyhood friendship with Jo has developed into infatuation. She rejects his marriage proposal, despite her deep affection for him, for she knows that they are too much alike to have a successful marriage.
By the end of the novel, the “little women” have grown up. Despite the sadness of Beth’s death, the novel ends happily, with the other three sisters all married and with families of their own; all of them live nearby and continue to share in one another’s lives.