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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Ideas for Group Discussions
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Discussion
Ideas for Reports and Papers
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
For Further Reference
Bibliography and Further Reading
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...
(The entire section is 617 words.)