Little Women challenged assumptions about women in nineteenth-century America. Marmee tells her daughters that they should not feel obligated to find husbands, but should seek fulfillment on their own. In chapter 9, she tells Meg and Jo:
My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world—marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting. . . . [B]etter be happy old maids than unhappy wives, or unmaidenly girls, running about to have husbands. . . . Leave these things to time; make this home happy, so that you may be fit for homes of your own, if they are offered you, and contented here if they are not.
Through her example, Marmee shows that a home can be run successfully without a man supporting it, as hers is while Mr. March is away at war. While many women, like Aunt March, expected young women to pursue wealthy men, Marmee sees the value of marriage differently.
Jo is fascinating as a study of female independence in early American society. She is a tomboy who is scolded by her sisters for whistling, using slang, and behaving in "unmaidenly" ways. In chapter 1, Jo tells Meg:
I hate to think I've got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China aster! It's bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys' games and work and manners! I can't get over my disappointment in not being a boy; and it's worse than ever now, for I'm dying to go and fight with Papa, and I can only stay at home and knit, like a poky old woman!
Jo is brash, outspoken, lively, and clever. She proclaims, "I am not afraid of anything," voicing an attitude altogether different from that of the stereotypical prim and proper young lady. As she matures, she takes more care with her appearance and adopts more ladylike mannerisms, but she does not sacrifice the sense that she is equal to any man.
Adolescence and Identity
Although Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy grow up in the same household, they develop very distinct identities. Marmee encourages them to be confident in themselves and to mature in wisdom and self-knowledge. Adolescence is a difficult period for anyone, so the girls' struggles are universal. Throughout the novel, the girls' basic identities remain consistent, but as they grow up, they come to understand their faults and work to improve themselves.
Meg's identity is anchored in pleasing her family, be it her mother and sisters or her husband. She is domestic and thrives on homemaking. Jo is stormy and independent, but eventually learns to control her temper. Even as an adult, the self-reliance she values is important in her decision-making. Jo is an unconventional person, so it is no surprise that she ultimately lives an unconventional life. Beth is harmonious and selfless. Were it not for her untimely death, she would likely have continued to grow as a warm...
(The entire section is 1275 words.)
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Each March girl is on a "pilgrimage," a journey of moral transformation that will mark her coming of age. The point of embarkation is Father's letter. Each girl responds to it with a vow to "be better" and do her duty to the household. The novel depicts progress made as the girls undergo, separately or together, a series of trials by which selfish temptations are overcome. A persistent theme is that selfless, spiritual values bring happiness and comfort. When the several sisters first voice discontent, Beth recalls how Meg had said that "we were a deal happier than the King children, for they were fighting and fretting all the time, in spite of their money."
In the narrative the Golden Rule is invoked, but the goal is family approval rather than religious salvation. Amy, who at first kept back a little money for herself at Christmas, gains her sisters' blessing when she spends it all for Marmee's gift. In the novel, the theme of moral self-development is inseparable from the preservation of family values and domesticity as woman's role. "Make this home happy," Marmee tells her daughters, "so that you may be fit for homes of your own." While Marmee indicates that it is better to "be happy old maids than unhappy wives," she still hopes her daughters will marry. "To be loved and chosen by a good man," she says, "is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman."
Correlative to Marmee's claim is the idea that a woman's creative self-expression is unfulfilling, or is incompatible with marriage. The narrative can be read along these lines. Jo is spirited and independent, and develops a successful writing career until the man who becomes her husband turns her from it. Amy, too, is a budding artist, but finally subordinates her talent to domestic ends....
(The entire section is 727 words.)