What is the main theme of Little Women?

The central theme in Little Women is the need for self-sacrifice, which ultimately brings happiness by doing for others, and that one must balance duty to family with personal desires in order to truly grow up. True sacrifice is rooted in love, compassion, charity and selflessness. Messages in this story have religious overtones.

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One of the key themes of Little Women is the importance of family. The March sisters are extremely close to one another and to their parents. Receiving a letter from their father, who is away from home in the army as a chaplain, is a treat that raises the girls's spirits.

Another theme is the need to take on responsibility during difficult times and to maintain a strong outlook in the face of adversity. It is important to remember two things about the story. First, the March girls are living during a war. Many, if not most, of the men are away. Second, the March family is old and established. They once had money, but are now poor in comparison to their extended family. Yet, they are encouraged to deal with life's difficulties and not complain. As the title of the novel suggests, they are to act as "little women" with maturity beyond their actual years.

It does not mean that the girls do not want to have nice things or strive for more exciting times. However, it is important for them to remember to be thankful for what they have. There are religious overtones to this message that can be seen in the game the girls play as youngsters, Pilgrim's Progress. Marmee tells them that,

Nothing delighted you more than to. . .let you travel. . .from the cellar, which was the City of Destruction, up, up, to the housetop, where you had all the lovely things you could collect to make a Celestial City."

In the game, the March girls aspire to travel from the City of Destruction to the Celestial—or heavenly—City. Moreover, when the story opens, they are living during a time of war and destruction. Young men and even many older men, like their father, are away in the army, so the women that they have left behind must fend for themselves. It is not a time to complain, but to deal with life as it comes. As Meg tells her sisters in the very first chapter, this is the reason that Marmee asked them to forego presents at Christmas; it will be a hard winter for everyone, and there is no time for frivolity.

Meg says, "our men are suffering so in the army." They can do their Christian and patriotic duty by acting bravely and recognizing how difficult things are for everyone, and making the according sacrifices.

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Louisa May Alcott's Little Women has resonated with readers over time precisely because it has opened up questions about women's ever-evolving role in society through its portrayal of four very different sisters. While the novel presents a variety of themes centered around femininity, the validity of gender stereotypes, the importance of hard work, and the connection between happiness and moral living, the most overarching theme in the book is really that of sacrifice.

We see examples of this idea of sacrifice throughout the story, and it’s one of the central tenets of growing up that all the March sisters consequently face. Amy has to sacrifice her goal of being an artist, Jo her goal of being a famous author, and Meg of desirable earthly comforts, all in order to become dutiful wives and mothers in order to guarantee the happiness of others. Even Beth sacrifices her very future and contentedly accepts her inevitable death.

Other examples of sacrifice include Jo selling her hair to fund Marmee’s trip to Washington, or the sisters giving up their Christmas breakfast so that the impoverished Hummels could have a better holiday. Such sacrifices required the March sisters balancing personal growth, maturity and a duty to family, even when their own happiness was at stake.

However, Alcott makes clear that self-sacrifice has immense value, eventually resulting in happiness. Moral living brings happiness and sacrifice is one of the highest ideals of Christian morals. We see this in the way the sisters ultimately achieve happiness through their familial and spousal relationships. Giving up personal wants and desires for the betterment of others reflects the love, charity, compassion and selfless behavior at the heart of Christian teachings. In other words, it's the benefit that comes from doing for others rather than benefit that comes from achieving personal gain that matters most in life.

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Certainly, the novel conveys the idea that "into each life, some rain must fall."  In other words, no life or relationship is going to be perfect.  Meg and John have no money, but take a great deal of joy in their children.  Jo and Bhaer don't have much money, but feel very rich in their ability to take in boys to educate and make a family of those boys and their own son.  Amy and Laurie are very wealthy, and very much in love, but their daughter is often ill and may not live into adulthood.  No life can be free from all sorrow, and nothing can protect us from it: not love, not money.

The novel also makes claims about the kind of qualities on which a marriage should be founded.  We see through Marmee and Mr. March's relationship, as well as the failed romance between Jo and Laurie (and Jo's later successful romance with Bhaer) that a proper marriage is founded on mutual love and respect as well as the ability of each partner to help the other to become the best possible version of themselves.  Mr. March, for example, helps Marmee with her temper.  Bhaer helps to cool Jo's temper as well; however, Laurie only seemed to egg her on and escalate her heated feelings, and this was one clue that their relationship would not make them both happy in the long run.

Further, the novel also conveys the idea that work and play are both necessary for a fulfilling and productive life.  When Marmee allows the girls to try their "experiment," and not work for an entire week, she knows it will not be as fun as they expect.  She very much believes that work is necessary in order to be happy, and she is right (as they learn during the week).

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