For its time, Louisa Mae Alcott's Little Women was radical in its portrayal of such independent young women, especially the character Jo. But, because of this avant-garde challenge of gender roles and its compelling narrative, Little Women remains a beloved classic, one that both boys and girls enjoy. Here are three prevailing themes of Alcott's novel:
With the husband and father gone to fight in the Civil War, the March family is composed solely of females. Rather than following the traditional role of women in the nineteenth-century, however, the March girls and their mother develop minds and spirits that are independent. Mrs. March, for example, unlike Mrs. Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, does not groom her daughters solely to become wives; rather, she instructs her girls that they should develop themselves into educated and interesting women so that they can live happy lives. It is "...[B]etter [to] be happy old maids than unhappy wives," she tells them.
Josephine March, who is sixteen at the beginning of the narrative, is the most independent of the girls. Considered a tomboy, she is exuberant, self-confident, and very bright. Uninterested in marriage, she is upset when her sister Meg marries because she feels that the family is being broken apart. Nevertheless, Jo herself later separates from the family, but she realizes that she must pursue her own dream of becoming a writer. After she moves away, she meets Professor Bhaer, who encourages her and is supportive, rather than chauvanistic as was customary for the times.
Another member of the family who does not follow the norm is Meg. For instance, when she visits her friend Anne Moffat and feels uncomfortable in her old dress, her friends dress her for a dance, yet Meg feels foolishly like some doll that has been dressed by its owner.
Alcott's novel is greatly concerned with the girls' search for self. Meg, for example, is very family-orientated and is concerned about pleasing others while Jo is fiercely independent. Beth is selfless and Amy is more concerned with herself and her acquistion of things than are the other girls; like the others she, too, seeks her own identity.
While the Marches are poor, they are not so impoverished that they cannot charitably help others. In addition, they are not ashamed of their condition and unabashedly visit the Laurence home and marvel at the wonderful library. Never are they envious or petty; instead they embrace Laurie as their friend, especially Jo. For, the Marches realize that they are wealthy in ways that the Laurences are not as they have parents while Laurie does not. Clearly Miss Alcott demonstrates through the relationship of the March girls with Laurie that there is wealth that supercedes economic wealth.