The March family lives in a small house next door to the Laurence mansion, where young Theodore Laurence, known as Laurie, and his aged grandfather have only each other for company. Old Mr. Laurence is wealthy, and he indulges every wish of his grandson, but often Laurie is lonely. When the lamps are lit and the shades are up in the March house, he can see the four March sisters, with their mother in the center, seated around a cheerful fire. He learns to know them by name before he meets them, and, in his imagination, he almost feels himself a member of the family.
The oldest is plump Meg, who has to earn her living as the governess of a group of unruly youngsters in the neighborhood. Next is Jo, tall, awkward, and tomboyish, who likes to write and who spends all her spare time devising plays and entertainments for her sisters. Then there is gentle Beth, the homebody, content to sit knitting by the fire or to help her mother take care of the house. The youngest is curly-haired Amy, a schoolgirl who dreams of someday becoming a famous artist like Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci. The sisters’ father is away, serving as an army chaplain during the Civil War.
At Christmastime, the girls are confronted with the problem of what to do with the dollar that Marmee, as they call their mother, has said they might spend. At first, each thinks only of her own pleasure, but all end by buying a gift for Marmee instead. On Christmas morning, they insist on sharing their breakfast with the Hummels, a poor family in the neighborhood, and for this unselfishness they are rewarded when Mr. Laurence sends over a surprise Christmas feast consisting of ice cream and bonbons along with four bouquets of flowers for the table.
Many happy days follow, with Laurie becoming a part of the March family circle after he meets Jo at a fashionable New Year’s Eve dance. In November, however, a telegram brings a message that the girls’ father is critically ill. Mrs. March does not know what to do. She feels that she should go to her husband at once, but she has barely five dollars in her purse. She is hesitant about going to her husband’s wealthy, irascible relative Aunt March for help. Jo solves the problem by selling her long, beautiful chestnut hair, which has been her only vanity, for twenty-five dollars. She makes the sacrifice willingly, but that night, after the others have gone to bed, Meg hears Jo weeping softly. Gently, Meg asks if Jo is crying over her father’s illness, and Jo sobs that it is not her father she is crying for now, but for her hair.
During Marmee’s absence, dark days fall upon the little women. Beth, who has never been strong, contracts scarlet fever, and for a time it looks as if Jo is going to lose her dearest sister. They send for Marmee, but by the time she arrives, the crisis has passed and her little daughter is better. By the next Christmas, Beth is her old contented self again. Mr. March surprises them all when he returns home from the front well and happy. The little family is together once more.
Then John Brooke, Laurie’s tutor, falls in love with Meg. This fact is disclosed when Mr. Brooke surreptitiously steals one of Meg’s gloves and keeps it in his pocket as a memento. When Laurie discovers the glove and informs Jo, he is greatly surprised at her reaction; she is infuriated at the idea that the family circle might be disturbed. She is quite reconciled three years later, however, when Meg becomes Mrs. Brooke.
In the meantime, Jo herself has grown up. She begins to take her writing seriously and even sells a few stories, which helps with the family budget. Her greatest disappointment comes when Aunt Carrol, a relative of the Marches, decides she needs a companion on a trip to Europe and asks the more ladylike Amy, rather than Jo, to accompany her. Then Jo, with Marmee’s permission, decides to go to New York City. She takes a job in New York as governess for a Mrs. Kirke, who runs a large boardinghouse. There she meets Professor Bhaer, a lovable and eccentric German tutor, who proves to be a good friend and companion.
When Jo returns home, Laurie, who has always loved her, asks her to marry him. Jo, who imagines that she will always remain unmarried, devoting herself exclusively to her writing, tries to convince Laurie that they are not made for each other. He persists, pointing out that his grandfather and her family both expect them to marry. When she finally makes him realize that she will not be persuaded, he stomps off, and shortly afterward he leaves for Europe with his grandfather. In Europe, Laurie spends a great deal of time with Amy, and the two become close friends, so that Laurie is able to transfer to Jo’s younger sister a great deal of the feeling he previously had for Jo.
Jo remains at home caring for Beth, who has never fully recovered from her earlier illness. In the spring, Beth dies, practically in Jo’s arms, and after the loss of her gentle sister Jo is lonely indeed. She tries to comfort herself with her writing and with Meg’s two babies, Daisy and Demi, but not until the return of Amy, now married to Laurie, does she begin to feel like her old self again. When Professor Bhaer stops to visit on his way to a university appointment in the Midwest, Jo is delighted. One day, as they share an umbrella during a downpour, he asks her to marry him, and Jo accepts. Within a year, old Aunt March dies and leaves her home, Plumfield, to Jo. Jo decides to open a boys’ school there, where she and her professor can devote their lives to instructing the young.
So the little women have reached maturity, and on their mother’s sixtieth birthday, they all have a great celebration at Plumfield. Around the table, at which there is but one empty chair, sit Marmee, her daughters and their husbands, and her grandchildren. When Laurie proposes a toast to his mother-in-law, she replies by stretching out her arms to them all and saying that she can wish nothing better for them than this present happiness for the rest of their lives.
Little Women was, and remains, Alcott’s best-known and most widely read work. It was her first novel for young girls and was so popular that her audience demanded sequels, a request that Alcott fulfilled, although most readers believe that Little Women is the most compelling of Alcott’s novels about the March family.
As the novel opens, the four girls—the oldest, Meg (sixteen), tomboyish Jo (fifteen), sweet Beth (thirteen), and the youngest, Amy (twelve)—are sitting around the hearth contemplating a Christmas without presents, for their father is away serving as chaplain for a unit of men fighting in the Civil War, and the family has very limited funds.
From this opening dialogue, a reader gets insights into the basic personality types of the various characters. Meg feels most strongly the family’s limited resources. It is she who struggles hardest with envy of the wealthier girls in town. Jo is the most spirited of the lot, physically the most active and psychologically the most independent; she nevertheless is most comfortable when she is safely ensconced within the family circle of Marmee (the girls’ nickname for their mother) and the four girls. Beth is the sweetest and most generous of the girls, the one who complains least and tries hardest to ease the difficulties of the others. She is the character whom some readers think is really too good to be true. As might be expected, she dies an early death, as if she is too good for this world. The youngest, Amy, has rather grand visions of herself but these are tempered as she tests her artistic skills abroad and eventually marries the boy next door.
Several themes emerge in the book as the girls develop into adults. One is the difficulty that women of the period had in finding suitable work. Marriage was the most obvious hope for economic stability, but for the woman who did not choose marriage, options were extremely limited and the pay not sufficient. The girls try a number of ways to earn money—as companion, governess, and writer, for example—but nothing that they can do succeeds very well. Another theme is the importance of maintaining the family circle. Even marriage is not greeted unhesitatingly, because it threatens to remove one sister from the family. Disruptions to the family circle are inevitable as children grow up, but in Little Women they are always greeted with only begrudging kindness.
Materialism is decried, as are the frivolities of the dances and entertainments in which girls with only a little more money than the Marches indulge. The virtues of patience, submission, and devotion are lauded instead. Finally, no discussion of the novel is complete without mention of the spirited individualism of Jo. She is the most independent of the four girls, although she probably shocks everyone by turning down a very attractive marriage proposal from the wealthy young man next door. Her later acceptance of the older Professor Bhaer (in part 2) has been a source of some criticism for Alcott, because it seems a fictional denial of the feminism that grew ever stronger in Alcott’s own life.
Perhaps the most important feature of Little Women is its depiction of domestic harmony in convincingly realistic detail. In the trivial daily activities and the modest goals and setbacks of family members, Alcott depicts a supportive family environment that anyone committed to the ideal of the family can approve. Further, although Little Women eschews the single-minded goals of revenge or passion that characterize the gripping gothic tales, each of the four sisters’ separate stories nevertheless determinedly marches along, with the various threads intertwining in a delightfully twisting, sometimes knotted, sometimes surprising, yarn of family life. For its adept juggling of subplots, the conversational dialogue of characters, the realism of setting and situation, and the idealism of personal morality and family harmony, Little Women will continue to be read for pleasure, for escape, and for education.