Little Women follows the lives of the four March sisters, who live in genteel poverty in the nineteenth century United States.
Each of the sisters seeks out a different form of happiness: Meg wants to marry, Jo wants to be a writer, Beth wants to care for her family, and Amy craves material success.
Beth tragically dies of scarlet fever. The surviving three sisters each eventually achieve their own versions of happiness, with Meg marrying and starting a family, Amy traveling abroad with her wealthy aunt, and Jo finding success as a writer before marrying an unconventional but kind older man.
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...
(The entire section is 1,902 words.)