Chapter 1 Summary

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Little Women begins on Christmas Eve as four sisters sit together, feeling sorry that they are not going to have any presents this year. Not only are they poor, but their father is away from home working as a chaplain in the Civil War. As they talk, each girl says what she would like to have for Christmas. Meg, the eldest, wants pretty clothes. Jo, a bookworm, wants a copy of a romantic novel. Beth, the sweet one, at first says she wants nothing except Father’s safe return. Later, however, she admits she would also like some sheet music. Amy, the youngest, says she wants a set of drawing pencils. After some discussion, the girls decide they will all spend their own money—one dollar apiece—on these small gifts for themselves.

The four sisters are the children of Mr. and Mrs. March, a well-respected New England couple. They used to be wealthy, but Mr. March lost his fortune years ago when he tried to help a friend in need. The family has been poor ever since, and the girls must all work to help the family. Meg earns money teaching the spoiled children of a wealthy household. Jo has a job with a cranky old relative, Aunt March, who “is never satisfied.” Beth keeps house for the family. Amy still goes to school. As they chat, the girls bicker about which of them has the hardest life.

In the midst of this argument, the narrator pauses to describe each girl in turn. Meg is sixteen, pretty and plump, and proud of her appearance. Jo is a tall, skinny fifteen-year-old with

the uncomfortable appearance of a girl who [is] rapidly shooting up into a woman and [does not] like it.

Beth is a rosy-cheeked, timid thirteen-year-old who appears unusually peaceful. Amy, who is twelve, has beautiful golden hair and blue eyes; she dresses neatly and works hard to make a good impression on everyone she meets.

The girls’ moods lift somewhat as they prepare for the arrival of their mother, whom they call Marmee. As they lay her slippers by the fire to warm, they see that the old things are almost worn out. The sisters agree that one of them needs to buy her a new pair of slippers, and each girl tries to claim the honor of giving up what she wants for her mother’s sake. They argue about this for some time, and eventually they arrive at the idea that none of them will buy gifts for themselves. Instead, each girl will buy something for Marmee.

When Marmee arrives home, the girls rush to wait on her as she warms herself by the fire. She has brought a letter from Father, and after supper she reads it aloud. In the message, Father does not complain about the hardships of army life. Instead, he says how much he loves them, and he asks them to behave well so “when I come back to them I will be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.”

When they hear this, the girls are inspired to work harder and to try to stop complaining about their various troubles. Marmee suggests that they pretend to be characters in Pilgrim’s Progress, a classic story about Christianity. In this story, the characters must the carry burdens of their sins from an evil, worldly city to a heavenly place called the Celestial City. Marmee explains that each girl can think of her unpleasant work and her desires as a burden to carry through life.

After considering Marmee’s plan, Meg points out that it is “only another name for trying to be good.” Still, she says she does not mind trying the game. The other girls agree as well, and Marmee promises that they will find a “guidebook” under their pillows in the morning. With this decided, the girls do their evening duties and go to bed.

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Chapter 2 Summary