Little Women Characters
The main characters in Little Women are, in order of oldest to youngest, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March.
- Meg March works as a governess before marrying John Brooke.
- Jo March, a writer, is often identified as the March sister most like Louisa May Alcott herself. At the novel’s end, Jo starts a boys’ school with her husband, Professor Bhaer.
- Beth March is a kind girl who helps Mrs. March around the house. She dies before reaching adulthood.
- Amy March is an artist. She is able to travel to Europe with an aunt and marries Laurie, a family friend.
Last Updated on May 15, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 329
Meg March, the oldest of the March girls, a plump governess to unruly neighborhood children. She marries John Brooke.
Jo March, a tall, awkward, tomboyish girl who likes to write and to devise plays and entertainments for her sisters. In character and personality, she corresponds to the author. She resents Meg’s interest in John but later is happy to have him as a brother-in-law. She writes and sells stories and becomes a governess for Mrs. Kirke in New York. Proposed to by Laurie, she rejects him. She later marries Professor Bhaer, with whom she establishes a boys’ school at Plumfield, Aunt March’s old home.
Beth March, a gentle homebody helpful to Mrs. March in keeping house. She contracts scarlet fever, from which she never fully recovers. She dies during the spring after Jo’s return from New York.
Amy March, a curly-haired dreamer who aspires to be a famous artist. She is a companion of Aunt Carrol on a European trip. She marries Laurie.
Mrs. March (Marmee)
Mrs. March (Marmee), the kindly, understanding, lovable mother of the four March girls.
Mr. March, her husband, an army chaplain in the Civil War who becomes ill while away but who later returns well and happy.
Theodore Laurence (Laurie)
Theodore Laurence (Laurie), a young neighbor who joins the March family circle. He falls in love with Jo, but after his rejection by her he transfers his feelings to Amy, whom he marries.
Professor Bhaer, a tutor in love with Jo, whom he marries.
Mr. Laurence, the wealthy, indulgent grandfather of Laurie.
Aunt March, a wealthy, irascible relative who wills her home to Jo.
John Brooke, Laurie’s tutor, who falls in love with and marries Meg.
Aunt Carrol, a relative of the Marches.
Mrs. Kirke, a New York boardinghouse keeper.
Demi, Meg’s children.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 971
Like John Bunyan's allegorical work Pilgrim's Progress, in which Christian faces many obstacles in his journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, Alcott's novel chronicles the four March girls' efforts to overcome individual character flaws and thereby become "little women." Sixteen-year-old Meg, who cares too much about her appearance and too little about work, must learn to devote more time to her family and less time to dreaming of a life of glamour and luxury. Fifteen-year-old Jo's burden is her violent temper. An adventurous, rebellious, spirited girl who writes plays, poems, and short stories, she must reconcile herself to being a girl of poise, grace, and patience. Thirteenyear- old Beth, an excellent pianist, must overcome her shyness. Ten-year-old Amy, artistically talented but impractical, must overcome her thoughtlessness and learn to help others.
At the end of Part I, Father returns home on Christmas Day and evaluates his daughters' year-long struggles to emulate Christian in Pilgrim's Progress. He is pleased with what he sees. Meg is less vain. Jo is less boyish, more ladylike and quiet. Beth has recovered from scarlet fever and is gradually conquering her shyness. And Amy is less selfish, less concerned with her appearance.
Mr. March is away from home during the first half of the novel, and even after his return, he remains in the background of the narrative. His presence is felt rather than seen. In his absence, Marmee runs the March household and guides the girls when they are confused or troubled. She is selfless, devoted to her family, and always available when needed. Like Jo, she has a temper, but she keeps it under control.
Next door to the Marches live wealthy Mr. Laurence and his grandson Theodore, called "Laurie," both of whom contribute much excitement and adventure to the lives of the March girls. In his generosity, Mr. Laurence throws a Christmas party for the girls, gives Beth a piano, and offers Jo access to his vast library. His grandson is as wild and adventurous as Jo but is also studious and a lover of music. In Part II, Laurie proposes marriage to Jo, is refused, and later marries Amy.
While emphasizing young people's right to independence, the novel also celebrates the importance of family unity. Beth expresses this theme when she describes her greatest desire: "...to stay home safe with Father and Mother, and help take care of the family. ... I only wish we may all keep well and be together, nothing else." Disaster usually takes the form of a threat to the family circle; Alcott addresses large-scale problems such as the Civil War by examining the effect of Father's absence on the March family.
Death is an omnipresent threat, with several instances of near-disaster foreshadowing Beth's ultimate demise in Part II. Early in the novel, when Amy burns the book of fairy stories on which Jo has been working for several years, Jo almost drowns her youngest sister. Father is hospitalized with pneumonia while away on service, and Marmee is sent for to care for her husband. While the shadow of death hovers over the home, Jo says, "I feel as if there had been an earthquake," and Meg comments that "it seems as if half the house was gone." Father recovers, but all the characters must confront the tragedy of Beth's death. Through these potentially devastating trials, the family pulls together and grows even stronger.
Alcott develops three major themes in the novel: ambition, domesticity, and true love. "Girls write to ask who the little women marry," Alcott wrote in her journal following publication of the novel's first part, "as if that was the only end and aim of a woman's life. I won't marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone." Having created Jo in her own image, Alcott was strongly tempted to end Part II of the novel with Jo a spinster. Torn between independence and family life, ambition and self-sacrifice, Jo harbors an ambivalent attitude toward marriage. On the one hand, she thinks it would be difficult to "give up her own hopes, plans and desires, and cheerfully live for others." But she also comes to realize that "the life I wanted then seems selfish, lonely and cold." After rejecting Laurie's proposal of marriage, Jo compromises and marries the "learned and good" Professor Fritz Bhaer, a big, middle- aged German. Fritz's love for Jo enables him to surmount the potential barriers posed by his poverty, age, and foreign heritage; he is a warm and supportive husband who encourages Jo to learn to write good fiction. Eventually Jo raises two children of her own and helps her husband in the operation of Plumfield, a school for boys.
But young as she was, Jo had learned that hearts, like flowers, cannot be rudely handled, but must open naturally...
Married life for John and Meg Brooke, meanwhile, is quite different from the life Meg knew at home. Dependent upon her husband's income for all of her expenses, both household and personal, Meg sometimes behaves like an impulsive child. John does not share in the domestic chores, except for disciplining their son. Meg's challenge is to overcome her docility—the trait that has allowed her to become dependent and even somewhat dowdy, living in a little cottage with her two children, isolated from the rest of the world. After Marmee reminds Meg that a strong marriage is built upon mutual interests and responsibilities, Meg begins to pay more attention to her clothing, tries to keep up on current affairs, and works toward establishing an egalitarian marriage.
Amy continues to struggle against her burden of frivolity. She and Laurie spend time together in Europe; both are fashionable, talented, and inclined to indolence and coquetry. Amy paints and Laurie plays the piano. When they return from Europe, they announce their romance.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1817
Little Women focuses on the characters of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March. The novel is filled with their games, struggles, interests, and adventures, which usually involve Laurie, the boy next door, and often the girls' mother, Marmee. Meg is sixteen when the novel begins, and pretty, "plump and fair," Her faults are vanity and envy. In the chapter entitled "Castles in the Air," Meg imagines "a lovely house, full of all sorts of luxurious things — nice food, pretty clothes, handsome furniture, pleasant people, and heaps of money."
Jo is fifteen, tall and thin, with "big hands and feet, a flyaway look to her clothes, and the uncomfortable appearance of a girl who was rapidly shooting up into a woman and didn't like it." Jo's faults are a ready anger and disdain for the feminine proprieties. "It's bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys' games and work and manners! I can't get over my disappointment in not being a boy." Jo is creative, and dreams of writing and getting "rich and famous." Many feminist critics find a healthy gender confusion in Jo.
Beth at the start is thirteen, "a rosy, smooth-haired, bright-eyed girl" with no ambition but to "stay at home safe with Father and Mother, and help take care of the family." Beth is the truly selfless sister, a peacemaker, "an angel in the house." Her only fault is her shyness. Amy is twelve, spoiled, and conceited. She loves art, and wants to "go to Rome, and do fine pictures." Amy is blond, blue-eyed, "and always carrying herself like a young lady mindful of her manners." Her love of the conventions ties her to Meg, whose favorite she is, and like Meg, Amy must learn modesty. Jo instead adores Beth — her "conscience" — but tangles with Amy, also quick-tempered.
Many scenes, especially early in the novel, depict the girls learning and playing together with domestic morals in mind, but almost from the outset next-door-neighbor Laurie is involved. Laurie or Theodore Laurence is the grandson of kindly, wealthy old Mr. Laurence, benefactor to the March girls. When first seen, Laurie has come back from a Swiss boarding school. He is jolly, gallant, and a bit of a prankster. Laurie hopes "never to be bothered about money or business." He is a friend and equal to all the girls, but his special pal is Jo, whose age he is.
What draws Laurie to the Marches is the harmonious domesticity he sees. Laurie is lonely, an orphan. When the curtain is undrawn next door, and the lamps are lit, "it's like looking at a picture to see the fire," Laurie tells Jo, "and you all round the table with your mother." According to one line of Alcott criticism, the scene shows the self-contained relations that exist among the March women. The agent in this harmony is Marmee, who has "a 'can-I-help-you' look" and a "cheery voice." Marmee is the ideal mother, but there is ambiguity in her nature. It is revealed in one of the harshest clashes among the girls.
The clash occurs when Jo refuses to let Amy come along to the theater after Laurie has bought tickets for the older sisters only. Amy retaliates by destroying Jo's cherished manuscript and later nearly drowns due to a fall through the ice because Jo is too angry to watch her little sister skate. "It's my dreadful temper!" Jo privately tells Marmee, in remorse. "I try to cure it; I think I have, and then it breaks out worse than ever." The incident shows Marmee at her best, performing her role as her daughters' confidante, moral teacher, and guide, but she is perhaps not as happy as she seems. "I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it," Marmee says. "I am not patient by nature."
When pressed, Marmee says that Father helped her curb a temper just like Jo's. The confession has helped many Alcott critics to conclude that Marmee is an example of patriarchal oppression, rather than matriarchal strength. There is additional dialogue to support this view. "How lonely and helpless we should be," Marmee says, "if anything happened to Father." On the other hand, as a character Mr. March is a shadowy presence, absent until halfway through the novel. Too old and weak to serve as a soldier, he volunteered to serve as a chaplain for the Union side during the Civil War.
At home, Mr. March is the minister of a small parish, a man "young at heart, gently sympathetic, wise in counsel, pure-hearted." There is a hint that he is also impractical: "even worldlings confessed that his beliefs were beautiful and true, although 'they wouldn't pay.'" A description of his role in family relations can be read either to indicate that Mr. March is subtly dominating, or that he is simply fatherly and kind. "To outsiders, the five energetic women seemed to rule the house," but "the quiet scholar, sitting among his books, was still the head of the family, the household conscience, anchor, and comforter." In any case, the older Marches are depicted overtly as good parents.
Marmee continues in her guiding role as the girls grow into young women. Meg, the first to marry and become a mother, exemplifies the benefits of Marmee's teaching. Meg's moral progress is seen in her marriage for love, not money. Her husband John Brooke, Laurie's former tutor, is an honest, hardworking bookkeeper. Marmee's advice to Meg about how to treat John has bolstered the claim of many critics that the novel overtly honors women's self-denial. Marmee advises "not to wake his anger against yourself, for peace and happiness depend on keeping his respect."
Another occasion for advice, Meg's absorption in maternal duties that shut John out, finds Marmee speaking in terms which persuade other Alcott critics that she advocates an enlightened, democratic view of marriage. Marmee urges Meg to go out more, to take an interest in politics, to share the responsibilities of home with her husband, the way her parents did before her. "Don't shut yourself up in a bandbox because you are a woman," Marmee says, "but understand what is going on, and educate yourself to take your part in the world's work." Feminist critics generally discount Meg as a character worthy of serious attention because of her ongoing domestic inclinations.
Critics also devote little attention to Beth. She is ill for an extended time in the novel, the result of a visit she makes to the home of the impoverished Hummels, objects of Marmee's charity. She contracts scarlet fever, recovers, then sinks into a long decline during which she bears up as a household "saint," then dies. Feminist critics generally cite the death as inevitable, since the sort of selfless domesticity Beth displays must render her invisible. Some of Beth's words to Jo, who is grief-stricken over the coming death, are seen as indicative of the low self-esteem a life of private domesticity must foster. "I couldn't seem to imagine myself anything but stupid little Beth, trotting about at home, of no use anywhere but there."
The March most affected by Beth's death is Jo, who ponders the self-forgetful virtues she finds so hard to imitate. She begins to try to fulfill a deathbed request to take Beth's place with their parents. Some feminist critics see in the effort one of the stages in the disappointing tempering of Jo's strong, independent spirit. That spirit is what has caused readers through the years to identify with Jo, making her their favorite of the four sisters. Feminist critics also see Jo as the sister of greatest interest. Jo, and to a lesser extent Amy, are seen by some critics as embodiments of the feminist theme that domesticity necessarily thwarts creative expression.
Jo, for much of the novel, is a developing writer. She wins a prize for a "sensation story" and brings in more "delightful checks" for tales "in which the passions have a holiday." She finds that she can "supply her own wants, and need ask no one for a penny." She begins to "feel herself a power in the house, for by the magic of a pen, her 'rubbish' turned into comforts for them all." An agent on her path is Mr. Dashwood, the "smokiest gentleman" among a cigar-puffing trio at a publishing office. He wants his stories "short and spicy," he says. "Morals don't sell nowadays."
Some feminist critics believe that the total taming of Jo's spirit comes with her marriage. Jo rejects a proposal from Laurie, who when grown is passionate, college-educated, and Jo's friend and equal of long standing. A love later develops between Laurie and Amy, who has worked to become fashionable and agreeable. Grown-up Amy is "a true gentlewoman in mind and manners." Part of Amy's maturation is seen in her decision not to marry for money, as she planned. In Laurie Amy gets both money and love, and through her influence he matures out of his indolence. Amy's abandonment of hope for an artist's career serves the theme that marriage suppresses women's creativity, according to some feminist critics.
These critics argue the same point concerning Jo. An abrupt end to her writing comes with Jo's post away from home at a boarding school, where she meets her future husband, Professor Friedrich Bhaer. Friedrich is forty years old, a German immigrant, very learned, good and hardworking, but "poor as a church mouse." He is also benevolent, "happy-hearted as a boy," and as attractive to people "as a genial fire." Moreover, Friedrich is domestic and longs for "wife and child and home."
Jo is greatly drawn to Friedrich, but he is a defender of moral virtues against sensational stories, the kind Jo writes. "They are not for children to see," he says. Earning a living by writing them is dishonest; it "puts poison in the sugarplum." Jo decides herself to burn her manuscripts, but in exchange, she gets "a friend worth having" all her life. Friedrich is a controversial figure for critics, some of whom argue that Jo should have remained a writer and not married at all. Other critics prefer the sensual, charming Laurie to the fusty or protective fatherly figure they claim Friedrich is. Still others approve the match between Laurie and Amy.
Yet another line of criticism points to the positive view of domesticity and marriage Friedrich serves to represent, and there is considerable evidence for this. The narrative indicates that Jo took a dim view of spinsterhood, "a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children." The narrative also makes it clear that Jo definitely makes a love match, and with Friedrich, she finds a cooperative, democratic marriage. Jo has the opportunity to work, as she and her husband implement her dream of managing "a good, happy, homelike school" for needy boys.
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