Download Little Women Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Little Women Analysis

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Little Women is a study in contrasts and juxtapositions: At times seriously didactic and moralistic, the novel’s tone can also be playful and humorous, even satirical at times. Genuine in its appreciation of motherhood, marriage, and domesticity, it also calls these traditional values into question, most often through the character of Jo March. These artistic and thematic tensions are often attributed to Louisa May Alcott’s own ambivalence about her conflicting roles of dutiful daughter and aspiring author. Little Women is predominantly autobiographical, especially in part 1, and it reveals the disappointments as well as the triumphs of Alcott’s life.

The characteristics typical of domestic fiction’s heroines—piousness, obedience, charity, industriousness, self-control—are reflected in the four “little women” of the March family. Jo struggles the most to acquire these traits, especially because of her quick temper and her rebellion against social prescription. In time, however, she learns to channel her energy and spirit into her art and her work, as she fulfills her lifelong dream of being a “mother” to boys when she establishes her school at Plumfield.

Throughout the novel, female community—here, the March family itself—is presented as one of the most important social institutions. Women educate and support one another, they form bonds of friendship and sisterhood, and they struggle against hardship together, often sacrificing their own needs and wants for those of others. The March sisters learn to overcome their own selfishness and self-centeredness through hard-won lessons: the absence and nearly fatal illness of their father, Beth’s ongoing illness and death, the callous gossip of acquaintances (which is often concerned with the family’s lack of wealth and social standing), the loss of suitors, and the hard compromises that must be made in marriage.

The novel is episodic in form, focusing on specific events in the lives of the March and Laurence families. These episodes end with moral lessons but also reveal more about the character of each sister and of Laurie. Realistic portrayals of nineteenth century social customs (making calls, society balls, touring the European continent) extend the setting of the novel outside its primary focus of the March family home.

Although the novel’s primary focus is domestic, concerned with family education and acculturation, it also expresses some feminist views. Jo rejects Laurie’s proposal—even through he is an outstanding “catch”—and with it, the idea of marriage. Jo has difficulty in accepting Meg’s marriage to John Brooke, for it begins the process of separating the close-knit community of sisters. The nineteenth century feminist ideal of equality in marriage is one that Jo herself strives toward and finally achieves in her own marriage to Professor Bhaer: He is a willing partner in her Plumfield school, an...

(The entire section is 692 words.)