Little Women has been condemned by critics as being little more than a moral battering ram aimed at nineteenth century adolescent girls, but Louisa May Alcott produced a work much larger in scope and more complex in feeling than such critics recognize. On the surface, the novel comprises a series of episodes depicting the four March girls’ private battles with expectations concerning the moral conduct befitting good Christian young ladies. If the story of the Marches were merely that, however, it would not have sparked the level of controversy and analysis that it has, nor would it have remained so popular a book for children that libraries find it hard to keep copies on the shelves even in the twenty-first century.
Although it was Alcott’s intention to demonstrate right behavior, her method of presenting a problem for each sister to solve without much adult influence makes the characters real and the situations believable. Each of the sisters harbors a weakness, as lovingly noted by Marmee, their conscience and gentle guide. Meg is vain and wishes to live in luxury; Jo can often be too spontaneous, direct, and temperamental; Beth is too timid; and Amy has a tendency to be pretentious. These character flaws may seem mild by present-day standards, but they are timeless benchmarks of youth from which Alcott draws out and measures each girl’s growth. However predictable the outcomes, the March sisters’ journeys to womanhood involve pain and hardship, humiliation, and even danger in the midst of the protective family nest.
The process of individual growth within the family is Alcott’s focus. A realist, she does not develop any progressive notions in the novel that were impossible to pursue in Victorian-era America. Jo will not marry Laurie because these two characters’ bold, adventuresome natures simply do not apply to the marriage conventions of the mid-nineteenth century. Alcott was a feminist, however, and she depicts the relentless self-denial of Victorian women as it was. Her purpose is echoed in Marmee’s wish for her daughters to become happy, loved, dutiful wives and mothers. To accomplish this, they must sacrifice independence of thought and action, and that is what each girl does. Alcott does not gloss over the price they pay, nor does she neglect to show the personal rewards of happy married life and motherhood, self-discipline, and altruism.
The focus on these qualities makes the work timeless. The story opens in the early years of the Civil War, but little is said about Mr. March and his experiences as a chaplain at the front lines. Slavery is never mentioned, nor is Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. It would be wrong to conclude that Alcott neglected such institutions and events out of disinterest or out of an assumed disinterest on the part of her readers. She served as a nurse during the war and knew intimately the suffering and tragedy that befell young men. Her father, Bronson Alcott, was a progressive educator, and Louisa was raised with an awareness of politics and social problems. Alcott smartly focuses the story on the family, the center toward which the March girls are drawn time and again for moral support and rejuvenation.
The story opens at Christmas, when the girls are sad and disappointed about their father’s absence and their own poverty. Marmee gently reminds them that others suffer more, and the women troop to the poor Hummel household laden with their own Christmas breakfast. Their selflessness is rewarded with a sumptuous dinner courtesy of their neighbor, Mr. Laurence. When Jo nearly lets Amy drown in the river after Amy has destroyed Jo’s precious manuscript, Jo appeals to Marmee to help her control her anger. Marmee reveals her own struggle with rage and frustration, and from that point on, the two share a special bond. Jo has learned to separate her feelings from her actions. After Meg spends a week with wealthy friends whose lifestyle she envies, she returns home grateful for the simplicity and authentic love and comfort of her humble home. Meg has learned the high price of vanity. Amy, the baby of the family, does some rather extreme things to win the approval of her affluent schoolmates. A comic episode concerning pickled limes and public humiliation prompts her to realize the consequences of climbing the social ladder. Amy has learned that it is better to stand on the lower rungs in safety than to make it to the top and fall flat on her face. Beth’s character is virtually undeveloped, and she changes the least of the four sisters. She is a touching reminder that some delicate souls are simply too vulnerable to remain for very long on this planet. Her death leaves its mark on the March family, particularly on Jo.
Jo, the most tenacious and free-spirited character, is also the most challenged to change. Her tempestuous behavior and childlike joy for living are appealing to readers. She chafes at the expectations of women in her day and vows to remain unmarried and fulfilled by her work as a writer. Neighbor Laurie, her charming and rebellious kindred spirit, grows to love her, and it seems that the two will end up together. Jo’s vow is half fulfilled as she turns her back on the radical choice to marry her best friend and embark on a life of self-absorbed adventure. Instead, she marries Professor Bhaer and engages herself in work more suitable to women of the day by opening a school for boys. This choice may disappoint readers, but she and her sisters have fulfilled their mother’s wish that they be married, loved, and valued by others, a theme that resonates throughout the story.
However idealistic and dependent the relationships may seem between the daughters and their parents and husbands, the family represents an unchanging core around which world events and personal calamity spiral. This family portrait contains both real-life conflicts with which any reader can sympathize and a model for the kind of family most readers privately long to be part of. The result is irresistible.