Little Women Critical Overview
by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women book cover
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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

Although Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women in 1868 for the sole purpose of making money, the novel is without question her most notable and enduring work. In fact, the book as it is read today contains the original text and its sequel, Good Wives, which was written a year after the first part. The second part was written in response to the demands of Alcott's young female readers, who were drawn to the individuality displayed by the novel's characters and wanted to know what would become of them. Upon the April 14 release of part two, Alcott's publisher was shocked by its sales. By the end of May, more than 13,000 copies had sold— an incredible number at the time, and especially surprising because the book was written for young girls, not the general public. Critical response in 1868 and 1869 was as favorable as the readers' response, and Alcott was among the first children's authors to be taken seriously by literary critics. A review in Nation declared Little Women an "agreeable" story that appeals to juvenile and adult readers alike. The critic wrote that the March girls were "drawn with a certain cleverness."

When the second part of the novel was published, a critic wrote in Harper's New Monthly Magazine that it was perhaps too mature for adolescent girls, but that it rings true by not resorting to the "false sentiment" so common in children's literature. In fact, Alcott's contemporaries as well as modern-day critics agree that the novel is remarkable for its reality and depth, standing in stark contrast to the too-sweet, overly didactic stories available to children at the time. Children were generally depicted as perfect and innocent, but Alcott gave her characters flaws and made no effort to conceal them. They remain virtuous, however, because they are aware of their weaknesses and strive to correct them. In modern terms, the characters in Little Women seem a bit too perfect, as many critics argue, but in the context of the mid-nineteenth century, they were characters whose likeness had never been seen. Not all critics praise the novel, however. Biographer Martha Saxton viewed Little Women as a sell-out for Alcott, who, according to Saxton, had great talent, yet squandered it on a book that was preachy and sentimental. Jane Gabin in Reference Guide to American Literature, on the other hand, deemed Little Women "markedly superior to other books of its genre" because of its unobtrusive "sermonizing" and its well-rounded characters. She added that in other books of the time, the villains and the heroes were clearly identified, but in Alcott's book, even the heroes have flaws and make mistakes. Lavinia Russ of Horn Book had a different view on the appeal of the book, arguing that the story teaches that life do.

Alcott's sense of the challenges and joys of adolescence continues to impress readers. Since its publication, Little Women has never gone out of print, and some scholars attribute its staggering success to the universal themes of growing up and to Alcott's honest portrayal of the feelings, thoughts, worries, and delights that accompany it. In New England Quarterly, Madeleine Stern observed:

The author's knowledge of adolescent psychology reveals itself in twofold form throughout the work, for it consisted first of an appeal to adolescents, the skill of making them laugh or cry, and secondly of an ability to describe adolescents, to catch and transfix the varied emotions and thoughts of the young.

Feminist critics are divided about the portrayal of females in Little Women . While some criticize the heavily domestic depiction of womanhood, others praise Jo as a breakout figure who blazes her own path and...

(The entire section is 924 words.)