Little Women (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay

Louisa May Alcott


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Little Women

Louisa May Alcott

The following entry presents criticism on Alcott's novel Little Women. See also Louisa May Alcott Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism.

What is now known as Little Women includes both the original work by that title and its sequel, Good Wives. Written by Louisa May Alcott in 1868 and 1869 respectively, together these works have been long established as primary within the canon of juvenile literature and are considered by many to be the first children's books in America to break with the didactic tradition. Alcott introduced realism and entertainment to American children's literature, thereby achieving commercial success unknown to her moralizing contemporaries. Little Women is still read worldwide today.

Louisa May Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania in 1832, and raised in Concord, Massachusetts, and Boston. She was the second of four daughters of Abigail May Alcott and Amos Bronson Alcott, a Transcendentalist, educational reformer, and well-known writer. Louisa, though more commercially successful than her father, faced many obstacles to the literary career she envisioned for herself. As a woman writer, she was expected to write sentimental and moralizing tales, and in order to earn a living as a writer, she was expected to cater to the sensational cravings of her audience. Although she did both successfully until her death in 1888, many critics argue that with Little Women, Alcott countered sensationalism with realism and subverted the moralizing purpose she often appeared to embrace.

Plot and Major Characters

In Part I, while Mr. March is away as a volunteer chaplain in the Civil War, the March girls, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, embark on "pilgrimages" toward selfimprovement, with the inspiration of John Bunyan's religious allegory, The Pilgrim's Progress (1678). Their journeys, though, are largely determined by their own consciences and will rather than by dogma. Meg learns to overcome her vanity, Jo to overcome excessiveness and temper, Amy, greed and selfishness. Beth is already saintly and seems not to need change, but ironically, it is an act of charity—a visit to a sick infant—which results in the scarlet fever that weakens her health and precipitates her death.

Welcomed into this haven are neighbors Theodore Laurence (Laurie) and his grandfather, who are far from stock patriarchal figures; they are, rather, admirers who crave and aspire to the domestic peace enjoyed by the Marches. Laurie and Jo develop a close friendship that intrigued Alcott's readers, but she avoided the conventional romantic plot by refusing to have them marry. Jo, an unconventional girl who thinks of herself as the "man of the house" while her father is away, is more interested in developing her art and financially supporting her family than marrying.

Part II of Little Women, originally published separately as Good Wives, focuses on the girls' transitions into adulthood. Meg marries John Brooke, Laurie's tutor—a financially difficult but happy match. Amy loses some of her passion for art and marries Laurie after he has been refused by Jo and has recovered from the blow. Beth dies before she can reach adulthood, but her loss inspires Jo to take up her domestic role. Jo eventually marries Professor Bhaer, a middle-aged academic with whom she shares philosophical interests. They open a boys' school, where she, no longer a tomboy, becomes a mother-figure for the students.

Major Themes

Alcott's earlier work, often published under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard, is generally characterized by sensational characters and plots, violence, melodrama, and romance—all consistent with the expectations of her readers. When asked to write a "girl's book," Alcott was yet again forced to write according to others' interests, but in this case she opted for more realism than sensationalism by choosing the only girl-hood she knew for her subject—her own. Based on her life, and that of her sisters, Anna, Elizabeth, and May, Little Women follows the adolescence of the girls into adulthood, captures their private, domestic experience concretely, delineates their matriarchal haven of comfort and frugality, dramatizes their creative play, and explores their struggles to become artists, good sisters, and eventually happy wives. Although the culture of her time demanded that Alcott produce moralizing tales, she displayed a certain amount of resistance to that mandate in Little Women, preaching moderation rather than excessive religious molding. The girls are guided less by rigid moral strictures than by their strong sense of family, sometimes conveyed by words of wisdom from mother Marmee, but more often by a need to get along as a sisterly community. In part II this theme of sisterly love expands to include marriage and the formation of new families, with new roles for the three surviving sisters as good wives. Self-improvement, social responsibility, domestic cooperation, and matriarchal power, as well as the importance of play and artistic development, all serve as prominent themes in Little Women.

Critical Reception

The influence of Little Women has been vast, but historically limited to a female readership. Early critics received the novel with sentimental praise and an appreciation of Alcott's ability to meet the minds of her child readers, a view shared by Angela Brazil in her 1922 review. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Alcott was appreciated, like many American women writers, as merely a local colorist with a talent for portraying the domestic sphere concretely. In academia, her novel was studied only by the scholars of children's literature until the 1960s and 1970s, when it came under closer scrutiny by feminist critics, some of whom were frustrated with its outdated sentimentality, others of whom dismissed it because it seems to uphold the traditional separation of men's and women's spheres (public vs. private). In the 1980s, the new emphasis on expanding the canon to include marginalized writers and works associated with popular culture brought more attention to Little Women. It has achieved importance within Women's Studies and the American literary canon in general for its detailed descriptions of nineteenth-century family life and of female struggles for social identity. As Carolyn Heilbrun suggests, Little Women has been particularly influential on female readers in the twentieth century who, craving models of female autonomy, found one, at least briefly, in Alcott's character Jo. Recent critics have continued in this positive vein, calling further attention to the subversive elements in Little Women, recasting Jo as an early feminist who, like her creator, made the most of the limited possibilities open to women in her time.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Flower Fables (fairy tales) 1855

Hospital Sketches (letters and sketches) 1863

Moods (novel) 1864; revised edition, 1882

On Picket Duty, and Other Tales (short stories) 1864

The Rose Family. A Fairy Tale (fiction) 1864

Little Women; or Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy 2 vols. (novel) 1868–69; also published as Little Women and Good Wives, 1871

An Old-fashioned Girl (novel) 1870

Little Men; Life at Plumfield with Jo's Boys (novel) 1871

Transcendental Wild Oats (memoir) 1872

Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag. 6 vols, (short stories) 1872–82

Work: A Story of Experience (novel) 1873

Eight Cousins; or, The Aunt-Hill (novel) 1875

Rose in Bloom. A Sequel to "Eight Cousins" (novel) 1876

A Modern Mephistopheles (novel) 1877

Under the Lilacs (novel) 1878

Diana and Persis (unfinished novel) 1879

Jack and Jill: A Village Story (novel) 1880

Proverb Stories (short stories) 1882

Jo's Boys and How They Turned Out (novel) 1886

A Whisperer in the Dark (novel) 1888

Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals (letters and journals) 1889

Comic Tragedies (drama) 1893

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (short stories) 1975

Plots and Counterplots: More Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (short stories) 1976

A Double Life: Newly Discovered Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott (short stories) 1986

The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott (letters) 1995

A Long Fatal Love Chase (novel) 1995

Angela Brazil (review date 1922)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Little Women: An Appreciation," The Bookman, Vol. LXIII, No. 375, December, 1922, pp. 139–40.

[In the following review, Brazil praises Alcott's ability to write convincingly of childhood experiences as an adult.]

To girls one of the most acceptable gift-books of the Christmas season will surely be this new and beautiful edition de luxe of Little Women, by Louisa M. Alcott.

In the days of my own youth I had revelled in the story, despite the bad print and lack of illustrations of a cheap edition, so I confess that when I saw it in this glorious new dress, with the lovely pictures giving such charming portraits of those dearest...

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Madeleine B. Stern (essay date 1943)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Witch's Cauldron to the Family Hearth: Louisa M. Alcott's Literary Development, 1848-1868," More Books: The Bulletin of the Boston Public Library, Vol. XVIII, No. 8, October, 1943, pp. 363-80.

[In the following article, Stern provides the biographical and literary context behind Alcott's creation of Little Women.]

When Louisa Alcott first began to write in the Hillside attic, she dipped her pen into the romantic, melodramatic ink that has ever been the property of sixteen-year-old authors. Wandering through a stormy world where noblemen unsheathed their daggers and stamped their boots, Louisa and her sister Anna produced a series of "lurid" plays aptly...

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Lavinia Russ (review date 1968)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Not to Be Read on Sunday," The Horn Book, Vol. XLIV, No. 5, October, 1968, pp. 521-26.

[In the following essay, Russ examines the widespread appeal of Little Women one hundred years after its original publication.]

Nineteen sixty-eight seems a strange time to talk about Little Women, and I seem a strange choice to do the talking. Of course there is an obvious reason for the date: October 3, 1968, will make it a neat one hundred years since Little Women was first published—published because an editor, Thomas Niles, nagged, in a Boston gentleman's kind of way, at Louisa M. Alcott to write the book. "I think, Miss Alcott," he told her, "you...

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Kate Ellis (essay date 1977)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Life with Marmee: Three Versions," in The Classic American Novel and the Movies, edited by Gerald Peary and Roger Shatzkin, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1977, pp. 62-72.

[In the following essay, Ellis claims that unlike the film adaptations of Little Women, which stereotype girls, Alcott's book represents them as serious and capable people.]

In times of economic and social upheaval, the sphere of home and mother is always there to fall back on. This at least is what popular literature and the media would have us believe. Yet war and economic depression often necessitate changes in the family that bring reality into conflict with the ideal of a single...

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Elizabeth Lennox Keyser (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Alcott's Portraits of the Artist as Little Woman," International Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 5, No. 5, November-December, 1982, pp. 445-59.

[In the following essay, Keyser discusses the functions of stories and play in Little Women—as escape, as training, and as allegory for the novel as a whole.]


Recently an Indian friend of mine told how, as a girl growing up in Kerala, she had won a contest for a speech in English and, as a prize, received a copy of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. She especially remembered the words of the man who presented it to her: "Read this, and be a great woman!" Initially I was struck...

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Carolyn G. Heilbrun (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Louisa May Alcott: The Influence of Little Women," in Women, the Arts, and the 1920s in Paris and New York, edited by Kenneth W. Wheeler and Virginia Lee Lussier, Transaction Books, 1982, pp. 20-26.

[In the following essay, Heilbrun argues that Little Women's Jo has been a model of female autonomy for twentieth-century women artists.]

The influence of Little Women upon women artists in Paris between the wars is a matter of faith. As the Bible tells us, faith is the evidence of things not seen. If only Gertrude Stein had written of Jo March, or at least stopped into Sylvia Beach's bookshop and requested Little Women. What she...

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Nina Auerbach (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Afterword, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, Bantam, 1983, pp. 461-70.

[Auerbach's look at Alcott's life and work suggests that although Meg, Jo, and Amy had to accept marriage as their fates, Alcott actually idealized feminist utopias that excluded marriage and men.]

For those of us who entered the March household as children, its power is unabated. Adult women remember life with Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy when their own childhoods have grown dim. For better or worse, the March family has passed into American folk mythology. Though Alcott had hoped only for transient commercial appeal, by 1890 Ednah Cheyney, her first biographer, could claim: "Already twenty-one...

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Anne Dalke (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'The House-Band': The Education of Men in Little Women," College English, Vol. 47, No. 6, October, 1985, pp. 571-78.

[In the following essay, Dalke argues that Little Women, particularly the second part, redefines family according to matriarchal values.]

Seven years ago, Nina Auerbach elevated Little Women from children's classic to a place on the college syllabus. She did so by re-visioning the book, by instructing us, as we in turn gleefully instructed our students, in the "plenitude" and "primacy" of the sisterhood set forth in the novel's first half. The "world of the March girls," Auerbach told us, is "rich enough to complete itself...

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Ruth K. MacDonald (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Louisa May Alcott's Little Women: Who is Still Reading Miss Alcott and Why," in Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Children's Literature Association, 1985, pp. 13-20.

[MacDonald contrasts recent responses to Little Women with those of child readers in Alcott's time, suggesting that although modern critics often consider the book sentimental and romantic, when compared to other works of the time, it is radical and realistic.]

Louisa May Alcott's books continue to occupy space on library shelves, and some of her novels can still be found in bookstores. At least part of the reason that children, especially girls, continue...

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Sarah Elbert (essay date 1987)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reading Little Women," in A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott's Place in American Culture, Rutgers University Press, 1987, pp. 195-218.

[In the following chapter, Elbert identifies major themes in Alcott's work as exemplified in Little Women, tying them all to an ideal of "domestic democracy."

I may be strong-minded, but no one can say I'm out of my sphere now, for woman's special mission is supposed to be drying tears and bearing burdens. I'm to carry my share, Friedrich, and help to earn the home. Make up your mind to that, or I'll never go.

Jo March in Little Women, chapter 46


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Beverly Lyon Clark (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Portrait of the Artist as a Little Woman," Children's Literature. Vol. 17, 1989, pp. 81-97.

[In the following essay, Clark discusses Alcott's ambivalence toward the role of writing, particularly as self-expression, in Little Women.]

Alcott as submissive, Alcott as subversive, Alcott as ambivalent—these are dominant themes in recent reflections on Louisa May Alcott.1 The same themes appear in Alcott's own writing about writing, when she writes about Jo March. Though Alcott gives some play to subversive ideas of self-expression, her overt message is that girls should subordinate themselves and their language to others. A little woman should...

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Ellen Butler Donovan (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reading for Profit and Pleasure: Little Women and The Story of a Bad Boy, "The Lion and the Unicorn, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1994, pp. 143-53.

[In the following excerpt, Donovan places Little Women in the context of the development of children's literature. Though Alcott incorporated lessons for self-improvement in her work, she opposed didacticism.]

Fiction written in the United States specifically for children changed fundamentally in 1868 and 1869 with the publication of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, part I, and Thomas Bailey Aldrich's The Story of a Bad Boy. In these two novels, we see the development of a new narrative...

(The entire section is 3580 words.)

Christy Rishoi Minadeo (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Little Women in the Twenty-First Century," in Images of the Child, edited by Harry Eiss, Bowling Green University Press, 1994, pp. 199-214.

[In this essay, Minadeo considers the relevance of Little Women to today's readers for whom gender roles are less limiting than in Alcott's time.]

Reading Little Women used to be easy. Before feminism changed the way American girls looked at the future, Louisa May Alcott's book was simply a manual showing girls how to be ideal women. From Alcott's book girls learned to serve others and forget themselves, to put ambition aside for marriage and family, and to hide their negative feelings. Reading...

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Shirley Foster and Judy Simons (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Louisa May Alcott: Little Women," in What Katy Read: Feminist Re-readings of 'Classic' Stories for Girls, University of Iowa Press, 1995, pp. 85-106.

[In the following chapter, Foster and Simons explain that critics tend to be emotionally engaged with Little Women because its subject, female development, is universally mythic, and its realism keeps it timeless.]

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868) is probably the most famous of all the works discussed in this study, and of the nineteenth-century texts certainly the most enduring in popularity. Although it is over a hundred and twenty years since its first appearance, it remains a...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Delamar, Gloria T. Louisa May Alcott and "Little Women": Biography, Critique, Publications, Poems, Songs and Contemporary Relevance. London: McFarland and Co., 1990, 350 p.

As its title suggests, this source is more than biographical. Delamar creatively draws from diverse evidence to illuminate Alcott's life and influence.

Fetterley, Judith. "Little Women: Alcott's Civil War." Feminist Studies 5.2 (1979): 369-83.

Fetterley argues that Alcott's novel has tiered messages: one, which reflects the views of male-dominated culture, encouraging women to marry, work domestically, and not complain;...

(The entire section is 524 words.)