Little Women (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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The March family, although suffering financially while the father, a minister, acted as chaplain in the war, was bound together by a deep love that transcended poverty. The four sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—had their disagreements but always helped one another in times of crisis. Their father and mother had taught them, through example as well as word, to be unselfish and caring.

The girls become friends with young Theodore (Laurie) Lawrence and his old grandfather. This wealthy family helps the Marches in times of trouble. John Brooke, Laurie’s tutor, falls in love with Meg, and eventually they marry. Jo, always a “scribbler,” turns seriously to writing. Young Beth, stricken with scarlet fever after tending the ill children of a poor widow, dies. Pretty Amy, the favorite of the sisters’ well-to-do aunt, is invited on a European trip. The once close family breaks apart as the girls grow up and leave home.

Jo escapes her depression at the breakup of her family by moving to New York to pursue her writing career and work as a governess. There, she meets a German tutor, Professor Bhaer. Laurie marries Amy when she returns from Europe. Jo returns from New York uncertain what her life now holds. To her surprise, Professor Bhaer shows up and asks her to marry him.

Far from being a sentimental children’s novel, Little Women is a realistic portrayal of strong and resilient people and their efforts to survive in an often bleak world. In large part, it is concerned with ideals, but these are integrated into the lives of the characters. Themes woven into the book include women’s rights, the place of the woman in mid-nineteenth-century America, war, and the importance of the family as a force to help individuals survive against all odds.

The importance of the family unit gives the book much of its power. Individuals suffer, struggle, and die, but the family endures. This extraordinary and vigorous novel presents a picture of human endurance that is both touching and inspiring.


Delamar, Gloria T. Louisa May Alcott and “Little Women”: Biography, Critique, Publications, Poems, Songs, and Contemporary Relevance. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1990. Goes beyond a biography of Alcott to include a comprehensive bibliography of Alcott’s works and analyses of her work. Includes critical analysis of Little Women and selections from letters by Alcott and her close associates.

Elbert, Sarah. A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott’s Place in American Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987. Elbert provides both biographical background and critical coverage, tracing the two predominant themes in Little Women and in Alcott’s work generally: domesticity and feminism. The chapters “Writing Little Women” and “Reading Little Women” are particularly useful.

Kaledin, Eugenia. “Louisa May Alcott: Success and the Sorrow of Self-Denial.” Women’s Studies 5 (1978): 251–263. Kaledin argues that Alcott’s need to succeed financially prevented her from becoming a true literary success. Kaledin offers several persuasive biographical interpretations of Little Women, showing the similarities between the fictional Jo March and Louisa May Alcott.

Keyser, Elizabeth Lennox. Whispers in the Dark: The Fiction of Louisa May Alcott. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993. Intriguing analysis of Jo and Laurie’s relationship as the Sleeping Beauty tale with gender roles reversed. Suggests that Alcott depicted them as androgynous characters who together made a whole person but whose wholeness could not exist in the Victorian era.

MacDonald, Ruth K. Louisa May Alcott. Boston: Twayne, 1983. MacDonald’s critical overview of Alcott’s works includes a chapter on “The March Family Stories,” which covers not only Little Women but also its sequels: Good Wives (which is part 2 of the novel), Little Men, and Jo’s Boys. While acknowledging the autobiographical basis of Little Women, MacDonald also shows how the work departs from factual details of Alcott family life.

Payne, Alma J. Louisa May Alcott: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. The most complete bibliography of works by and about Alcott; entries are arranged chronologically and contain descriptive annotations. Includes an index.

Saxton, Martha. Louisa May: A Modern Biography of Louisa May Alcott. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977. Saxton’s biography gives full coverage of Alcott’s life and the range of her writing. Saxton tends to favor Alcott’s novels for adults over those for children, but her discussion of Little Women is valuable, especially in the light of the thorough biographical treatment. Contains an extensive bibliography and an index.

Showalter, Elaine. Sister’s Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women’s Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Discusses American women writers and the diversity of their language and literary vision in the context of race, ethnicity, and class. Influential analysis of Little Women.

Stern, Madeleine, ed. Critical Essays on Louisa May Alcott. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. A collection of essays on Alcott’s body of work, from nineteenth-century reviews to late twentieth-century criticism and interpretation.

Strickland, Charles. Victorian Domesticity: Families in the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985. A thoughtful exploration of the sentimental and its implications in Alcott’s work. Suggests that her juvenile fiction offers the most radical departure from Victorian conventions. Connects to Alcott’s own struggle with the sentimental ideals of child and parent in her own family.

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Critical Overview


Essays and Criticism