Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Written in response to a publisher’s request for a “girls’ book,” Little Women is an enduring classic of domestic realism, tracing the lives of four sisters from adolescence through early adulthood. The narrator is omniscient and intrusive, frequently interrupting the narrative to provide moral commentary. Often didactic and sentimental, the novel nevertheless realistically portrays family life in the mid-nineteenth century United States. Like female counterparts of John Bunyan’s Christian from Pilgrim’s Progress, the four “little women” of the March family journey into womanhood, learning difficult lessons of poverty, obedience, charity, and hard work along the way.

The novel is arranged in two parts; Alcott wrote and published part 1 first, gauging its reception before continuing with part 2. Part 1 covers approximately one year in the life of the March family, during which time the father is away, serving his country as a chaplain during the Civil War. “Marmee” and her daughters learn to live with meager resources; the two older girls work outside the home to help support the family, and all four girls keep busy with sewing, housekeeping, and helping the one family servant, Hannah, with the household chores.

Their experience of poverty, hardship, and their father’s absence is counterbalanced by many occasions of fun and good humor. The sisters put on plays for the neighborhood, have picnics with their friends, and set up the “Pickwick Club,” where they create a literary newspaper and soon include their neighbor, Laurie, among the group.

Each sister has her particular identity, including an artistic talent, character flaws, and positive traits. Meg, the oldest, bears the responsibility for her younger sisters but longs for a rich life full of beautiful things and free from material want and hardship. Jo is the literary genius, spending much of her free time in the attic, scribbling away at the stories she writes first for her family’s amusement and later for publication and for money. She is courageous, strong, and active, but she has to learn to control her temper and her rebellious nature. Beth is cheerful and good but suffers from ill health and shyness. She learns to overcome her timidity when she begins to visit the Laurences, after receiving permission to play their piano. Amy develops a wide range of artistic talents (drawing, painting, sculpture) and insists upon social correctness, sometimes to the point of prissiness, but her polite and charming ways offset this flaw.

Part 1 ends with Mr. March’s homecoming and Beth’s successful recovery from scarlet fever. Part 2 continues the little women’s lives three years later, when Meg marries John Brooke and the other sisters continue with their artistic endeavors and outside occupations. The family has become more diffuse, with Meg in a house of her own, Jo working as a governess in New York, and Amy on her grand tour of Europe. Laurie is away at college and then also in Europe; his boyhood friendship with Jo has developed into infatuation. She rejects his marriage proposal, despite her deep affection for him, for she knows that they are too much alike to have a successful marriage.

By the end of the novel, the “little women” have grown up. Despite the sadness of Beth’s death, the novel ends happily, with the other three sisters all married and with families of their own; all of them live nearby and continue to share in one another’s lives.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

March home

March home. Home of the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, in an unspecified northern city. The house is probably based on the Orchard House in Concord, where Alcott herself spent much of her youth. Alcott reveals few physical details about the March house; it seems to be threadbare but comfortable. The Marches live frugally because the girls’ father has suffered financial reverses trying to help a friend. They often gather around the fireplace during the winter months, and Jo has scorched one of her best gowns by standing too close to the heat. The Marches’ comfortable home contrasts with the dwelling of German immigrants to whom Mrs. March and the girls take food on Christmas Day. The Hummels’ home has broken window panes, no heat, and no food; however, the Marches try to set things right before leaving.

Gardiner house

Gardiner house and Moffat house. The comfortable but plain home of the Marches also contrasts with the more luxurious homes of the social-climbing Gardiners and Moffats. At a party at the Gardiner residence, Jo meets Theodore Laurence (Laurie), who is hiding in a curtained recess and realizes that he lives next door. Later, the novel follows Meg’s activities at a party at the Moffats. It is here at “Vanity Fair” that Meg becomes troubled and angered when she overhears Mrs. Moffat suggesting that Mrs. March is scheming for one of her girls to marry Laurie.

Laurence mansion

Laurence mansion. Home of the prosperous Laurence family. It, too, provides a contrast to the Marches’ home. Located immediately next door to the Marches’ home, it is the home of the wealthy and kindly Grandfather Laurence and his grandson Laurie, who is about the same age as the March girls. At the beginning of the novel, the girls seem never to have visited the Laurence house; however, after Jo meets Laurie, they frequently visit the home. The mansion contains a conservatory filled with rare and beautiful plants, which to the March girls is almost a paradise. The mansion also contains a piano, which is particularly attractive to Beth, and a library which is attractive to Jo. One senses that this house reflects a concern with human values rather than mere wealth.

Great Aunt March’s house

Great Aunt March’s house. Another home depicted in detail is that of Jo’s father’s aunt. Jo visits her great aunt daily to take care of the cranky elderly woman. The house possesses a library that belonged to Great Aunt March’s deceased husband, and Jo reads interesting books while the old lady sleeps and her parrot squawks out insults. At the end of Little Women, readers discover that Jo has inherited the house from Great Aunt March and plans to use it to open a school for boys.

*New York City

*New York City. Finding that Laurie is too fond of her, Jo spends some time working in New York, where she lives in a rooming house in which she meets Professor Bhaer, to whom she becomes engaged near the end of the novel.


*Europe. Amy’s visit to Europe signifies the girls’ coming of age. Laurie visits her in southern France and Switzerland, while she is traveling with a rich aunt and is intent on improving her drawings. Laurie and Amy fall in love in Europe and marry there before returning to America. The marriage of the youngest of the March girls indicates that the March girls have indeed come of age.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Little Women is a classic of children’s literature and of domestic realism. Read even today by young girls, it is perhaps the most successful girls’ book ever written. Since its publication, Little Women has never been out of print; it has been translated into more than two dozen languages, has been made into a movie, and has inspired several generations of young women who, like Jo March, went on to become famous writers.

The ongoing appeal of Little Women stems from its realistic portrayal of the struggles of adolescents to become women, a process that is never presented as easy or unequivocally acceptable. Even Marmee, who seems saint-like in her placidity, charity, and generosity, has had to learn to control her temper and develop as an equal partner in her marriage to a man who, because of his work, must often leave her with the primary responsibility for their children. The fully drawn and very different “little women” of the March family appeal to a wide range of tastes, for they range from romantic to rebel, sentimental to socialite.

The character of Jo, modeled after Alcott herself, is most often cited as the reason for the novel’s enduring popularity: She rebels against conformity but succeeds in both her professional work as a writer and in her personal life as a wife and mother. Despite the conflicted feminist message inherent in Jo’s eventual marriage—for even though she disparages marriage throughout the novel, she willingly acquiesces to Friedrich Bhaer—she remains a model of assertiveness and independence.

Little Women is both part of the tradition of girls’ literature and an example of the emergent realism that addressed women’s concerns and issues after the Civil War. Like other popular women writers who created series of books around a set of characters (Martha Finley is one example), Alcott wrote several series on the March family and other characters. Yet her work also belongs in the tradition of Fanny Fern (Sarah Payson Willis Parton), whose Ruth Hall (1855) is a fictional autobiography of a woman who makes her living by writing, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, who wrote of strong, independent women in The Silent Partner (1871) and Doctor Zay (1882).

Alcott’s other works, especially the novels she wrote for adults and her pseudonymously published sensation stories, are early classics of feminist literature: They portray women who succeed in creating independent careers for themselves outside the home and who also form lasting emotional attachments, often but not exclusively as wives and mothers.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

(From left) Winona Ryder as Jo, Trini Alvarado as Meg, Kirsten Dunst as Amy, Susan Sarandon as Marmee, and Clare Danes as Beth in the 1994 film version of the novel Published by Gale Cengage

The Role of Women in Nineteenth-Century America
In the nineteenth century, women were responsible for creating warm,...

(The entire section is 1015 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Little Women is set in the 1860s in a New England town modeled on Concord, Massachusetts. Most of the action in Part I revolves around...

(The entire section is 120 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
Little Women is written from a third-person omniscient perspective. The narrator...

(The entire section is 952 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In Little Women, Alcott blends the children's moral tale of her day with the domestic novel, a popular form of nineteenth-century women's...

(The entire section is 615 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In writing Little Women, Alcott broke much new ground while adhering, structurally, to many conventions of mid-nineteenth-century...

(The entire section is 429 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In Little Women, Alcott is concerned with the maturation and socialization of girls. She treats the issues through the experiences of the...

(The entire section is 653 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Little Women cannot fail to provide ample opportunity for lively discussion. Groups should enjoy comparing current standards of behavior,...

(The entire section is 463 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1860s: Children's books generally depict innocent, flawless children in innocent stories. Characters are one-dimensional and...

(The entire section is 402 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. What motivates and shapes the character of each of the March girls? What are some of the lessons the girls learn from their experiences at...

(The entire section is 138 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. What attitudes toward marriage does Alcott present in Little Women, and how do they compare to contemporary attitudes?


(The entire section is 178 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Imagine you are assigned to create a soundtrack for Little Women. Think about each of the four March girls, Laurie, and...

(The entire section is 198 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Brophy, Brigid, "A Masterpiece, and Dreadful," in New York Times Book Review, January 17, 1965, pp....

(The entire section is 472 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Delamar, Gloria T. Louisa May Alcott and “Little Women”: Biography, Critique, Publications, Poems, Songs, and Contemporary Relevance. Jefferson, N.C.: 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, N.J.: 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.

Graham, Peter W. Don Juan and Regency England. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990. Six essays that examine Byron’s comic poem in the context of various aspects of Regency English culture, from politics to pantomime.

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.

Watt, Ian. Myths of Modern Individualism: Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Ian Watt studies the origins and literary uses of Don Quixote, Don Juan, Faust, and Robinson Crusoe as pervasive myths of the modern individualist world.

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Little Women falls inside and outside a "family novel" tradition traceable to Jane Austen in England, whose Pride and Prejudice for adults,...

(The entire section is 690 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

There are two sequels to Little Women. Little Men is set at Plumfield School, which Jo and her husband run accord- ing to educational...

(The entire section is 56 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Little Women has been adapted for the screen on numerous occasions. The first was a silent movie produced by G. B. Samuelson...

(The entire section is 247 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Little Men (1871) is the sequel to Little Women, and tells of Jo's life at Plumfield, where she runs a school for...

(The entire section is 269 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Burrows, Alvina Treut. "A Critical Study of Little Women." Elementary English 37 (May 1960): 285-292. Interprets the novel as a...

(The entire section is 211 words.)