Discussion Topic

Themes, motifs, symbols, and archetypes in Little Women

Summary:

Key themes in Little Women include the importance of family, the struggle for individual identity, and the role of women in society. Motifs such as domesticity and self-sacrifice recur throughout the novel. Symbols like the March family home represent stability and comfort, while archetypes such as the nurturing mother and the independent woman are embodied in characters like Marmee and Jo.

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What is the main theme of Little Women?

One of the key themes of Little Women is the importance of family. The March sisters are extremely close to one another and to their parents. Receiving a letter from their father, who is away from home in the army as a chaplain, is a treat that raises the girls's spirits.

Another theme is the need to take on responsibility during difficult times and to maintain a strong outlook in the face of adversity. It is important to remember two things about the story. First, the March girls are living during a war. Many, if not most, of the men are away. Second, the March family is old and established. They once had money, but are now poor in comparison to their extended family. Yet, they are encouraged to deal with life's difficulties and not complain. As the title of the novel suggests, they are to act as "little women" with maturity beyond their actual years.

It does not mean that the girls do not want to have nice things or strive for more exciting times. However, it is important for them to remember to be thankful for what they have. There are religious overtones to this message that can be seen in the game the girls play as youngsters, Pilgrim's Progress. Marmee tells them that,

Nothing delighted you more than to. . .let you travel. . .from the cellar, which was the City of Destruction, up, up, to the housetop, where you had all the lovely things you could collect to make a Celestial City."

In the game, the March girls aspire to travel from the City of Destruction to the Celestial—or heavenly—City. Moreover, when the story opens, they are living during a time of war and destruction. Young men and even many older men, like their father, are away in the army, so the women that they have left behind must fend for themselves. It is not a time to complain, but to deal with life as it comes. As Meg tells her sisters in the very first chapter, this is the reason that Marmee asked them to forego presents at Christmas; it will be a hard winter for everyone, and there is no time for frivolity.

Meg says, "our men are suffering so in the army." They can do their Christian and patriotic duty by acting bravely and recognizing how difficult things are for everyone, and making the according sacrifices.

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What is the main theme of Little Women?

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women has resonated with readers over time precisely because it has opened up questions about women's ever-evolving role in society through its portrayal of four very different sisters. While the novel presents a variety of themes centered around femininity, the validity of gender stereotypes, the importance of hard work, and the connection between happiness and moral living, the most overarching theme in the book is really that of sacrifice.

We see examples of this idea of sacrifice throughout the story, and it’s one of the central tenets of growing up that all the March sisters consequently face. Amy has to sacrifice her goal of being an artist, Jo her goal of being a famous author, and Meg of desirable earthly comforts, all in order to become dutiful wives and mothers in order to guarantee the happiness of others. Even Beth sacrifices her very future and contentedly accepts her inevitable death.

Other examples of sacrifice include Jo selling her hair to fund Marmee’s trip to Washington, or the sisters giving up their Christmas breakfast so that the impoverished Hummels could have a better holiday. Such sacrifices required the March sisters balancing personal growth, maturity and a duty to family, even when their own happiness was at stake.

However, Alcott makes clear that self-sacrifice has immense value, eventually resulting in happiness. Moral living brings happiness and sacrifice is one of the highest ideals of Christian morals. We see this in the way the sisters ultimately achieve happiness through their familial and spousal relationships. Giving up personal wants and desires for the betterment of others reflects the love, charity, compassion and selfless behavior at the heart of Christian teachings. In other words, it's the benefit that comes from doing for others rather than benefit that comes from achieving personal gain that matters most in life.

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What is the main theme of Little Women?

Certainly, the novel conveys the idea that "into each life, some rain must fall."  In other words, no life or relationship is going to be perfect.  Meg and John have no money, but take a great deal of joy in their children.  Jo and Bhaer don't have much money, but feel very rich in their ability to take in boys to educate and make a family of those boys and their own son.  Amy and Laurie are very wealthy, and very much in love, but their daughter is often ill and may not live into adulthood.  No life can be free from all sorrow, and nothing can protect us from it: not love, not money.

The novel also makes claims about the kind of qualities on which a marriage should be founded.  We see through Marmee and Mr. March's relationship, as well as the failed romance between Jo and Laurie (and Jo's later successful romance with Bhaer) that a proper marriage is founded on mutual love and respect as well as the ability of each partner to help the other to become the best possible version of themselves.  Mr. March, for example, helps Marmee with her temper.  Bhaer helps to cool Jo's temper as well; however, Laurie only seemed to egg her on and escalate her heated feelings, and this was one clue that their relationship would not make them both happy in the long run.

Further, the novel also conveys the idea that work and play are both necessary for a fulfilling and productive life.  When Marmee allows the girls to try their "experiment," and not work for an entire week, she knows it will not be as fun as they expect.  She very much believes that work is necessary in order to be happy, and she is right (as they learn during the week).

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What are the themes in Little Women?  

For its time, Louisa Mae Alcott's Little Women was radical in its portrayal of such independent young women, especially the character Jo.  But, because of this avant-garde challenge of gender roles and its compelling narrative, Little Women remains a beloved classic, one that both boys and girls enjoy.  Here are three prevailing themes of Alcott's novel:

Gender Roles

With the husband and father gone to fight in the Civil War, the March family is composed solely of females.  Rather than following the traditional role of women in the nineteenth-century, however, the March girls and their mother develop minds and spirits that are independent.  Mrs. March, for example, unlike Mrs. Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, does not groom her daughters solely to become wives; rather, she instructs her girls that they should develop themselves into educated and interesting women so that they can live happy lives.  It is "...[B]etter [to] be happy old maids than unhappy wives," she tells them. 

Josephine March, who is sixteen at the beginning of the narrative, is the most independent of the girls.  Considered a tomboy, she is exuberant, self-confident, and very bright.  Uninterested in marriage, she is upset when her sister Meg marries because she feels that the family is being broken apart.  Nevertheless, Jo herself later separates from the family, but she realizes that she must pursue her own dream of becoming a writer.  After she moves away, she meets Professor Bhaer, who encourages her and is supportive, rather than chauvanistic as was customary for the times. 

Another member of the family who does not follow the norm is Meg.  For instance, when she visits her friend Anne Moffat and feels uncomfortable in her old dress, her friends dress her for a dance, yet Meg feels foolishly like some doll that has been dressed by its owner.

Maturation

Alcott's novel is greatly concerned with the girls' search for self.  Meg, for example, is very family-orientated and is concerned about pleasing others while Jo is fiercely independent.  Beth is selfless and Amy is more concerned with herself and her acquistion of things than are the other girls; like the others she, too, seeks her own identity.

Concepts of Wealth

While the Marches are poor, they are not so impoverished that they cannot charitably help others.  In addition, they are not ashamed of their condition and unabashedly visit the Laurence home and marvel at the wonderful library. Never are they envious or petty; instead they embrace Laurie as their friend, especially Jo. For, the Marches realize that they are wealthy in ways that the Laurences are not as they have parents while Laurie does not.  Clearly Miss Alcott demonstrates through the relationship of the March girls with Laurie that there is wealth that supercedes economic wealth.

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What are the themes in Little Women?  

For its time, Louisa Mae Alcott's Little Women was radical in its portrayal of such independent young women, especially the character Jo.  But, because of this avant-garde challenge of gender roles and its compelling narrative, Little Women remains a beloved classic, one that both boys and girls enjoy.  Here are three prevailing themes of Alcott's novel:

Gender Roles

With the husband and father gone to fight in the Civil War, the March family is composed solely of females.  Rather than following the traditional role of women in the nineteenth-century, however, the March girls and their mother develop minds and spirits that are independent.  Mrs. March, for example, unlike Mrs. Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, does not groom her daughters solely to become wives; rather, she instructs her girls that they should develop themselves into educated and interesting women so that they can live happy lives.  It is "...[B]etter [to] be happy old maids than unhappy wives," she tells them. 

Josephine March, who is sixteen at the beginning of the narrative, is the most independent of the girls.  Considered a tomboy, she is exuberant, self-confident, and very bright.  Uninterested in marriage, she is upset when her sister Meg marries because she feels that the family is being broken apart.  Nevertheless, Jo herself later separates from the family, but she realizes that she must pursue her own dream of becoming a writer.  After she moves away, she meets Professor Bhaer, who encourages her and is supportive, rather than chauvanistic as was customary for the times. 

Another member of the family who does not follow the norm is Meg.  For instance, when she visits her friend Anne Moffat and feels uncomfortable in her old dress, her friends dress her for a dance, yet Meg feels foolishly like some doll that has been dressed by its owner.

Maturation

Alcott's novel is greatly concerned with the girls' search for self.  Meg, for example, is very family-orientated and is concerned about pleasing others while Jo is fiercely independent.  Beth is selfless and Amy is more concerned with herself and her acquistion of things than are the other girls; like the others she, too, seeks her own identity.

While the Marches are poor, they are not so impoverished that they cannot charitably help others.  In addition, they are not ashamed of their condition and unabashedly visit the Laurence home and marvel at the wonderful library. Never are they envious or petty; instead they embrace Laurie as their friend, especially Jo. For, the Marches realize that they are wealthy in ways that the Laurences are not as they have parents while Laurie does not.  Clearly Miss Alcott demonstrates through the relationship of the March girls with Laurie that there is wealth that supercedes economic wealth.

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What is an important theme in Little Women?

There are several important themes in the novel Little Women.  One important theme that is prominent throughout the story is that of womanhood and femininity.  Societal ideas about womanhood and femininity are contrasted with less traditional ones.

An example of this theme is the contrast between Meg and Jo.  Meg is more traditionally feminine than Jo.  She often reminds Jo to be ladylike, as do the other sisters.  Meg has "a sweet mouth, and white hands" (Chapter 1).  White hands indicate that she is careful not to let her skin tan or freckle, and also that she tries not to do too much manual work.  In the mid 1800s, fair skin with no freckles was desired among many young ladies.  Jo, on the other hand, is "thin, and brown, and remind[s] one of a colt."  This comparison of Jo to a colt shows that she is considered wild.

Meg scolds Jo for being too masculine.  She tells her sister that she is "old enough to leave off boyish tricks, and to behave better."  Jo dismisses this, stating that she wishes she had been born a boy.  She does not like the societal expectations placed on young ladies.

Meg's traditional femininity conflicts with Jo's independent, more masculine spirit and attitude.  Throughout the story, this theme is further shown.  Meg marries and has children, while Jo moves to the city to live independently and start a career. 

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What themes, motifs, symbols or archetypes should be traced in Little Women?

The changing role of women, self-awareness and affirmation in adolescence and early adulthood, and solidarity within the family unit are three predominant leit motifs throughout this novel. You could formulate another theme around the social implications of poverty and wealth as depicted in the story.

To glean more ideas, visit the following enote references. The first one gives interesting insight into how the themes of  Little Women relate to the confrontations and problems Alcott faced in her own life in the wane of the nineteeth century.

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