Themes Developed Through Motifs: In Little Women, recurring motifs like flowers, fire, and umbrellas develop themes in the story. The prevalence of motifs in the text invites readers to consider both the literal and figurative importance of each motif and how it relates to the novel’s larger themes.
- For discussion: Identify recurring objects, events, concepts, colors, and phrases in the text that you find important. What are the figurative associations of these elements? Which themes do these elements point towards and help reveal?
- For discussion: When do umbrellas appear in the novel? What do they seem to signify about romantic relationships and the dynamics between men and women? How are they an appropriate symbol?
- For discussion: Which recurring images, colors, or objects have symbolic meaning in your life? Do they show up by chance or are they predictable parts of your environment? What do they seem to represent? Compare and contrast recurring elements you find personally important with the recurring elements that are important in Little Women.
The Roles of Social Class and Work: In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, 19th-century American socioeconomic identity was in flux as traditional class structures shifted to accommodate a rapidly expanding middle class. One of the ways in which the middle class differentiated itself from the upper class was through the glorification of work, industry, and production. Alcott illustrates this distinction through her characterization of wealthy families like the Vaughns, the Moffats, and the Gardiners.
- For discussion: How are different classes portrayed in the novel? How do the different classes interact with one another? Is it shameful to be poor? Why or why not? Is it shameful to be rich? Why or why not?
- For discussion: What does Mr. Brooke mean when he tells Meg that “[t]here’s no place like America for us workers” in chapter 12? What is he reacting to? What kind of work is he describing?
- For discussion: What types of labor do men perform? How is men’s work valued? Does the value of men’s work change as the story progresses? How?
- For discussion: What types of labor do women perform? How is women’s work valued? Does the value of women’s work change as the story progresses? How?
Themes Developed Through Characterization: Alcott characterizes the March sisters in ways that advance the novel’s major themes, many of which mirror those of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Each girl, like Christian, must conquer unfavorable traits in the name of moral development. These paths of moral progress also reflect the values of Alcott’s culture, in which a young woman would have been expected to model piety, gentleness, and obedience. Meg must grapple with her love of pretty clothes and other finery, finding happiness in the humble life of a poor man’s wife. Jo must tame her tomboyish, outspoken, and ambitious ways in order to realize her desires. Beth, the most pious of the sisters, must conquer her extreme shyness in order to be of service to others. Amy must make peace with her insecurities about social class and instead become a more dutiful and virtuous individual. The centrality of character development over the course of the story makes Little Women an excellent early text for students to analyze in order to understand how characterization develops themes in works of literature.
- For discussion: Though Little Women is about all four March sisters, Jo stands out as a protagonist because she is the most well-rounded and complex character. How does Jo develop over the course of the novel? What are some of the key turning points for Jo’s character? What does she learn? How does she change? Be sure to cite evidence from the text.
- For discussion: Meg, Beth, and Amy function as foils to Jo in Little Women . Meg is ladylike, whereas Jo is tomboyish. Beth is shy, whereas Jo is bold. Amy is vain, whereas Jo is unconcerned with appearances. What do these sets of character foils suggest about the...
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