Last Updated on August 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1888
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 novel’s main themes? Which sister seems to contrast the most with Jo? Why? Draw on specific examples from the text.
- For discussion: What roles do Mr. and Mrs. March play in the text? What about Mr. Laurence, Laurie’s uncle and guardian, and the wealthy Aunt March? How do these characters relate to Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy?
Domesticity as a Theme: At its core, Little Women is about the importance of family life and domesticity—especially for women. In the final line of the novel, Mrs. March joyously gathers her children and grandchildren around her and declares, “O my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!” Peaceful domestic life is the reward at the end of the pilgrimage for each March girl, aside from Beth.
- For discussion: How does each of the March girls value domestic life at the beginning of the novel? How does domestic life factor into their respective ambitions and interests?
- For discussion: While Meg, Jo, and Amy enjoy their lives outside of the home, Beth stays at home most of the time. She also most closely exemplifies piety, gentleness, and caretaking—the earlier Victorian ideal of “the angel in the house.” What does Beth’s character and her association with domestic life suggest about the expectations placed on American women in the 19th century? How do her sisters respond to Beth’s role in their family?
- For discussion: How do Mr. and Mrs. March value domestic life? What do they say about it? In what ways do they try to educate their daughters to be proper wives and mothers?
Religion as a Theme: One of Mrs. March’s primary goals is to teach her daughters to live their lives according to the teachings of Christ. Each of the March girls’ mishaps leads to a lesson that helps them become more aligned with Christian values such as kindness, charity, humility, and generosity.
- For discussion: How do the March girls’ mishaps teach them about Christian values? What lessons do they learn? Cite specific examples from the text.
- For discussion: Based on what happens to Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, what does it mean to be kind, charitable, humble, and generous?
- For discussion: In what ways do the March girls rebel against Christian values? Who rebels the most? Be sure to cite evidence from the text.
Additional Discussion Questions:
- Little Women is about young women in the mid-19th-century United States. Some readers today might consider the novel’s portrayal of women outdated and insensitive. Why might some readers take issue with how Alcott portrays women? Do you agree with them? Why or why not?
- Marmee is always admired by her daughters, and she strives to be an excellent example for them. What lessons do the girls learn from Marmee?
- Jo spends much of the novel trying to gain independence and resist feminine gender roles. Later in the novel, she marries Professor Bhaer and then opens a school for boys. What do you think these decisions suggest about the evolution of her values and her overall character development? Do you think that Jo’s choices will result in happiness? Why or why not?
- Each of the March girls struggles with a character trait that they are advised to “conquer.” Which character trait would you most have to conquer if you lived in their world? Are there character traits you strive to “conquer” in your life already?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
Feminine Submission as a Theme: Little Women prioritizes domestic responsibilities over personal goals, and contains many messages encouraging young women to submit themselves to male authority and adhere to confining cultural standards.
- What to do: As a class, acknowledge sexist messaging as it arises throughout the novel. Remind students that, during Alcott’s time, women had few rights and were largely excluded from public life. However, Alcott was herself a headstrong and ambitious person who did not readily meet many of her culture’s expectations of women. Taking into account the literary context of Little Women, ask students to consider why Alcott might have written a novel appearing to promote these expectations.
- What to do: Point out to students that Little Women was written as a didactic text. Ask students to consider, in groups, what the novel seems to be instructing girls to do. Make sure that students provide evidence from the text to support their answers.
- What to do: Ask students to consider an alternate outcome in which Jo resists marriage in favor of living independently as an author, as Alcott did in real life. What might the novel’s message be then?
There are Multiple Film Adaptations of Little Women: As is common with classic texts, many students might have already seen one of the film versions of Little Women before reading the book. Still others may watch the film in lieu of reading the novel.
- What to do: Remind students that films and novels are different media, so even if a film recounts a text faithfully, reading the text will be an inherently different experience from watching the film.
- What to do: Emphasize to students that the film offers a subjective interpretation of the text, not a perfect reconstruction of it. Substituting a film for the novel can mislead students’ interpretations of the book’s story and themes.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching Little Women
While the main ideas, characters, themes, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving teaching Little Women, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel.
- Focus on Beth’s character as a critique of oppressive gender norms. Though Beth’s character is often associated with the admirable qualities of virtue and selflessness, she can also be read as an example of the dangers of taking oppressive gender norms to extremes. Beth is the quintessential 19th-century woman: she is shy, self-sacrificing, pious, morally-upstanding, and almost entirely confined to the domestic sphere. Why does Alcott sacrifice Beth, considering that Meg and Jo survived scarlet fever when they were younger? How might the novel differ if Beth lived?
- Focus on the men in Little Women. Divisions of gender and sexuality are prevalent throughout the story, but most of the emphasis is placed on the moral development of the four March sisters. However, men—from father figures to love interests—play important roles in the girls’ lives. Who are the men in Little Women? What do they do? How do they treat Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy?
- Focus on scarlet fever as a symbol of female passion. It may seem unremarkable that Little Women mentions scarlet fever, which was very common in Alcott’s time. However, the presentation of scarlet fever carries cultural implications. Nineteenth-century art frequently romanticized feminine illness, to the point where the appearance of frailty and wasting was fashionable. Additionally, blushing, or the flushing of the skin to suggest embarrassment, was often used to symbolize the shame of female passion, desire, and sexuality. What are the implications of an incredibly virtuous female character being overcome by an illness that resembles blushing and feverishness? What would change about the novel if Meg, Jo, or Amy became sick in this way?
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