Little Women Themes

The main themes in Little Women are gender roles, adolescence and identity, and wealth and poverty.

  • Gender roles: In opposition to many assumptions of the time period, the novel encourages girls to find happiness, whether a husband is involved or not.
  • Adolescence and identity: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy have extremely different personalities, and each character learns to understand herself and her individual goals for life.
  • Wealth and poverty: Though the Marches are poor, they are able to find happiness in small comforts, kindness, and close friendships.

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(Novels for Students)

Gender Roles
Little Women challenged assumptions about women in nineteenth-century America. Marmee tells her daughters that they should not feel obligated to find husbands, but should seek fulfillment on their own. In chapter 9, she tells Meg and Jo:

My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world—marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting. . . . [B]etter be happy old maids than unhappy wives, or unmaidenly girls, running about to have husbands. . . . Leave these things to time; make this home happy, so that you may be fit for homes of your own, if they are offered you, and contented here if they are not.

Through her example, Marmee shows that a home can be run successfully without a man supporting it, as hers is while Mr. March is away at war. While many women, like Aunt March, expected young women to pursue wealthy men, Marmee sees the value of marriage differently.

Jo is fascinating as a study of female independence in early American society. She is a tomboy who is scolded by her sisters for whistling, using slang, and behaving in "unmaidenly" ways. In chapter 1, Jo tells Meg:

I hate to think I've got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China aster! It's bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys' games and work and manners! I can't get over my disappointment in not being a boy; and it's worse than ever now, for I'm dying to go and fight with Papa, and I can only stay at home and knit, like a poky old woman!

Jo is brash, outspoken, lively, and clever. She proclaims, "I am not afraid of anything," voicing an attitude altogether different from that of the stereotypical prim and proper young lady. As she matures, she takes more care with her appearance and adopts more ladylike mannerisms, but she does not sacrifice the sense that she is equal to any man.

Adolescence and Identity
Although Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy grow up in the same household, they develop very distinct identities. Marmee encourages them to be confident in themselves and to mature in wisdom and self-knowledge. Adolescence is a difficult period for anyone, so the girls' struggles are universal. Throughout the novel, the girls' basic identities remain consistent, but as they grow up, they come to understand their faults and work to improve themselves.

Meg's identity is anchored in pleasing her family, be it her mother and sisters or her husband. She is domestic and thrives on homemaking. Jo is stormy and independent, but eventually learns to control her temper. Even as an adult, the self-reliance she values is important in her decision-making. Jo is an unconventional person, so it is no surprise that she ultimately lives an unconventional life. Beth is harmonious and selfless. Were it not for her untimely death, she would likely have continued to grow as a warm and giving person who stays close to home. As the youngest, Amy is somewhat spoiled and acquires a taste for the finer things. This identity is fed by her marriage to Laurie, a wealthy husband who will dote on her and give her everything she desires.

Wealth and Poverty
The Marches are poor, although not so poor that they cannot help others. There is never any danger of the March family starving or losing their home, but they all know that they have little money to spare and must economize. Alcott teaches that...

(The entire section is 2,002 words.)