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Little Women

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Little Women
Two-volume Roberts Brothers printing, from the early 1870s
Author(s) Louisa May Alcott
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Coming of Age
Publisher Roberts Brothers
Publication date 1868 (1st volume)
1869 (2nd volume)
Media type Print
Followed by Little Men

Little Women is a novel by American author Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888). The book was written and set in the Alcott family home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts. It was published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. The novel follows the lives of four sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March – and is loosely based on the author's childhood experiences with her three sisters. The first volume, Little Women, was an immediate commercial and critical success, prompting the composition of the book's second volume, entitled Good Wives, which was also successful. Both books were first published as a single volume entitled Little Women in 1880. Alcott followed Little Women with two sequels, also featuring the March sisters: Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886). Little Women was a fiction novel for girls that veered from the normal writings for children, especially girls, at the time. Little Women has three major themes:” domesticity, work, and true love. All of them are interdependent and each is necessary to the achievement of a heroine’s individual identity.”

Little Women itself “has been read as a romance or as a quest, or both. It has been read as a family drama that validates virtue over wealth.” Little Women has been read “as a means of escaping that life by women who knew its gender constraints only too well.” Alcott “combines many conventions of the sentimental novel with crucial ingredients of Romantic children’s fiction, creating a new form of which Little Women is a unique model.” Elbert argued that within Little Women can be found the first vision of the “American Girl” and that her multiple aspects are embodied in the differing March sisters.


Louisa May Alcott's father Bronson Alcott approached publisher Thomas Niles about a book he wanted to publish. Soon a new possibility entered. Their talk soon turned to Louisa. Niles, an admirer of her book Hospital Sketches, suggested that she write a book about girls which would have widespread appeal. She was not interested at first and instead asked to have her short stories collected. He pressed her to do the girls' book first. In May 1868 she wrote in her journal: "Niles, partner of Roberts, asked me to write a girl's book. I said I'd try."

She later recalled she did not think she could write a successful book for girls and did not enjoy writing one. "I plod away," she wrote in her diary, "although I don't enjoy this sort of things." By June she sent the first dozen chapters to Niles and both thought they were dull. Niles's niece Lillie Almy, however, reported that she enjoyed them. The completed manuscript was shown to several girls, who agreed it was "splendid". Alcott wrote, "they are the best critics, so I should definitely be satisfied."

Alcott wrote Little Women “in record time for money.” Since Alcott never married and wrote that she was “often lonely and in ill health,” some people questioned how she was able to write so beautifully and reflectively about "American home life.”

When using the term “little women” Alcott was drawing on Dickensian meaning. Little Women represented the time period in a young woman's life where childhood and elder childhood was "overlapping" young womanhood. Each of the March sister heroines had a harrowing "experience" that alerted her and the reader that "childhood innocence" was of the past and "the inescapable woman problem” was all that remained.


Margaret "Meg" March Brooke

Sixteen at the opening of the book, Meg is the oldest sister. She is referred to as a beauty, and is well-mannered. As the oldest, Meg runs the household when her mother is absent. This includes trying to keep her sisters from arguing, and they sometimes accuse her of lecturing them too much.

Meg is employed as a governess for the Kings, a wealthy local family. Though the March family is poor, their background is what was called 'genteel', and Meg attended some society balls and parties.

Meg marries John Brooke, Laurie's tutor. They had twins, Margaret "Daisy" and John "Demi" Brooke.

Once Meg and John are married, Meg becomes “dependent” on him and “isolated in her little cottage with two small children.” Meg is the complacent daughter who did not “attain Alcott’s ideal womanhood” of equality. Alcott showed the virtues of democratic domesticity in Little Women. According to Elbert, “democratic domesticity requires maturity, strength, and above all a secure identity that Meg lacks.”

Josephine "Jo" March Bhaer

The second-oldest of four sisters, Josephine March the boyish one; Mr. March has referred to her as his "son Jo" in the past, and her best friend, Laurie, sometimes calls her "my dear fellow." When her father went to volunteer in the Civil War, Jo wanted to fight alongside him. She is clumsy, blunt, opinionated, and jolly. The tomboy embodied in Jo March “spoke to changing standards of girlhood. Tomboys first became a major literary type in the 1860s. They not only were tolerated, but even were admired—up to a point, the point at which girls were expected to become women.”

Jo has a hot temper which often leads her into trouble in spite of her good intentions, but with the help of her own sense of humor, her sister Beth, and her mother she works on controlling it.

Jo loves literature, both reading and writing. She composes plays for her sisters to perform and writes short stories. She initially rejects the idea of marriage and romance, feeling that it would break up her family and separate her from the sisters she adores. While pursuing a literary career in New York City, she met and began to love Friederich Bhaer, a German professor, as an equal partner. “They decide to share life’s burdens just as they shared the load of bundles on their shopping expedition.”

Jo is the most popular and remembered of all the characters in Little Women. Jo did reject Laurie to marry Professor Bhaer who “is no schoolgirl’s hero, but Jo believes he is better suited to her than Laurie. The crucial first point is that the choice is hers, its quirkiness another sign of her much-prized individuality.” “Bhaer has all the qualities Bronson Alcott lacked: warmth, intimacy, and a tender capacity for expressing his affection—the feminine attributes Alcott admired and hoped men could acquire in a rational, feminist world.” Jo writes the first part of Little Women during the second portion of the novel. According to Elbert, "her narration signals a successfully completed adolescence.”

Elizabeth "Beth" March

Beth, thirteen when the story starts, is described as shy, gentle and musical. As her sisters grow up they begin to leave home, but Beth has no desire to leave her house or family. She's especially close to Jo: when Beth develops scarlet fever after visiting the Hummels, Jo does most of the nursing and rarely leaves her side. Though she recovers, her health is permanently weakened.

As she grows, Beth begins to realize that her time with her loved ones is coming to an end. Finally, the family accepts that Beth will not live much longer. They make a special room for her, filled with all the things she loves best: her kittens, piano, father's books, Amy's sketches, and her beloved dolls. She is never idle; she even knits and sews things for the children that pass under her window on the way to and from school. But eventually even that becomes too much for her, and she puts down her sewing needle, saying that it grew "so heavy". Beth's dying has a strong impact on her sisters, especially Jo, who resolves to live her life with more consideration and care for others.

The main tragedy during Little Women was the death of beloved Beth; her “self-sacrifice is ultimately the greatest in the novel. She gives up her life knowing that it has had only private, domestic meaning.”

Amy Curtis March Laurence

The youngest sister, aged twelve when the story begins, Amy is interested in art. She is described by the author as a "regular snow-maiden" with curly golden hair and blue eyes, "pale and slender" and "always carrying herself" like a very proper young lady. Often "petted" because she is the youngest, she can behave in a vain and spoiled way, and throws tantrums when she is unhappy.

Her relationship with Jo is sometimes strained. When Laurie and Jo go skating, Amy tags along after them, but she arrives at the lake too late to hear Laurie's warning about thinning ice. Under Jo's horrified stare, Amy falls through the ice, and is rescued by Laurie's prompt intervention. Realizing she might have lost her sister, Jo's anger dissolves and the two become closer. When Beth is ill with scarlet fever, Amy is sent to stay with Aunt March as a safety precaution. Aunt March grows fond of her, and makes the suggestion that Aunt Carroll take Amy with her to Europe. There she meets up with Laurie, and shortly after Beth dies, they marry. Later, Amy gives birth to daughter Elizabeth (Bess), named after her deceased sister. Her daughter appears to have similarities with Beth, as she is very ill.

Additional characters

Margaret "Marmee" March: The girls' mother and head of household while her husband is away. She engages in charitable works and attempts to guide her girls' morals and to shape their characters, usually through experiments. She once confesses to Jo that her temper is as volatile as Jo's, but that she has learned to control it.

Robert "Father" March: Formerly wealthy, it is implied that he helped friends who could not repay a debt, resulting in the family's poverty. A scholar and a minister, he serves as a chaplain in the Union Army and is wounded in December 1862.

Hannah Mullet: The March family maid and cook, their only servant. She is of Irish descent and very dear to the Family. She is treated more like a member of the family than a servant.

Aunt Josephine March: Mr. March's aunt, a rich widow. Somewhat temperamental and prone to being judgmental, she disapproves of the family's poverty, their charitable work, and their general disregard for the more superficial aspects of society's ways. Her vociferous disapproval of Meg's impending engagement to the impoverished Mr. Brooke becomes the proverbial "last straw" that actually causes Meg to accept his proposal.

Uncle and Aunt Carrol: Sister and brother-in-law of Mr. March. They take Amy to Europe with them.

Theodore "Laurie" Laurence: A rich young man, older than Jo but younger than Meg. Laurie lives next door to the March family with his overprotective grandfather, Mr. Laurence. Laurie's father had eloped with an Italian pianist and was disowned. Both his parents died young, and Laurie was sent to live with his grandfather. Laurie is preparing to enter at Harvard and is being tutored by Mr. John Brooke. He is described as attractive and charming, with black eyes, brown skin, and curly black hair. Alcott did not make Laurie as multidimensional as the female characters. Laurie is primarily a “model good boy.,

James Laurence: A wealthy neighbour to the Marches and Laurie's grandfather. Lonely in his mansion, and often at odds with his high-spirited grandson, he finds comfort in becoming a benefactor to the Marches. He protects the March sisters while their parents are away. He was a friend to Mrs. March's father, and admires their charitable works. He develops a special, tender friendship with Beth, who reminds him of his deceased daughter, and he gives Beth his (deceased) daughter's piano.

John Brooke: During his employment with the Laurences as a tutor to Laurie, he falls in love with Meg. When Laurie leaves for college, Brooke continues his employment with Mr. Laurence as an assistant. He accompanies Mrs. March to Washington D.C. when her husband is ill with pneumonia. When Aunt March overhears Meg rejecting John's declaration of love, she threatens Meg with disinheritance because she suspects that Brooke is only interested in Meg's future prospects. Eventually Meg admits her feelings to Brooke, they defy Aunt March (who ends up accepting the marriage), and they are engaged. Brooke serves in the Union Army for a year and is invalided home after being wounded. Brooke marries Meg a few years later when the war has ended and she has turned twenty.

Fred Vaughan: A Harvard friend of Laurie's who, in Europe, courts Amy. Rivalry with the much richer Fred for Amy's love inspires the dissipated Laurie to pull himself together and become more worthy of her.

The Hummels: A poor German family consisting of a widowed mother and six children. Marmee and the girls help them by bringing food, firewood, blankets and other comforts. Three of the children die of scarlet fever and Beth contracts it while caring for them.

The Kings: A wealthy family who employs Meg as a governess.

The Gardiners: Wealthy friends of Meg's.

Mrs. Kirke: A friend of Mrs March's who runs a boarding house in New York. She employs Jo as governess to her two girls.

Professor Friedrich "Fritz" Bhaer: A poor German immigrant who was a famous professor in Berlin but now lives in Mrs. Kirke's boarding house and works as a language master, seeing some of his students in Mrs. Kirke's parlor. He and Jo become friends and he critiques Jo's writing. He encourages her to become a serious writer instead of writing "sensation" stories for weekly tabloids. The two eventually marry, raise Fritz's two orphaned nephews, Franz and Emil, and their own sons, Rob and Teddy.

Miss Norton: A worldly tenant living in Mrs. Kirke's boarding house. She occasionally takes Jo under her wing and entertains her.

Publication history

The first volume of Little Women was published by Roberts Brothers in 1868. The first printing of 2,000 copies sold out quickly and more printings were soon ordered but the company had trouble keeping up with demand. They announced: "The great literary hit of the season is undoubtedly Miss Alcott's Little Women, the orders for which continue to flow in upon us to such an extent as to make it impossible to answer them with promptness." Alcott delivered the manuscript for the second part on New Year's Day 1869, only three months after publication of part one.


G. K. Chesterton noted that in Little Women, Alcott "anticipated realism by twenty or thirty years," and that Fritz's proposal to Jo, and her acceptance, "is one of the really human things in human literature." Gregory S. Jackson argued that Alcott's use of realism belongs to the American Protestant pedagogical tradition that includes a range of religious literary traditions with which Alcott was familiar. The nineteenth-century images he produces of devotional guides for children provides an interesting background for the game of "playing pilgrim" that, in part, comprises Book One's plot structure.

When Little Women was published, it was well received. During the 19th century, there was a “scarcity of models for nontraditional womanhood” which led more women to look toward “literature for self-authorization. This is especially true during adolescence.” Little Women became “the paradigmatic text for young women of the era and one in which family literary culture is prominently featured.” Adult elements of women’s fiction were in Little Women, such as “a change of heart necessary” for the female protagonist to evolve in the story. However, even with much critical acclaim, there were criticisms. Some felt that Little Women was the beginning of “a decline in the radical power of women’s fiction,” partly because women’s fiction was now being idealized with a hearth and home children’s story. Both women’s literature historians and juvenile fiction historians agreed that Little Women was the apex of this “downward spiral.” Elbert argued that Little Women did not “belittle women’s fiction" and that Alcott stayed true to her “Romantic birthright.”

Little Women’s popular audience was responsive to ideas of social change as they were shown “within the familiar construct of domesticity.” Even though Alcott was supposed to just write a story for girls, her main heroine, Jo March, became a favorite of many different women, including educated women writers through the 20th century. The girl story became a new “new publishing category with a domestic focus that paralleled boys’ adventure stories.” Other women, such as Jewish immigrant women, also found a close connection to Little Women. One reason Little Women was vastly popular was because it was able to appeal to different classes of women along with different nationalities. Through the March sisters, women could relate and dream where they may not have before. “Both the passion Little Women has engendered in diverse readers and its ability to survive its era and transcend its genre point to a text of unusual permeability.”

Young girls had a social perception that marriage was their end goal. This was evident after the publication of part one of Little Women when girls wrote Alcott asking her “who the little women marry.” The unresolved ending added to the popularity of Little Women. Sicherman said that the unsatisfying ending worked to “keep the story alive” almost in hopes that if the reader read it enough times the story would conclude differently. “Alcott particularly battled the conventional marriage plot in writing Little Women” Alcott did not have Jo accept Laurie’s hand in marriage; rather, when she finally had Jo get married, she picked an unconventional man for Jo’s husband. Alcott used Friederich to “subvert adolescent romantic ideals” because he was much older and seemingly unsuited for Jo.

Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association named the book one of its "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children." It was one of the "Top 100 Chapter Books" of all time in a 2012 poll by School Library Journal.


Little Women was one of the most influential girls’ novels. Ruth MacDonald argued that “Louisa May Alcott stands as one of the great American practitioners of the girls’ novel and the family story.” In the 1860s, gendered separation of children’s fiction was a newer division in literature. This division signaled a beginning of polarization of gender roles social constructs “as class stratification increased.” Joy Kasson wrote that “Alcott chronicled the coming of age of young girls, their struggles with issues such as selfishness and generosity, the nature of individual integrity, and, above all, the question of their place in the world around them.” Girls were able to relate to the March sisters in Little Women along with following the lead of their heroines by assimilating aspects of the story into their own lives.

After reading Little Women some women felt the need to “acquire new and more public identities”—which of course was also dependent on other factors like financial resources. While Little Women showed normal American middle class lives of girls, it also “legitimized” their dreams to do something different and allowed them to consider the possibilities. More young women started writing stories that had adventurous plots and “stories of individual achievement—traditionally coded male—challenged women’s socialization into domesticity.”. “Little Women also influenced immigrants to the United States who wanted to assimilate into middle class culture.

Young and adolescent girls saw, in print on the pages of Little Women, the normalization of ambitious women. This acted as an alternative to the previously normalized gender roles. Little Women also repeatedly reinforced the importance of “individuality” and “female vocation.” “Little Women had “continued relevance of its subject” and “its longevity points as well to surprising continuities in gender norms from the 1860s at least through the 1960s.” Those interested in domestic reform could look to the pages of Little Women to see how a “democratic household” would operate.

While “Alcott never questioned the value of domesticity” she challenged the social constructs that made spinsters obscure and fringe members of society solely because they were not married. “Little Women indisputably enlarges the myth of American womanhood by insisting that the home and the women’s sphere cherish individuality and thus produce young adults who can make their way in the world while preserving a critical distance from its social arrangements.” As with all youth, the March girls had to grow up. These sisters, and in particular Jo, were apprehensive about adulthood because they were afraid that if they had to conform to what society wanted them to be, they would lose their special individuality in the process.

Alcott “made women’s rights integral to her stories, and above all to Little Women.” Alcott’s fiction became her “most important feminist contribution”—even considering all the effort Alcott made to help facilitate women’s rights." Alcott thought that “a democratic household could evolve into a feminist society.” In Little Women, she imagined that just such an evolution might begin with Plumfield, a nineteenth century feminist utopia.”

Little Women has a timeless resonance which reflects Alcott’s grasp of her historical framework in the 1860s. The novel’s ideas do not intrude themselves upon the reader because the author is wholly in control of the implications of her imaginative structure. Sexual equality is the salvation of marriage and the family; democratic relationships make happy endings. This is the unifying imaginative frame of Little Women.”

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