“I think there were not in all the city four merrier people than the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfasts and contented themselves with bread and milk that Christmas morning. ‘That’s loving our neighbor better than ourselves, and I like it,’ said Meg…”
The themes of generosity and self-sacrifice are introduced very early in the novel, with the girls giving up their Christmas breakfast for their neighbors. The act of giving brings the girls joy. Meg’s allusion to the Golden Rule has two effects: it frames their actions in terms of Christianity and is a play on words, since the Hummels are in fact the March’s neighbors. This quote thus illustrates the girls’ love of language and how Alcott uses small, domestic stories as parables for greater moral questions.
“Don’t laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragic romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns, and many silent sacrifices of youth, health, ambition, love itself, make the faded faces beautiful in God’s sight.”
Alcott herself is a determined spinster, and here asks her readers for sympathy and defends the choices of those like her. Alcott’s life, like Jo’s was full of sacrifice and hard work so that she could support her family. In the historical context of nineteenth century England, having received letters from countless readers after Part I wondering only about the marital fates of her characters, and in a book where she describes marriage as “the sweetest chapter in the romance of womanhood” (232), Alcott here defends an alternate path.
“…I shall never stop loving you; but the love is altered, and I have learned to see that it is better as it is. Amy and you changed places in my heart, that’s all. I think it was meant to be so, and would have come about naturally, if I had waited, as you tried to make me; but I never could be patient, and so I got a heartache. I was a boy then, headstrong and violent; and it took a hard lesson to show me my mistake. For it was one, Jo, as you said, and I found it out, after making a fool of myself…”
This passage is one of several justifications to Alcott's readers for Laurie not marrying Jo. After Part I was published, Alcott’s readers wrote to her begging for Jo and Laurie to marry. Alcott had to convince them that Laurie marrying Amy was both believable and desirable. Marmee’s disapproval of Laurie’s match with Jo and her approval of Laurie’s match with Amy strengthens Alcott’s argument. Alcott also foreshadows both Amy and Laurie’s engagement and Jo’s acceptance of it several times.
This quote also serves to mark Laurie’s awareness of his transition from boyhood to manhood. In Europe, Laurie let go of both his boyhood dreams – marrying Jo and being a famous musician, and he returns as a man.
"There is a demand for whisky, but I think you and I do not care to sell it. If the respectable people knew what harm they did, they would not feel the living was honest. They haf no right to put poison in the sugarplum, and let the small ones eat it. No, they should think a little, and sweep mud in the street before they do this thing."
With this statement, Professor Bhaer awakens Jo to what she tried to deny - that the means of her work were as important as the ends. Jo is arguing that "many very respectable people make an honest living" writing sensation stories. Alcott, liked Jo, published sensation stories, but under a pseudonym. Professor Bhaer helps Jo see that her living is not honest. Much as Jo teased Amy for being mercenary, Jo too was pursuing money at the cost of her moral judgment. This encounter not only helps Jo return to her morality but also deepens her admiration of her friend.
This statement goes beyond Jo to chastise all those who earn a living off harmful products. Alcott and the March family believe in temperance, not drinking alcohol, so the example of whisky is an apt one.
"I've been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it; and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so."
Marmee confides that, like Jo, she has a strong temper. This surprises Jo and the reader, given Marmee's role in the book. Marmee sharing this secret with Jo demonstrates that Jo is moving toward adulthood. The statement also signifies the characters' lifetime commitment to improving themselves. While their morality is rooted in Christianity, Marmee's best inspiration is the people around her, particularly being a good example for her daughters. This confirms the importance of family to the Marches.
Marmee's everyday anger is not explained, although Marmee confirms that she gets angry when "Aunt March scolds, or people worry" her. Given Marmee's other characteristics, it is likely that poverty, injustice, and immorality are the main causes of her anger.
"Money is a needful and precious thing--and, when well used, a noble thing--but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I'd rather see you poor men's wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect or peace."
This quote encapsulates the March family's approach to the relationship between happiness and wealth. This contradicts the view of society, as represented by Aunt March and Mrs. Moffat, who believe that pretty Meg should marry rich for the good of her family.
Despite this early lesson, Meg and Jo continue to struggle with their views on poverty. Meg chooses to marry John Brooke, and she makes a few mistakes before learning to be contented. Jo sacrifices her morals writing for money, but end up marrying the man who helped her stop, despite his great poverty. Amy even tells Laurie she wishes he were poor, so she could demonstrate her love by choosing him anyway.
In addition, the Laurences often make their money "a noble thing" through its good use.
"I only did as I'd be done by. You laugh at me when I say I want to be a lady, but I mean a true gentlewoman in mind and manners, and I try to do it as far as I know how. I can't explain exactly, but I want to be above the little meannesses and follies and faults that spoil so many women. I'm far from it now, but I do my best, and hope in time to be what Mother is."
This quote demonstrates the development of Amy's character. After her forgiveness of the Chesters' meanness at the art fair, and her generosity in returning her pieces to May's table, Amy feels satisfied in knowing she has acted properly - not only in accordance with society, but also in accordance with what is moral. Amy in this sense reconciles the conflict between morality and society with which other characters struggle. Amy's wish to be like Mother, who is kind and has a few aristocratic tastes, but is not fashionable, demonstrates her focus on shaping her character rather than just her appearance, as Marmee bade her do after the pickled lime incident.
Here Amy also gains Jo's respect, and Jo hopes that Amy will be rewarded for her good deeds, which Amy is with a trip abroad, to Jo's dismay.
"Boys are trying enough to human patience, goodness knows, but girls are infinitely more so, especially to nervous gentleman with tyrannical tempers and no more talent for teaching than Dr. Blimber. Mr. Davis knew any quantity of Greek, Latin, algebra, and olgies of all sorts so he was called a fine teacher, and manners, morals, feelings, and examples were not considered of any particular importance."
This description of Amy's schoolteacher undermines his teaching style and the corporal punishment he is about to issue Amy. Louisa May Alcott's schoolteacher was an educator who had strong yet unconventional ideas about educating the entire child - including "manners, morals, feelings, and examples" rather than just focusing on rote knowledge. These ideas took time to gain credibility, to the financial detriment of the March family, but later became very influential in pedagogical philosophy. Later in Little Women and particularly in Little Men, Mr. Bhaer and Jo later apply the whole student approach at their school for boys.
"I'll try and be what he loves to call me, 'a little woman,' and not be rough and wild, but do my duty here instead of wanting to be somewhere else."
Herein lies Jo's pronounced goal, at the very beginning of the book, the conflict which will drive her development. Prior to hearing Father's letter, Jo announced her wish to join the army and fight with her Father. She dreams of doing something splendid and traveling abroad, and she is tempted to run away with Laurie when he proposes it. Jo is also sorely disappointed when Amy is asked to go overseas instead of her. Beth is thankful that Jo will not travel so far away. It is through nursing Beth that Jo learns to accept her sacrifice and make her peace with being at home. Beth asks Jo to take her places and reassures her that she will be "happier in doing that than writing splendid books or seeing all the world."
For Jo, doing her duty is intrinsically caught up in being a woman, whereas adventures are related to being boyish. Thus, she resists some aspects of womanhood, feeling that they will constrain her. Thus, it is only after she gives up her dreams of adventure at Beth's request and accepts her duty at home that she is open to marriage, considered in the book as the pinnacle of a woman's joy. In Jo's case, instead of being one of the boys, she transforms her duty into caring for them.
"Amy's lecture did Laurie good, though, of course, he did not own it till long afterward; men seldom do, for when women are the advisers, the lords of creation don't take advice till they have persuaded themselves that it is just what they intended to do; then they act upon it, and, if it succeeds, they give the weaker vessel half the credit of it; if it fails, they generously give her the whole."
Alcott's direct engagement with her reader throughout the book gives her work a conversational tone. In this case, using Laurie as her example, Alcott implies inequity in gender relations. Her use of the terms "lords of creation," "weaker vessel," and "generously" are clearly sarcastic. The purpose of this technique is two-fold. By discussing Laurie's situation obliquely, she gives us insight into his thought process that is informative for understanding the book. However, she also enjoys a laugh at men and makes a political statement for her readers. Given that her book was written for girls, this likely had an effect of solidarity building.
Later, Laurie's acknowledgment to Jo that Amy's lecture did do him good makes him all the more exceptional as a man.
Little Women Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Little Women is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.