Little Women chronicles approximately fifteen years in the life of the March family. It comes largely from the experiences of the family of the author Louisa May Alcott. The Marches live in Concord, Massachusetts, and the book begins at Christmas, 1861, during the Civil War. Part I of the book covers just over one year.
The March family is relatively poor, though they can still afford one servant and they often share whatever they have with others less fortunate. Mr. March is a philosopher and teacher. He serves as a Chaplain in the Union Army until he gets ill. After being nursed to health by his wife, he returns to Concord and becomes a minister. A kind but unworldly man, he lost the family property trying to help a friend, which brought poverty upon the family for some time. He leads the family quietly, urging Christian morality and kindness.
Mrs. March, or “Marmee” is a strong, kind, and moral character. She advocates a healthy balance of work and play and urges her daughters to marry good, kind men. She is patient with the family’s poverty, reminding the girls to remember their many blessings. She is the rock of the family. When she leaves to help nurse her husband, she must later return to nurse her daughter Beth, and she comforts the girls through many challenges.
In Part I, the girls decide to improve their characters while their Father is gone, so they can make him proud when he returns. They use the story Pilgrim’s Progress to add fun and meaning to their goals.
Meg, sixteen, wants to overcome vanity and complain less about poverty and hard work. She struggles with envying luxurious things, and occasionally tries them for herself, but always feels disingenuous and wrong. She chooses to marry the poor but good John Brooke, who tutored her neighbor Laurie. Meg and John are very happy together and have twins, Daisy and Demi.
Jo, fifteen at the start, is based on the author and is often considered the main character. She is a tomboy and a writer with a fierce temper and a dislike for doing what society thinks is proper. Jo struggles throughout the book to become womanlier. She is completely devoted to her family and tries to earn money writing so she can help them. Jo is best friends with the March family’s neighbor Laurie, who eventually proposes to her, but she loves him only as a brother. After nursing her sister Beth through illness and death, Jo becomes tenderer, and marries a German professor named Mr. Bhaer. They open a school for boys.
Beth, thirteen at the start, is a quiet and selfless girl. She loves music and is given a piano by their neighbor Mr. Laurence. Beth struggles to overcome her bashfulness throughout Part I. She also contracts scarlet fever while helping a poor family. She comes very close to dying in Part I, and, forever weakened by the fever, dies in Part II.
Amy, twelve, is the young spoiled pet of the family. She loves to draw and tries to use long words she does not understand in order to sound older and fancy. Similar to Meg, Amy has aristocratic tastes. She tries to be less selfish and become a true lady, generous and graceful. Amy is very much Jo’s opposite, and Jo is heartbroken when an Aunt asks Amy to go abroad instead of tomboy Jo. Amy studies art abroad and considers marrying friend Fred Vaughn since he is rich, though she does not love him. Her conscience and their friend Laurie help her realize that would be a mistake. In Europe, Amy and Laurie fall in love and are married.
Laurie, the neighbor, is Jo’s age. He is raised by his grandfather, who always fears Laurie will run away to play music rather than stay to work in the family business. Laurie benefits greatly from the March family’s influence, and they benefit from his generosity. In addition to being wealthy, Laurie is kind, lively, and good. He is devastated when Jo does not accept his marriage proposal. His grandfather takes him overseas, where he realizes he loves Jo like a brother, and he falls in love with Amy.
From the interactions among these main characters, Alcott weaves a lively but domestic, and incredibly popular tale of American youth in the nineteenth century. Her characters focus on their moral development but they have weaknesses and humor to make them human and relatable. Alcott’s deep depiction of the female characters was unique for its time and implicitly argued for women’s equality in the home and outside of it. Through their experiences, the characters learn to appreciate the enduring importance of family, the happiness derived from being selfless and dutiful, the disconnection between wealth and happiness, and the benefits of working hard to improve oneself and one’s home.