Chapter 1 Playing Pilgrims
The story begins on Christmas Eve, where the four daughters are gathered in their simple living room lamenting that, this year, they are too poor to have presents on Christmas.
Meg is sixteen and quite pretty. She can be vain, especially about her soft, white hands. Jo is fifteen years old, a tomboy with a fierce temper. Jo loves to write stories and plays, which the girls act out. Beth is thirteen and exceptionally quiet, but she loves music and her family. Beth loves music and her family. Amy is the youngest at twelve. She is vain about her appearance and tries to act like a lady, using long words incorrectly. She enjoys drawing and longs to be a famous artist.
Each of the girls only has one dollar, and their mother feels that spending money on presents is wasteful during wartime. To cheer themselves up, the girls decide they will each buy themselves a present. Meg wants nice things, Jo wants a book, Beth new music, and Amy drawing pencils.
But as they prepare for their mother’s arrival, they decide that instead of buying presents for themselves, they will all buy presents for their Mother, “Marmee.” When Marmee comes in, they enjoy a simple supper, and sit together by the fire to read a cherished letter from their Father. Mr. March, a philosopher, teacher, and pastor, was too old to be a soldier in the Union Army, so he joined as a chaplain. The whole family misses him dearly and worries about his safety. Father’s letter reminds them to be dutiful, loving and kind, so when he returns he “may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.”
Inspired by the letter, the girls decide to play a game based on Pilgrim's Progress and each work toward improving a personal character flaw. Meg’s goal is to be less vain and do her work dutifully without complaint. Jo hopes to be womanlier and less wild. Beth aims to be less bashful and happy with her work, not envying girls with nice pianos. Amy vows to be less selfish. Marmee promises to give them guidebooks and loving support for their journeys. Everyone sings together and then goes to bed.
Chapter 2 A Very Merry Christmas
The girls wake up to find books under their pillows, with an inscription in each from their mother, and decide to read their books every morning. Inspired by the book, Amy acts on her wish to be less selfish by spending all her money on a large bottle of cologne for her mother, rather than saving some money for herself. The girls hide their presents.
Marmee returns and asks the girls if they will send their Christmas breakfast to the nearby family of immigrants, where a single, sick mother lives with six children without food or firewood. Despite their hunger, the girls agree, and they all walk over to the Hummel family’s home and spend the morning sharing their food and kindness. The Hummel children call the girls “angels,” and the girls are deeply happy to have “loved our neighbor better than ourselves.”
Upon returning home, the girls surprise their mother with their gifts, who is very touched. They then prepare their Christmas play, written by Jo, and performed for twelve of their friends. Jo plays the male parts, and there are a few accidents, as all the props and sets are made by hand. The play is a great success, and afterwards the girls and audience are surprised by a luxurious and fancy feast. Mr. Laurence, the wealthy gentleman who lives next door, heard about the girls giving up their Christmas breakfast to the poor Hummels, and sent the elaborate supper as a reward. Mr. Laurence is perceived as proud, but the girls are curious about his bashful nephew.
Chapter 3 The Laurence Boy
Meg and Jo are invited to a New Year’s Eve dance at the Gardiner house. While getting ready, it is quickly apparent that tomboy Jo is ill suited for such a party, with a dress burnt from standing too close to the fire, gloves stained with lemonade, and little sense of proper, ladylike ways to behave. While trying to curl Meg’s hair, Jo accidentally burns off the hair instead. Meg is much more ladylike, despite having to share her gloves with Jo, not having a silk dress and wearing very tight shoes. Meg tells Jo that she will raise her eyebrows if Jo is acting improperly.
At the party, unable to dance because of her burnt dress, Jo stumbles into a corner where Theodore Laurence, nephew of their wealth neighbor, is also hiding. The boy, called Laurie, is fifteen like Jo, and he is quickly drawn out of his shyness by her boyish nature, and the two get along very well.
Meg beckons Jo away saying she sprained her ankle in her tight, high-heeled shoes. Jo tries to get coffee and ice for Meg, but spills the coffee down her dress. Laurie helps Jo and entertains them both, then offers a ride home in his carriage. While Jo is reluctant to accept a favor, Laurie insists. Meg reflects that it is nice to sometimes feel elegant like a lady, but Jo points out that their family is just as happy as elegant people with fine things.
Chapter 4 Burdens
Everyone is grumpy on returning to the first day of work after the holidays. Meg is particularly frustrated that some people enjoy restful days and nice parties all the time, while she must work because she is poor. Meg remembers when her family had more wealth and comforts, before Mr. March lost his property trying to help a friend. When that happened, Meg and Jo both asked their parents to let them work.
As a governess for the wealthy King family, Meg daily sees all the luxuries she longs for and struggles to stay content. Jo works as a companion for her cranky Great Aunt March, reading to her and helping with small chores. She enjoys stealing away to Aunt March's library when she can. Beth, too shy for school, spends her days at home working tirelessly to help Hannah, caring for her dolls and cats with deep tenderness, and quietly pining for a nice piano. The narrator points out that we often take the Beths in the world for granted, quietly making our lives lovely, until they are gone. Amy is a pretty favorite among her classmates, and, like Meg, she longs to be an elegant, aristocratic lady. She looks up to and confides in Meg, and Jo has a special friendship with Beth. She laments her flat nose and the used, ugly clothes she inherits from her cousin Florence.
At the end of the day, the girls relate stories. Jo tells how Aunt March chastised her for reading rubbish while Aunt March slept, but allowed Jo to read her the story, and enjoyed it despite herself. Jo laments that Aunt March has chosen to have a life devoid of enjoyable things, despite being rich. Meg describes how an elder son of the King family disgraced his house by gambling, and she is grateful that her family acts properly and loves each other. Amy describes a friend at school whose nice ring she envied, until the friend got into trouble and was humiliated, and Amy no longer envied her. Beth recounts seeing their neighbor Mr. Laurence hook a fish on his cane and give it to a woman at the market who was trying to work in return for food. Lastly, Marmee describes meeting a man at the Soldier’s Aid Society whose four sons had all gone to war yet he was cheerful and proud. Marmee felt bad for missing Father and gave the man a nice bundle and some money, thanking him for reminding her to be grateful and sacrifice willingly for the good cause.
At Jo’s request, Marmee tells another story, of four girls who were safe and comfortable, yet discontented. They meet an old woman who tells them that to be contented, they must remember their blessings. This works, for one girl finds that wealth cannot keep sorrow out of families, another that youth and spirit are greater blessings than riches, another that begging would be even harder than errands, and the last that character is better than nice rings. Seeing this, the girls vow to complain less and work to deserve the blessings they have.
Chapter 5 Being Neighborly
One day Jo, intent on getting to know Laurie, throws a snowball at Laurie’s window. She learns that he has had a bad cold and is bored. He invites her over, and the girls all send gifts with Jo, including Beth’s cats, which make Laurie laugh and forget his shyness. Jo learns that Laurie, in his loneliness, often watches their family’s warm and loving activities, and she invites him to come visit. Jo tells stories about her family, and Laurie shows Jo their remarkable library, where she waits when Laurie goes to see the doctor.
Looking at a portrait of Mr. Laurence, Jo muses to herself that he looks kind, but strong-willed, and that she should not be afraid of him. Jo is startled by Mr. Laurence, who had quietly come in the room and heard all she said. He compliments Jo’s grandfather, whom he knew well, and Jo remarks that she thinks Laurie needs more company. Over tea, seeing Jo and Laurie get along, Mr. Laurence comes to agree that Laurie should spend more time with the March family. After playing the piano for Jo, which upsets Mr. Laurence, Laurie sends her away with thanks for the present her mother sent and promises to visit soon.
Jo arrives home and describes the luxurious house and its inhabitants to her family. She learns from Marmee that Mr. Laurence’s son married an Italian musician, despite his disapproval. When Laurie’s parents died Mr. Laurence adopted him, but Laurie’s talent for music reminds Mr. Laurence of his son, and makes him fear losing Laurie. Meg compliments Laurie’s manners. Jo hopes that they will all be great friends, and Mrs. March agrees. Beth remarks that, just as in Pilgrim’s Progress, they have found a Palace Beautiful – but first they must make it past the lions.
These chapters lay the foundation for the rest of Part I. Chapter 1 introduces the main storyline of Part I, the girls' effort to improve their characters. The Christmas gifts that they wish for not only provide insight into the girls' personalities, but also become rewards for their individual quests: at the end of Part I, each girl will receive a Christmas present very similar to the one she wished for in Chapter 1.
Many of the major themes are introduced in these chapters, as well as the primary conflicts the characters will undergo. The story opens on the family unit, just as it will close in Part I and Part II, emphasizing the fundamental nature of family. The girls are complaining about their poverty, but find comfort in generously sacrificing their Christmas breakfast for the Hummels. This sacrifice not only feels personally rewarding, but is also in accordance with their Christian morality. They girls dedicate themselves to further self-improvement, with assistance and support from Mother, Father, and their guidebooks.
Alcott uses various techniques to foreshadow the conflicts her characters will undergo. Meg twists her ankle because of her vanity, wearing high-heeled shoes that are too small. Jo is ignorant of Laurie's compliment of her and hopes they should all be friends. Beth is introduced by the narrator with a lament that so many girls like her are underappreciated until they are gone. Amy shares the misfortunes of her friend getting in trouble at school, not foreseeing her own downfall. We even see Laurie's conflict with his grandfather around music.
Alcott's writing engages her readers in dialogue. Her narration is conversational, and she speaks to her readers directly. For example, she acknowledges, "Young readers like to know 'how people look.'" She will continue this style throughout the book, closing Part I by inviting feedback on its reception. Indeed, Alcott's decisions for Part II were partly influenced by the letters she received from readers asking her for specific endings.
Alcott is not only in dialogue with her readers, but also with other literature. Alcott weaves her own writings through the story. The play the girls perform is modeled on "Norna; or, The Witch's Curse," published posthumously in 1893 in Comic Tragedies. Her characters are often reading or referring to contemporary and classic books, such as the Undine and Sintram and the Heir of Radclyffe and Arabian Nights. These books suggest character traits, such as the family's experience with poverty in The Vicar of Wakefield, opposition to slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Jo's sense of adventure in Arabian Nights, Meg's sense of romance in Ivanhoe, and Aunt March's worldview in William Belsham's Essays, Philosophical, Historical, and Literary.
The most explicit allusion in Alcott's text is her use of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. The only Preface is an excerpt from the book, intended to "give some clue to the plan of the story." By applying this allegory of salvation to her girls, Alcott imbues their domestic struggles with a sense of heroic importance. Scholars debate whether the guidebook Marmee gives her girls is Pilgrim's Progress or The New Testament. Either way, the girls' journeys are clearly placed in a Christian context.