The dominant theme of Little Women, as for girls in the nineteenth century, is family. The characters are defined by their familial relations and behaviors toward each other, and all are deeply invested in cultivating and supporting one another.
Throughout the novel, Alcott emphasizes the importance of family as not only a practical or economic unit but also a deeply meaningful one. When Aunt March offers to adopt a child, Father and Mother reject, insisting that they stay together. Without money or an urge to be very active in society, much of the March family’s experiences and emotions take place within the family unit, inventing plays and clubs. The main dramas play out within the family as well, such as Jo and Amy’s fight over the burnt manuscript. The girls miss their Father or Mother not because it makes their work harder, but because they are the moral head and heart of the family.
The theme of family encompasses the girls marrying and starting families of their own. Marmee teachers her daughters that having a loving husband and family is the greatest joy a woman can have, as emphasized by the concluding line of the book. Marmee's discussions with the girls about their duties to each other and their parents evolve into discussions about their duties to their husbands and children. Alcott and her characters devote great attention to finding good husbands. Each of the grooms spends significant time meeting and being accepted by the family before the marriage. Laurie in particular evolves from being a neighbor and friend to being a son and brother. While Jo initially a threat to her family unit, the March family actually expands to include these new families. Thus, marriage does not replace but rather enhances the familial bond.
Little Women focuses on a particular type of poverty – that of the working poor. Kindness is shown to those in the book with less than the March family, such as the Hummels. But as Amy and Laurie discuss, “out-and-out beggars get taken care of, but poor gentlefolks fare badly,” including aspiring young men and women. The poverty of the March family is particularly touching because it is a result of Mr. Alcott’s attempt to help a friend. Meg and Amy have to learn several times to live within their means, but all the girls come to believe that love is preferable to riches. Meg marries John Brooke, and Amy tells Laurie she would have married him even if he were a pauper. Time and again we are reminded – by the King family, the Gardiners, the Moffats, and Aunt March – that wealth is no guarantee of happiness. The Laurences show us that money can be usefully and helpfully employed, particularly to help others. Poverty, while challenging, can foster the development of creativity, strength, and character.
Several characters throughout the novel learn that honest work, while not easy, is rewarding and worthwhile. Meg often resents her work, envying her friends’ leisurely ways, but she strives to do her work more cheerfully, and is rewarded by her Father’s recognition. John Brooke defends Meg and the working class to Kate Vaughn as an example of American independence. During vacation, when the girls experiment with resting from work, they grow idle and dissatisfied, and they learn from Marmee to maintain a balance of work and play. Again when their Father is sick, Marmee urges the girls to invest their energy into their work to keep their spirits up, led by Hannah who believes that “work is the panacea for most afflictions” (130). When they neglect their duties, Beth becomes ill.
Jo sees her writing as work that can help her achieve independence and support her family, but she learns an important lesson from Mr. Bhaer in keeping her work honest and focusing on the means and not just the ends of her efforts. In the end, Jo's happiness comes in working alongside Mr. Bhaer. Even Laurie, who dreads going into his grandfather’s business for most of the book, also embraces working for his grandfather as a meaningful way of life, rather than pursuing music.
Morality and Society
There is a strong emphasis on morality throughout the book, particularly in contrast to what is considered proper or expected in society. In particular, the March family stresses duty and generosity.
For the Marches, morality is implicitly linked to their Christianity, as made clear by the allusions to Pilgrim’s Progress and Mr. March's role as a minister, but also to their wishes for true happiness. Alcott describes how difficult it is for her characters to make moral decisions, but when they do, they are happier than when they make immoral ones. When the girls share their Christmas breakfast with the Hummels, they are happy with their choice and rewarded by a feast from Mr. Laurence. Laurie is thankful to Meg for making him promise to avoid drinking, and grateful that his promises to his grandfather and Marmee keep him out of mischief. The King family provides a counterexample of the unhappiness that comes to the family because of the son’s immoral behavior. Amy is deeply grateful that she married Laurie for love, rather than marrying Fred Vaughn for money. Jo tries to weave morality through her sensation stories by making her “sinners repent,” but when “morals didn’t sell,” she leaves the morals out. Mr. Bhaer teaches her, though, that meeting society’s demand is not always worthwhile, and she feels very guilty about her immoral stories. After Beth dies, when Jo writes from the heart, she is rewarded by the return of Mr. Bhaer and her eventual marriage.
Independence and Women's Rights
Independence is a major theme of the book. Despite her devotion to her family, Jo craves independence through work, in order that she may support them. Laurie also struggles with his wish to be independent from his grandfather, feeling this is in conflict with his duty and love for his only family. The characters view their independence as part of their upbringing in America.
For many characters, independence is linked to women’s rights implicitly through the book, particularly when it is considered in historical context. Compared to other girls’ novels at the time, the female characters in Little Women are opinionated, well educated, and accomplished girls who are treated with great respect in their homes. Marmee encourages her girls to take an interest in current events. The limitations society places on them because they are girls are most strongly expressed by Jo. In addition to her wishes to run, skate, and ride as boys do, she is tempted to run away with Laurie to have adventures, but rejects the idea because she is a girl. Jo also insists on helping to contribute to the household as a condition of her marriage to Mr. Bhaer.
The story of the Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy is one of constant change. The girls are always working to improve their characters, learn from their mistakes, and move closer to their ideal selves. This theme is made explicit in Part I, when the girls “play pilgrims” in order to address their personal character flaws while their Father is away. This effort does not end as they enter adulthood, but continues as they are confronted with new experiences. Meg learns to conquer vanity in her marriage with John, Jo struggles to accept her duty and develop into a woman, even Beth works to peacefully and cheerfully go to her death, and Amy strives to apply her experiences overseas to become generous and grateful. Marmee confides in Jo that she has struggled to contain her temper for forty years, and that the struggle may continue for another forty years. The girls’ attempts to grow into “little women” are explicitly encouraged by their Mother and Father who explain that self-improvement is both possible and valuable. The goal of such improvement is not only entrance to Heaven, but also a more pleasant experience for themselves and others in their current lives.
Duty and Sacrifice
Duty is a common thread used to justify why the characters should make sacrifices and moral decisions. Even from a young age, the girls consider themselves having duties toward the household, and learn the consequences of shirking those duties. The girls also speak about their duties to society, to host callers and to make formal calls. Later, Marmee speaks to Meg about caring for her husband and her children in terms of her shared duty to both of them.
Duty is often considered in terms of self-sacrifice. Father and John Brooke serve in the army despite the love awaiting them at home and despite Father’s age. Marmee considers her sacrifice minor compared to that of a man she meets who has given all his sons to the war. Laurie decides to follow his grandfather’s wishes dutifully, giving up his castle in the air of pursuing music. Jo sacrifices her dream of being a great writer and accepts the duty of caring for Mother and Father after Beth dies, which she finds very difficult, but rewarding.
Another aspect of morality emphasized throughout the book is that of generosity. This quality is prized from the very beginning of the book, when the girls decide to give Marmee presents instead of themselves, then share their Christmas breakfast with the Hummels. Beth is held up as the best example of selfless caring of others, unappreciated until she is gone. Even when Beth is dying, she still derives pleasure from making gifts for unknown schoolchildren passing outside her window. Amy strives to be more like Beth, explicitly battling selfishness as her burden. Her growth in this area is shown when she returns her art pieces to May Chester’s table at the fair. Alcott portrays those who are generous with their wealth favorably, such as Mr. Laurence’s gifts to the family and Laurie and Amy’s generosities after they are married. On the other hand, Aunt March is considered sad in part because she only shares her blessings very selectively.
Literature and Language
Alcott imbues her characters with a love of language and text. Alcott exposes the reader to many forms of language, including German, French, Hannah’s dialect, the individual voices of the characters in their letters, Jo’s slang, and Alcott’s own creative poetry and prose.
The characters' constant references and allusions to books indicate that they are well read and assume others to be so. The most explicit example of this is Alcott’s structuring of Part I to mirror Pilgrim’s Progress. Amy’s misuse of words is playfully mocked, and when she is abroad, she regrets not having been more studious. A shared love of books brings Jo closer with the Laurences and with Mr. Bhaer. German literature in particular plays a role in both Meg’s and Jo’s courtship.
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.