G. K. Chesterton notes 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 said that Alcott's use of realism belongs to the American Protestant pedagogical tradition, which includes a range of religious literary traditions with which Alcott was familiar. He has copies in his book of nineteenth-century images of devotional children's guides, which provide background for the game of "playing pilgrim" that Alcott uses in her plot of Book One.
When Little Women was published, it was well received. According to 21st-century critic Barbara Sicherman, 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".:2 Little Women became "the paradigmatic text for young women of the era and one in which family literary culture is prominently featured.":3 Adult elements of women's fiction in Little Women included "a change of heart necessary" for the female protagonist to evolve in the story.:199
In late 20th century, some scholars have criticized the novel. Sarah Elbert, for instance, wrote that Little Women was the beginning of "a decline in the radical power of women's fiction," partly because women's fiction was being idealized with a "hearth and home" children's story.:197 Women's literature historians and juvenile fiction historians have agreed that Little Women was the beginning of this "downward spiral".:198 But Elbert says that Little Women did not "belittle women's fiction" and that Alcott stayed true to her "Romantic birthright".:198–199
Little Women's popular audience was responsive to ideas of social change as they were shown "within the familiar construct of domesticity".:220 While Alcott had been commissioned to "write a story for girls", her primary heroine, Jo March, became a favorite of many different women, including educated women writers through the 20th century. The girl story became a "new publishing category with a domestic focus that paralleled boys' adventure stories.":3–4 Jewish immigrant women also found a close connection to Little Women. One reason the novel was so popular was that it appealed to different classes of women along with those of different national backgrounds, at a time of high immigration to the United States. Through the March sisters, women could relate and dream where they may not have before.:3–4 "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.":35
At the time, young girls perceived that marriage was their end goal. After publication of the first volume, many girls wrote to Alcott asking her "who the little women marry".:21 The unresolved ending added to the popularity of Little Women. Sicherman said that the unsatisfying ending worked to "keep the story alive", as if the reader might find it ended differently upon different readings.:21 "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 arranged for Jo to marry, she portrayed an unconventional man as her husband. Alcott used Friederich to "subvert adolescent romantic ideals", because he was much older and seemingly unsuited for Jo.:21
In 2003, the novel was listed at number 18 on the BBC's survey The Big Read. Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association ranked the book as one of its "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children." It ranked as one of the "Top 100 Chapter Books" of all time in a 2012 poll by School Library Journal.