Little Women

Little Women Study Guide

Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, The Story of Their Lives, A Girls’ Book was written by Louisa May Alcott and published in two parts. Roberts Brothers published the first part on September 30, 1868. After its success, with the first 2000 copies sold in just one month, the editor confirmed that Alcott should write a second part, which was published on April 14, 1869, and sold thirteen thousand copies in two weeks. The full book was edited and republished in 1880. It has never gone out of print. While generally read independently, Little Women was followed by two more novels in the series: Little Men in 1871 and Jo’s Boys in 1886.

The book chronicles approximately fifteen years in the lives of four sisters and their close family and friends in Concord, Massachusetts. The book is largely autobiographical and fictionalizes the life of Alcott (Jo) and her three sisters: Anna (Meg); Lizzie (Beth); and May (Amy). Like their characters, Lizzie died at 23, weakened from scarlet fever, and May was quite artistic, making the original illustrations for the publication of Little Women. Alcott had already published several of the girls’ stories and experiences in other, shorter pieces. In addition to drawing on her own life, Alcott makes allusions to other books throughout her novel, most explicitly The Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian allegory by John Bunyan published in 1684.

Alcott was asked to write Little Women in 1867 by the editor Thomas Niles, who wanted a girls’ book. When Alcott started the book in May 1868, she wrote in her journal that, “I plod away, though I don’t enjoy this sort of thing. Never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting, though I doubt it.” In writing a book for adolescents, Alcott decided to make the tone simple and direct, based on real experiences rather than sensationalized ones. Each part was written in approximately three months, sometimes a chapter a day, with very little rewriting or editing. Her editor Niles and Alcott herself found her first twelve chapters “dull.” Both were surprised and pleased by the scale of its success.

Contemporary critics praised Little Women for being a well-written, lively, and enjoyable book for children and adults alike. Little Women differed from other books for girls at the time, such as Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World, by giving depth to its female characters and avoiding being overly moralistic. Little Women is considered one of the great American novels and has been adapted several times as a radio show, play, opera, and film. The most recent film was made in 1994 and stars Susan Sarandon, Winona Ryder, Clare Danes, Kirsten Dunst, and Christian Bale.