After Part I of Little Women was published, Alcott received many letters from her readers; one girl wrote that neither she nor her classmates would forgive Alcott if Jo did not marry Laurie. Alcott’s journal says that, “girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.” How does Alcott’s refusal to have Jo marry Laurie reflect on her own life?
Jo was modeled after Alcott, who never married. When Alcott urges her readers to be kind to spinsters, she is speaking from her own experience. Alcott’s refusal to meet her readers’ demands reflects her own stubbornness, like Jo’s. Alcott’s decision to have Jo marry at all could reflect a compromise with her readers or perhaps a wish that Alcott’s life had gone differently.
Little Women describes the experience of Christian girls growing up in 19th century New England. Yet it continues to be read by people of all ages around the world. What aspects of the book account for its universality?
Little Women applies universal, domestic themes of family, love, and self-improvement and to the specific context of the March family. While the girls understand their experiences through the lens of Christianity, people of all cultures and religions can relate to their individual struggles. In addition, the beliefs in the book do not degrade other cultures, but rather promote tolerance and kindness toward all people, as shown by the March family’s treatment of Mr. Bhaer, the Hummels, and the war against slavery.
Aunt March and Mr. Laurence are both quite wealthy, but use their wealth differently. Compare the generosity of these figures towards the March family with how this generosity influences their portrayal by Alcott and their perception by other characters.
Alcott describes Aunt March as less generous than Mr. Laurence, specifically in the comparison of giving Beth a piano. Yet Aunt March does provide many things to the March family, including giving Meg linens through Aunt Carrol, pays for Amy to travel abroad, and leaves Plumfield to Jo. However, her attitude towards the Marches is one of disdain, and she insults their pride – for example, when she offers to adopt one of the girls. Her generosity is therefore less appreciated because it does not come with her respect. Mr. Laurence is completely respectful of the March family and finds ways to support them without insulting their pride, such as sending Mr. Brooke as an escort on the pretense of business in Washington, and sending boys to Jo’s school.
Many critics celebrate Little Women’s promotion of women’s rights, yet the characters adopt very clear gender roles, particularly as husbands and wives. Do the March women demonstrate equality with their husbands?
The words used to describe the roles of husband and wife often suggest mutual helpfulness, but an assumed role for the husband as head of the house, while the actions of the characters highlight women’s strength and contributions to the family. Marmee is dependent on Father, yet she runs the house in his absence for almost a year. She also advises Meg to take interest in current events, since they affect her family. Amy calls Laurie “My Lord,” but Laurie admits that she guides most of their actions and decisions. Meg is the most submissive of the wives, but Alcott describes her ruling her domestic kingdom. Jo insists on sharing work with her husband, in words and action. Compared to other marriages, such as Sallie and Ned Moffat’s, the March women have greater levels of equality with their husbands, though the men are described and perceived as the heads of the household.
Alcott explicitly draws on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in Part I. Identify and explicate two allusions to Pilgrim’s Progress to provide deeper meaning to Alcott’s story that may be lost on readers unfamiliar with Bunyan’s text.
The lions Christian must pass to get to the Palace Beautiful terrify by their roar, but they are in fact chained, and placed their only as tests of faith. So too Beth is frightened of Mr. Laurence’s roar, but finds that her fears are unjustified, and that by overcoming her fear she finds not only a piano but also a dear friendship. Apollyon is in fact an external enemy, a demon who attacks Christian. Jo feels that her temper, her “bosom enemy” is almost external in the way it takes control of her, and she must fight it.
When Part I of Little Women was published, the review in The Ladies Repository praised the book for being readable and lively, but warned that “it is not a Christian book. It is religion without spirituality, and salvation without Christ. It is not a good book for the Sunday school library.” Is Part I of Little Women a Christian novel?
While it may not have adhered to the orthodoxy of the time, Little Women is certainly Christian. Alcott makes heavy allusions to Pilgrim’s Progress, the girls seek comfort in their books (argued to be either Pilgrim’s Progress or The New Testament), and the entire family seeks comfort from their faith. The light footprint of Christianity in the book, however, helps account for its broad readership.
Drawing on her own travels, Alcott weaves descriptions of the national traits of Germans, British, French, and Italians in her New England-based story. How are her main characters distinctively American?
At Camp Laurence, the contrast with the British provides an opportunity to display the American traits of the main characters. They play croquet with the spirit of ’76, tease Fred for thinking perfectly of the English nation, and John Brooke defends their willingness to work and be independent. Later Laurie brings Meg gifts as examples of "Yankee ingenuity." While abroad, Amy is celebrated for having maintained her “native frankness” despite her other foreign airs. Alcott also describes Demi as respecting the hand that fought him, as did England.
Alcott includes several pieces of writing, such as poems, letters, a newspaper, and a near description of the Christmas play. Discuss the contributions of including these items in the text, rather than simply referring to or describing them.
Alcott’s story is based on her life and experiences. She believed that if the book would be successful, its success would be due to the honesty of her story – true tales, told in simple language accessible to adolescents. Her inclusion of poems and letters enhances the realism of the book and her characters. After introducing the newspaper, Alcott takes pains to “assure my readers that this is a bona fide copy of one written by bona fide girls.”
Alcott’s family members were fervent abolitionists, yet the topic of slavery is only vaguely referenced in Little Women. Instead, the oblique references to slavery assume disapproval on the part of the characters and reader. Identify at least two references and discuss the impact of having implicit rather than explicit references.
The assumed disapproval of slavery is evident in Mr. March and Mr. Brooke’s determination to fight for the Union Army, Jo’s quoting of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Amy’s support of the Chester’s fair for the freedmen. The vagueness of the references seems intentional; Alcott does not include stories from her childhood such as finding a runaway slave hidden in an unused stove, or her father’s school closing when he admitted an African American girl. Keeping references oblique likely increased her readership and avoided distracting from the main parts of the story.
Several of the chapters focus on just one of the sisters. Choose three chapters that focus on the same sister and identify the similarities and differences in the girl’s character over time.
In Chapters 9, 23, and 28, Alcott describes Meg’s attitude towards poverty and her struggles with vanity. Meg never ceases to be aware of her poverty and its affect on her dress and lifestyle – when Amy returns from Paris, Meg envies her dress. However, she learns from experience that she prefers being her genuine self, even in poverty, than aspiring to greater wealth. She first learns this at the Moffat’s party, where she is dressed up by her friends like a doll. She then decides to marry John despite his poverty, and sacrifices the support of Aunt March to do so. Enacting this decision, though, is sometimes difficult, as she learns when she overspends on silk for a dress. In the last instance, Meg learns to appreciate poverty and how it has shaped John’s character, and thus it shapes her own.