Little Women

Little Women Louisa May Alcott and Her Father

Little Women is largely autobiographical. Deeper understanding of the real experiences in the Alcott family can provide a more nuanced understanding of the characters' relations with one another. The influences of Amos Bronson Alcott, Louisa's father, on the book are extensive. For example, Pilgrim's Progress, Louisa's metaphor for the first half of the book, was Bronson's favorite book. Some of Bronson's teaching methods, such as having a student who misbehaved strike him rather than striking the child, are utilized by Mr. Bhaer's character in Little Men.

However, Louisa May Alcott's relationship with her father was much more tumultuous than Jo's with the saintly Mr. March was. With greater understanding of Bronson's role in Louisa's life, it is possible to identify remnants of the tension between Louisa and Bronson in the relationship between Jo and her Father.

Bronson Alcott was a fervent philosopher and educator. He believed in Transcendentalism, a diverse movement rooted in New England in the nineteenth century and now associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. He both wrote about and tried to live his beliefs. Alcott's philosophy focused on drawing out people's intuitive truth and morality. This belief translated into an educational method that disregarded rote memorization and textbooks in favor of practical learning experiences and the Socratic Method. Bronson applied this method in several experimental schools, most famously the Temple School, which he opened in Boston in 1834. The school flourished until Bronson published Conversations with the Gospels in 1836, which described the success of his teaching methods. Unfortunately, Conversations was poorly received, as people objected to children engaging in adult conversations. Some parents withdrew their children from Temple School, particularly after Bronson admitted an African American student. The school closed in 1839 and left Bronson deeply in debt.

After living in Concord near Emerson and Thoreau and other philosophers who encouraged Bronson's beliefs, he founded an experimental, communal farm called Fruitlands in 1843. Bronson's strict philosophy, a poor harvest, and ill health all led to the demise of Fruitlands. Bronson was asked to join a Shaker community, which he considered, despite the requirement to separate from his wife and children, as Christian does in Pilgrim's Progress. Louisa, who was eleven at the time, remembered this time sadly and prayed that they would stay together. Bronson chose to stay with the family, and after six months at Fruitlands, they moved away. Bronson's depression at the collapse of his utopia was severe. He refused to work as a laborer, could not find a job as a teacher, and fell in the estimation of his friends. Emerson, though he distanced himself publicly from Bronson, supported the family financially for years in the future and eventually helped fund a permanent home for them. Eventually, Bronson was selected as Superintendent of Concord Schools and then started a successful School of Philosophy.

Louisa and her father had a loving respect for one another, yet they caused each other great consternation. Bronson was a perfectionist who made few exceptions for worldly realities. Louisa was wild, impulsive, and strong-tempered, and she frustrated his philosophies. Louisa, for her part, was sometimes angered by her Father's idealism. Louisa described the Fruitlands experiment in a satirical story "Transcendental Wild Oats." This knowledge gives greater meaning to Mr. March's encouragement to Jo to try to write better stories, disregarding the money, and Jo's perseverance in writing her sensation stories in order to pay off the family bills that her own father could not.

At first glance, Mr. March appears as an unworldly and idealistic but good man whose devotion to his family was unwavering. His characterization seems to reflect very little of Louisa's frustration with her father. In Part I, this is partially due to her father's absence. Scholars argue that she reduced and softened his role because he was so unique that readers would have trouble identifying with the family. Yet Bronson was in fact away much of the time, leaving his wife responsible for the household. During one such memorable time at Fruitlands, Bronson and a colleague were away seeking recruits for the farm when a storm threatened the entire barley crop. Taking charge, Louisa's mother directed her children to gather as much barley as they could onto her blankets and sheets before the storm came.

In Little Women, none of Jo's frustration at their poverty and the necessity of her work is directed at her father. In truth, Louisa's diary expresses annoyance at his over-extensions of generosity, such as inviting others to stay in their home despite their poverty. She dislikes having to work and sew in order to get by, and is hurt by Bronson's favoritism toward her sisters Anna and May, who are more docile than she is.

With this understanding of Bronson and Louisa's relationship, it is Louisa's portrayal of Mr. March's and Jo's relationship after Beth's death that rings the most true. The time had come when they could talk together as not only father and daughter, but as man and woman, and able and glad to serve each other with mutual sympathy as well as mutual love. With Little Women, Louisa was able to pay off her family's debts and gain the respect of the world. When Bronson lectured, he was now introduced as the father of Louisa May Alcott. This new arrangement fostered mutual respect and care in adulthood.

Amos Bronson Alcott died on March 4, 1888. He asked Louisa to "come up with me." Two days later, she did.