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Two-volume Roberts Brothers printing, from the early 1870s
|Author||Louisa May Alcott|
|Genre||Coming of Age|
|Publication date||1868 (1st volume)|
1869 (2nd volume)
|Followed by||Little Men|
Two-volume Roberts Brothers printing, from the early 1870s
|Author||Louisa May Alcott|
|Genre||Coming of Age|
|Publication date||1868 (1st volume)|
1869 (2nd volume)
|Followed by||Little Men|
Little Women is a novel by American author Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888) written between 1868 and 1869 in Concord, Massachusetts and Boston, at the request of Alcott's publisher. The novel follows the lives of four sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March – detailing their passage from childhood to womanhood, and is loosely based on the author and her three sisters. The first volume, Little Women, was an immediate commercial and critical success, prompting the composition of the book's second volume, entitled Good Wives, which was also successful. Both books were eventually united in a single volume entitled Little Women in 1880. Alcott followed Little Women with two sequels, also featuring the March sisters: Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886). Little Women was a fiction novel for girls that veered from the normal writings for children, especially girls, at the time. The novel had three major themes:” domesticity, work, and true love, all of them interdependent and each necessary to the achievement of its heroine’s individual identity.”
Little Women itself “has been read as a romance or as a quest, or both. It has been read as a family drama that validates virtue over wealth,” but also “as a means of escaping that life by women who knew its gender constraints only too well.” According to Sarah Elbert, Alcott created a new form of literature, one that took elements from Romantic children's fiction and combined it with others from sentimental novels, resulting in a totally new format. Elbert argued that within Little Women can be found the first vision of the “American Girl” and that her multiple aspects are embodied in the differing March sisters.
The idea for writing Little Women did not originate from Alcott herself, but from her publisher, Thomas Niles. He suggested that she write a book about girls which would have widespread appeal. She was not interested at first, and instead asked to have her short stories collected. He pressed her to write the girls' book first, aided by Bronson Alcott who also insisted she did as requested. In May 1868 she wrote in her journal: "Niles, partner of Roberts, asked me to write a girl's book. I said I'd try." Alcott set her novel in an imaginary Orchard House modeled on the real Orchard House where she resided and where she wrote her novel. She later recalled she did not think she could write a successful book for girls and did not enjoy writing one. "I plod away," she wrote in her diary, "although I don't enjoy this sort of things." For all of Alcott's reluctance to write it, scholars define Little Women as an autobiographical or semi autobiographical novel. By June she had sent the first dozen chapters to Niles and both thought they were dull. Niles's niece Lillie Almy, however, reported that she enjoyed them. The completed manuscript was shown to several girls, who agreed it was "splendid". Alcott wrote, "they are the best critics, so I should definitely be satisfied."
Nonetheless, the immediate success of Little Women caught everyone by surprise, including the author and her publisher.
Alcott wrote Little Women “in record time for money.” According to literary critic Sarah Elbert, when using the term “little women”, Alcott was drawing on its Dickensian meaning. Little Women represented the time period in a young woman's life where childhood and elder childhood was "overlapping" young womanhood. Each of the March sister heroines had a harrowing "experience" that alerted her and the reader that "childhood innocence" was of the past and "the inescapable woman problem” was all that remained. Other views include the possibility that the title was meant to highlight the inferiority of women as compared to men, or, alternatively, describe the lives of simple people, "unimportant" in the social sense.
Alcott used many familiar references as inspiration for her books and often used her own family and acquaintances to create the characters portrayed in Little Women. Her married sister Anna was Meg, the family beauty. Lizzie, Alcott's beloved sister who died at the age of twenty-three was Beth, and May, Alcott's strong-willed sister, became the equally headstrong Amy, whose silly affectations cause her occasional downfalls. Alcott portrayed herself as Jo, and indeed allowed the illusion to continue in real life, where she would correspond with readers who addressed her as "Miss Alcott" or "Jo". Alcott's portrayal is not an exact rendition of her family, but rather an idealized one; for instance, Mr. March is a civil war hero, a gainfully employed chaplain and, presumably, a source of inspiration to the women of the family. He is also absent for most of the story In contrast, Bronson Alcott was a constant presence in the household, due in part to his inability to find steady work, and while he shared many of the educational principles touted by the March family, he was loud and dictatorial, and his lack of financial independence was a source of humiliation to his wife and daughters. While the March family lives in genteel penury, the Alcott family, dependent on an improvident, impractical father, experienced real poverty and even hunger.
Sixteen at the opening of the book, Meg is the oldest sister. She is referred to as a beauty, and runs the household when her mother is absent. Meg's character fulfills expectation of the women of Alcott's age; from the start, she is already a nearly perfect "little woman". As such, Meg's activities are limited to running her home, and she has no other employment or activities outside of it. Prior to her marriage, while she is still living in the March family home, she often lectures her younger sisters to ensure they grow to embody the title of "little women".
Meg is employed as a governess for the Kings, a wealthy local family. Though the March family is poor, their background is what was called 'genteel', and Meg attended some society balls and parties.
Meg marries John Brooke, Laurie's tutor. They had twins, Margaret "Daisy" and John "Demi" Brooke. There are also hints in the second book, Little Men, that she had a second daughter, Josephine Josy Brooke.
Critics have portrayed Meg as lacking in independence, relying entirely on her husband and “isolated in her little cottage with two small children.” From this perspective, Meg is viewed as the complacent daughter who does not “attain Alcott’s ideal womanhood” of equality. According to critic Sarah Elbert, “democratic domesticity requires maturity, strength, and above all a secure identity that Meg lacks.” Others however, find that Alcott in no way intends to belittle Meg for her ordinariness, and that on the contrary she portrays her in loving details, suffused in a sentimental light that betrays her affection.
The principal character in the novel Jo is a strong and willful young woman, constantly struggling to subdue her strong personality. Her lack of success in these endeavors render her more realistic and contribute to the charm she has over readers. The second-oldest of four sisters, Josephine March the boyish one; Mr. March has referred to her as his "son Jo" in the past, and her best friend, Laurie, sometimes calls her "my dear fellow."
Jo has a "hot" temper which often leads her into trouble in spite of her good intentions, but with the help of her own misguided sense of humor, her sister Beth, and her mother, she works on controlling it.
Jo loves literature, both reading and writing. She composes plays for her sisters to perform and writes short stories. She initially rejects the idea of marriage and romance, feeling that it would break up her family and separate her from the sisters she adores. While pursuing a literary career in New York City, she met and began to love Friederich Bhaer, a German professor, as an equal partner. “They decide to share life’s burdens just as they shared the load of bundles on their shopping expedition.”
Jo is the most popular and remembered of all the characters in Little Women. Jo did reject Laurie to marry Professor Bhaer who is much older than she, but Jo believes he is better suited to her than Laurie. The crucial first point is that the choice is hers, its quirkiness another sign of her much-prized individuality.” “Bhaer has all the qualities Bronson Alcott lacked: warmth, intimacy, and a tender capacity for expressing his affection—the feminine attributes Alcott admired and hoped men could acquire in a rational, feminist world. They have two sons, Robin 'Rob' Bhaer and Teddy Bhaer.” Jo writes the first part of Little Women during the second portion of the novel. According to Elbert, "her narration signals a successfully completed adolescence.”
Jo March's unconventional behavior, her refusal to adapt to the gender stereotypes of her time have caused her to be described to various degrees as a sort of "early feminist". Scholar have gone further, choosing to interpret Jo's rebellious behavior as "androgynous nonconformity" which decries the character's discomfort with traditional gender identity. whereas critic Jan Susina interpreted Jo's discomfort with marriage, her rejection of Laurie and rejection of traditional gender valua as proof that Alcott wrote an "anti-male text".
Beth, thirteen when the story starts, is described as shy, gentle and musical. Of all the March sisters, she is the only one without failings or character flaws. As her sisters grow up they begin to leave home, but Beth has no desire to leave her house or family. She's especially close to Jo: when Beth develops scarlet fever after visiting the Hummels, Jo does most of the nursing and rarely leaves her side. Though she recovers, her health is permanently weakened and she eventually loses her life.
As she grows, Beth begins to realize that her time with her loved ones is coming to an end. Finally, the family accepts that Beth will not live much longer. They make a special room for her, filled with all the things she loves best: her kittens, piano, father's books, Amy's sketches, and her beloved dolls. She is never idle; she even knits and sews things for the children that pass under her window on the way to and from school. But eventually even that becomes too much for her, and she puts down her sewing needle, saying that it grew "heavy." Beth's dying has a strong impact on her sisters, especially Jo, who resolves to live her life with more consideration and care for everyone.
The main tragedy during Little Women was the death of beloved Beth; her “self-sacrifice is ultimately the greatest in the novel. She gives up her life knowing that it has had only private, domestic meaning.”
The youngest sister and baby of the family, aged twelve when the story begins, Amy is interested in art. She is described by the author as a "regular snow-maiden" with curly golden hair and blue eyes, "pale and slender" and "always carrying herself" like a very proper young lady. She is the artist of the family. Often "petted" because she is the youngest, she can behave in a vain and self centered way. Of all the March sisters, Amy is the least inclined to sacrifice and self-denial, which leads critic Martha Saxton to observe that the author was never fully at ease with Amy's moral development and that her success in life was relatively accidental. Her relationship with Jo can be stormy at times due to their respective strong nature.
The girls' mother and head of household while her husband is away. She engages in charitable works and attempts to guide her girls' morals and to shape their characters, usually through experiments. She once confesses to Jo that her temper is as volatile as Jo's, but that she has learned to control it.
Formerly wealthy, it is implied that he helped friends who could not repay a debt, resulting in the family's poverty. A scholar and a minister, he serves as a chaplain in the Union Army and is wounded in December 1862.
The March family maid and cook, their only servant. She is of Irish descent and very dear to the Family. She is treated more like a member of the family than a servant.
Mr. March's aunt, a rich widow. Somewhat temperamental and prone to being judgmental, she disapproves of the family's poverty, their charitable work, and their general disregard for the more superficial aspects of society's ways. Her vociferous disapproval of Meg's impending engagement to the impoverished Mr. Brooke becomes the proverbial "last straw" that actually causes Meg to accept his proposal. She appears to be strict and cold hearted, but deep down, she's really quite soft-hearted. She dies near the end of the book, and Jo and Frederich Bhaer turn her estate into a school for boys.
Sister and brother-in-law of Mr. March. They take Amy to Europe with them, where Uncle Carrol frequently tries to be like an English gentleman.
A rich young man, older than Jo but younger than Meg. Laurie is the boy next door to the March family with his overprotective grandfather, Mr. Laurence. Laurie's father had eloped with an Italian pianist and was disowned. Both his parents died young, and Laurie was sent to live with his grandfather. Laurie is preparing to enter at Harvard and is being tutored by Mr. John Brooke. He is described as attractive and charming, with black eyes, brown skin, and curly black hair. He later fell in love with Amy and married her, together they had one child, a sickly little girl who was named after and acted like Beth: Elizabeth "Bess" Laurence. Though Alcott did not make Laurie as multidimensional as the female characters, she partly bases him on Ladislas Wisniewski, a young polish emigre she had befriended, and Alf Whitman, a friend from Lawrence, Kansas. According to Jan Susina, Laurie' s portrayal as a minor character and an observer, but never a protagonist, always at the periphery of the circle formed by the March sister, is further proof that the novel is unfavorable to men and that Alcott did not really care for her male characters.
A wealthy neighbor to the Marches and Laurie's grandfather. Lonely in his mansion, and often at odds with his high-spirited grandson, he finds comfort in becoming a benefactor to the Marches. He protects the March sisters while their parents are away. He was a friend to Mrs. March's father, and admires their charitable works. He develops a special, tender friendship with Beth, who reminds him of his deceased granddaughter, and he gives Beth his (deceased) granddaughter's piano.
During his employment with the Laurences as a tutor to Laurie, he falls in love with Meg. He accompanies Mrs. March to Washington D.C. when her husband is ill with pneumonia. When Laurie leaves for college, Brooke continues his employment with Mr. Laurence as an assistant. When Aunt March overhears Meg rejecting John's declaration of love, she threatens Meg with disinheritance because she suspects that Brooke is only interested in Meg's future prospects. Eventually Meg admits her feelings to Brooke, they defy Aunt March (who ends up accepting the marriage), and they are engaged. Brooke serves in the Union Army for a year and is invalided home after being wounded. Brooke marries Meg a few years later when the war has ended and she has turned twenty. Brooke was modeled after John Pratt, her sister Anna's husband.
A Harvard friend of Laurie's who, in Europe, courts Amy. Rivalry with the much richer Fred for Amy's love inspires the dissipated Laurie to pull himself together and become more worthy of her. Amy will eventually reject Fred, knowing she does not love him and deciding not to marry out of ambition.
A poor German family consisting of a widowed mother and six children. Marmee and the girls help them by bringing food, firewood, blankets and other comforts. Three of the children die of scarlet fever and Beth contracts the disease while caring for them.
A wealthy family who employs Meg as a governess.
Wealthy friends of Meg's.
A friend of Mrs March's who runs a boarding house in New York. She employs Jo as governess to her two daughters, Kitty and Minnie.
A middle aged, "philosophically inclined", and penniless German immigrant who was a famous professor in Berlin but now lives in Mrs. Kirke's boarding house and works as a language master. He and Jo become friends and he critiques Jo's writing. He encourages her to become a serious writer instead of writing "sensation" stories for weekly tabloids. The two eventually marry, raise Fritz's two orphaned nephews, Franz and Emil, and their own sons, Rob and Teddy.
Jo's acceptance of Bhaer's proposal was received with a fair amount of horror by many of the novel's readers.
A worldly tenant living in Mrs. Kirke's boarding house. She occasionally takes Jo under her wing and entertains her.
The daughter of an employee of Mrs. Kirke. Tina loves Mr. Bhaer and treats him like he were her father.
A rich friend of Meg's. Later marries Ned Moffat.
Annie Moffat's brother, who marries Sallie Gardiner.
A fashionable and wealthy friend of Meg's and Sallie Gardiner's.
A wealthy family with four children for whom Meg works as a governess.
The schoolteacher at Amy's school.
Friends of Meg and John Brook. John knows Mr. Scott from work.
A girl at Amy's school.
Sallie Gardiner's mother.
An old spinster who likes to gossip and who has few friends.
English friends of Laurie's who come to visit him.
The youngest Vaughn sibling.
The oldest, very prim and proper.
The elder twin of Frank, proposes marriage to Amy when she is in Europe.
The younger twin of Fred.
A French woman employed as a servant for Aunt March.
A well-to-do family with whom the Marches are acquainted.
A girl about Amy's age, who is rich and jealous of Amy's popularity and talent.
May Chester's mother.
A well-off family with whom the Marches are acquainted.
A family related to the Marches. They invite Amy to go to Europe with them.
Invites Amy to go abroad.
Aunt Carrol's daughter and Amy's companion in Europe.
Meg's daughter, twin sister to Demi.
Meg's son, twin brother to Daisy.
A woman who runs a boarding house in New York. Jo works for her as a teacher for her children and as a seamstress.
The daughters of Mrs. Kirke.
Publisher and editor of the Weekly Volcano.
The first volume of Little Women was published by Roberts Brothers in 1868. The first printing of 2,000 copies sold out quickly and more printings were soon ordered but the company had trouble keeping up with demand. They announced: "The great literary hit of the season is undoubtedly Miss Alcott's Little Women, the orders for which continue to flow in upon us to such an extent as to make it impossible to answer them with promptness." Alcott delivered the manuscript for the second part on New Year's Day 1869, only three months after publication of part one.
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 argued that Alcott's use of realism belongs to the American Protestant pedagogical tradition that includes a range of religious literary traditions with which Alcott was familiar. The nineteenth-century images he produces of devotional guides for children provides an interesting background for the game of "playing pilgrim" that, in part, comprises Book One's plot structure.
When Little Women was published, it was well received. 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.” Little Women became “the paradigmatic text for young women of the era and one in which family literary culture is prominently featured.” Adult elements of women’s fiction were in Little Women, such as “a change of heart necessary” for the female protagonist to evolve in the story. However, even with much critical acclaim, there were criticisms. Some felt that Little Women was the beginning of “a decline in the radical power of women’s fiction,” partly because women’s fiction was now being idealized with a hearth and home children’s story. Both women’s literature historians and juvenile fiction historians agreed that Little Women was the apex of this “downward spiral.” Elbert argued that Little Women did not “belittle women’s fiction" and that Alcott stayed true to her “Romantic birthright.”
The sudden success of Little Women was a surprise to everyone, including the author herself.
Little Women’s popular audience was responsive to ideas of social change as they were shown “within the familiar construct of domesticity.” Even though Alcott was supposed to just write a story for girls, her main heroine, Jo March, became a favorite of many different women, including educated women writers through the 20th century. The girl story became a new “new publishing category with a domestic focus that paralleled boys’ adventure stories.” Other women, such as Jewish immigrant women, also found a close connection to Little Women. One reason Little Women was vastly popular was because it was able to appeal to different classes of women along with different nationalities. Through the March sisters, women could relate and dream where they may not have before. “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.” 
Young girls had a social perception that marriage was their end goal. This was evident after the publication of part one of Little Women when girls wrote Alcott asking her “who the little women marry.” The unresolved ending added to the popularity of Little Women. Sicherman said that the unsatisfying ending worked to “keep the story alive” almost in hopes that if the reader read it enough times the story would conclude differently. “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 finally had Jo get married, she picked an unconventional man for Jo’s husband. Alcott used Friederich to “subvert adolescent romantic ideals” because he was much older and seemingly unsuited for Jo.
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 named the book one of its "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children." It was one of the "Top 100 Chapter Books" of all time in a 2012 poll by School Library Journal.
Little Women is one of the most widely read novels of all times. Ruth MacDonald argued that “Louisa May Alcott stands as one of the great American practitioners of the girls’ novel and the family story.” In the 1860s, gendered separation of children’s fiction was a newer division in literature. This division signaled a beginning of polarization of gender roles social constructs “as class stratification increased.” Joy Kasson wrote that “Alcott chronicled the coming of age of young girls, their struggles with issues such as selfishness and generosity, the nature of individual integrity, and, above all, the question of their place in the world around them.” Girls were able to relate to the March sisters in Little Women along with following the lead of their heroines by assimilating aspects of the story into their own lives.
After reading Little Women some women felt the need to “acquire new and more public identities”—which of course was also dependent on other factors like financial resources. While Little Women showed normal American middle class lives of girls, it also “legitimized” their dreams to do something different and allowed them to consider the possibilities. More young women started writing stories that had adventurous plots and “stories of individual achievement—traditionally coded male—challenged women’s socialization into domesticity.”. “Little Women also influenced immigrants to the United States who wanted to assimilate into middle class culture.
Young and adolescent girls saw, in print on the pages of Little Women, the normalization of ambitious women. This acted as an alternative to the previously normalized gender roles. Little Women also repeatedly reinforced the importance of “individuality” and “female vocation.” “Little Women had “continued relevance of its subject” and “its longevity points as well to surprising continuities in gender norms from the 1860s at least through the 1960s.” Those interested in domestic reform could look to the pages of Little Women to see how a “democratic household” would operate.
While “Alcott never questioned the value of domesticity” she challenged the social constructs that made spinsters obscure and fringe members of society solely because they were not married. “Little Women indisputably enlarges the myth of American womanhood by insisting that the home and the women’s sphere cherish individuality and thus produce young adults who can make their way in the world while preserving a critical distance from its social arrangements.” As with all youth, the March girls had to grow up. These sisters, and in particular Jo, were apprehensive about adulthood because they were afraid that by conforming to what society wanted them to be, they would lose their special individuality in the process.
Alcott “made women’s rights integral to her stories, and above all to Little Women.” Alcott’s fiction became her “most important feminist contribution”—even considering all the effort Alcott made to help facilitate women’s rights." Alcott thought that “a democratic household could evolve into a feminist society.” In Little Women, she imagined that just such an evolution might begin with Plumfield, a nineteenth century feminist utopia.”
“Little Women has a timeless resonance which reflects Alcott’s grasp of her historical framework in the 1860s. The novel’s ideas do not intrude themselves upon the reader because the author is wholly in control of the implications of her imaginative structure. Sexual equality is the salvation of marriage and the family; democratic relationships make happy endings. This is the unifying imaginative frame of Little Women.”
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