Little Women

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Little Women
LitWomVols.jpg
Two-volume Roberts Brothers printing, from the early 1870s
Author Louisa May Alcott
Country United States
Language English
Genre Coming of Age
Publisher Roberts Brothers
Publication date
1868 (1st volume)
1869 (2nd volume)
Media type Print
Followed by Little Men

Little Women is a novel by American author Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888), which was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. Alcott wrote the books rapidly over several months at the request of her publisher.[1][2] 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.[3][4]

Little Women was an immediate commercial and critical success, and readers demanded to know more about the characters. Alcott quickly completed a second volume, entitled Good Wives. It was also successful. The two volumes were issued in 1880 in a single work entitled Little Women. Alcott also wrote two sequels to her popular work, both of which also featured the March sisters: Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886). Although Little Women was a novel for girls, it differed notably from the current writings for children, especially girls. The novel addressed three major themes: "domesticity, work, and true love, all of them interdependent and each necessary to the achievement of its heroine's individual identity."[5]

Little Women "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".[6] 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 "All-American girl" and that her multiple aspects are embodied in the differing March sisters.[7]

Background[edit]

In 1868, Thomas Niles, the publisher of Louisa May Alcott, recommended that she write a book about girls that would have widespread appeal.[8] At first she resisted, preferring to publish a collection of her short stories. Niles pressed her to write the girls' book first, and he was aided by her father Bronson Alcott, who also urged her to do so.[9]

In May 1868, Alcott wrote in her journal: "Niles, partner of Roberts, asked me to write a girl's book. I said I'd try."[10] Alcott set her novel in an imaginary Orchard House modeled on her own residence of the same name, where she wrote the novel.[8] She later recalled that she did not think she could write a successful book for girls and did not enjoy writing it.[11] "I plod away," she wrote in her diary, "although I don't enjoy this sort of things."[12] Scholars classify Little Women as an autobiographical or semi-autobiographical novel.[13][14]

By June, Alcott had sent the first dozen chapters to Niles, and both agreed these were dull. But Niles' niece Lillie Almy read them and said she enjoyed them.[15] 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."[12] She wrote Little Women "in record time for money",[16] but the book's immediate success surprised both her and her publisher.[17]

According to literary critic Sarah Elbert, when using the term "little women", Alcott was drawing on its Dickensian meaning; it represented the period in a young woman's life where childhood and elder childhood were "overlapping" with 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 that "the inescapable woman problem" was all that remained.[16] Other views suggest 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.[18]

Inspiration[edit]

For her books, Alcott was often inspired by familiar elements. The characters in Little Women are recognizably drawn from family members and friends.[4] Her married sister Anna was Meg, the family beauty. Lizzie, Alcott's beloved sister who died at the age of twenty-three, was the model for Beth, and May, Alcott's strong-willed sister, was portrayed as Amy, whose pretentious affectations cause her occasional downfalls.[4] Alcott portrayed herself as Jo. Alcott readily corresponded with readers who addressed her as "Miss March" or "Jo", and she did not correct them.[19][20]

However, Alcott's portrayal, even if inspired by her family, is an idealized one. For instance, Mr. March is portrayed as a hero of the American Civil War, a gainfully employed chaplain, and, presumably, a source of inspiration to the women of the family. He is absent for most of the novel.[21] In contrast, Bronson Alcott was very present in his family's household, due in part to his inability to find steady work. While he espoused many of the educational principles touted by the March family, he was loud and dictatorial. His lack of financial independence was a source of humiliation to his wife and daughters.[21] The March family is portrayed living in genteel penury, but the Alcott family, dependent on an improvident, impractical father, suffered real poverty and occasional hunger.[22] In addition to her own childhood and that of her sisters, scholars who have come across the diaries of Louisa Alcott's mother, have surmised that Little Women was also heavily inspired by Abigail Alcott's own early life.[23]

Characters[edit]

The four sisters[edit]

Margaret "Meg" March Brooke[edit]

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 fulfills expectations for women of the time; from the start, she is already a nearly perfect "little woman". As such, Meg is based in the domestic household; she does not have significant employment or activities outside of it.[24] Prior to her marriage, while still living at home, she often lectures her younger sisters to ensure they grow to embody the title of "little women".[25]

Meg is employed as a governess for the Kings, a wealthy local family. Meg marries John Brooke, the tutor of their neighbor, Theodore (Laurie) Laurence. They have twins, Margaret "Daisy" Brooke and John "Demi" Brooke. The sequel, Little Men, suggests that Meg had a second daughter, Josephine "Josy" Brooke.[citation needed]

Critics have portrayed Meg as lacking in independence, reliant entirely on her husband, and "isolated in her little cottage with two small children".[26] From this perspective, Meg is seen as the compliant 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".[26] Others believe that Alcott does not intend to belittle Meg for her ordinary life, and portrays her in loving details, suffused in a sentimental light.[citation needed]

Josephine "Jo" March Bhaer[edit]

The principal character, Jo, 15 years old at the beginning of the book, is a strong and willful young woman, struggling to subdue her strong personality. Her lack of success in this renders her more realistic and contributes to the charm she has for readers.[27] The second-oldest of four sisters, Josephine March is the boyish one; her father has referred to her as his "son Jo", and her best friend and neighbor Theodore (Laurie) Laurence (who is male) sometimes calls her "my dear fellow". Jo has a "hot" temper that often leads her into trouble. 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 whom she adores. While pursuing a literary career in New York City, she meets and begins 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".[28]

Jo rejects Laurie to marry Professor Bhaer, who is much older than she, believing him better suited to her. "The crucial first point is that the choice is hers, its quirkiness another sign of her much-prized individuality."[29] "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."[28] They have two sons, Robin "Rob" Bhaer and Teddy Bhaer. Jo also writes the first part of Little Women during the second portion of the novel. According to Elbert, "her narration signals a successfully completed adolescence".[7]

Jo March's unconventional behavior and her refusal to adapt to the gender stereotypes of her time have led to her being described as a sort of "early feminist".[30] Some scholars have interpreted Jo's rebellious behavior as "androgynous nonconformity", which decries the character's discomfort with traditional gender identity.[31] Critic Jan Susina interpreted Jo's discomfort with marriage, her rejection of Laurie, and her rejection of traditional gender values as proof that Alcott wrote an "anti-male text".[32]

Elizabeth "Beth" March[edit]

Beth, thirteen when the story starts, is described as shy, gentle and musical. She is the shyest March sister.[33] Infused with quiet wisdom, she is the peacemaker of the family and gently scolds her sisters when they argue.[34] 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 Beth recovers, her health is permanently weakened, and she eventually dies young.

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 knits and sews things for the children who pass by on their way to and from school. But eventually she puts down her sewing needle, saying it grew "heavy." Beth's death has a strong effect on her sisters, especially Jo, who resolves to live her life with more consideration and care for everyone.

The main loss during Little Women is 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."[35]

Amy Curtis March Laurence[edit]

Amy is the youngest sister and baby of the family, aged twelve when the story begins. Interested in art, she is described as a "regular snow-maiden" with curly golden hair and blue eyes, "pale and slender" and "always carrying herself" like a proper young lady. She is the artist of the family.[36] Often "petted" because she is the youngest, Amy can behave in a vain and self-centered way.[37] Amy is the least inclined of the sisters to sacrifice and self-denial. Critic Martha Saxton observes the author was never fully at ease with Amy's moral development and her success in life seemed relatively accidental.[37] Because of her selfishness and attachment to material things, Amy has been described as the least likable of the four sisters, but she is also the only one who strives to excel at art for self-expression, in contrast to Jo, who writes for financial gain.[38]

Additional characters (in alphabetical order)[edit]

Professor Friedrich "Fritz" Bhaer A middle aged, "philosophically inclined", and penniless German immigrant in New York City who was a noted professor in Berlin. He lives in Mrs. Kirke's boarding house and works as a language master.[39] He and Jo become friends, and he critiques her 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.

Many of the novel's readers objected to Jo marrying Bhaer. They wanted a more successful man for her.[40]

Rob and Teddy Bhaer Jo's sons.

John Brooke 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.[41]

Margaret (Daisy) and John Laurence (Demijohn or Demi) Brooke Meg's twin son and daughter

Uncle and Aunt Carrol 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.

Flo Carrol Amy's cousin, daughter of Aunt and Uncle Carrol, and companion in Europe.

The Chesters: May Chester and Mrs. Chester A well-to-do family with whom the Marches are acquainted. May Chester is a girl about Amy's age, who is rich and jealous of Amy's popularity and talent.

Mrs. Crocker An old spinster who likes to gossip and who has few friends.

Mr. Dashwood Publisher and editor of the Weekly Volcano.

Mr. Davis The schoolteacher at Amy's school. He punishes Amy for bringing pickled limes to school by making her stand on a platform.

Esther or Estelle A French woman employed as a servant for Aunt March.

The Gardiners Wealthy friends of Meg's. Sallie Gardiner is a rich friend of Meg's who later marries Ned Moffat.

The Hummels 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.

The Kings A wealthy family with four children for whom Meg works as a governess.

The Kirkes Mrs. Kirke is 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.

The Lambs A well-off family with whom the Marches are acquainted.

James Laurence Laurie's grandfather and a wealthy neighbor of the Marches. 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 late granddaughter. He gives Beth the girl's piano.

Theodore "Laurie" Laurence He is a rich young man, older than Jo but younger than Meg. Laurie is the "boy next door" to the March family, and has an overprotective paternal grandfather, Mr. Laurence. After eloping with an Italian pianist, Laurie's father was disowned by his parents. Both he and Laurie's mother died young, and the boy Laurie was taken in by his grandfather. Preparing to enter Harvard, Laurie is being tutored by John Brooke. He is described as attractive and charming, with black eyes, brown skin, and curly black hair. He later falls in love with Amy and they marry; they have one child, a sickly little girl named after Beth: Elizabeth "Bess" Laurence.Sometimes Jo calls Laurie "Teddy". Though Alcott did not make Laurie as multidimensional as the female characters, she partly based him on Ladislas Wisniewski, a young polish émigré she had befriended, and Alf Whitman, a friend from Lawrence, Kansas.[4][37][42] According to Jan Susina, the portrayal of Laurie as a minor character, an observer but never a protagonist, always at the periphery of the March sisters, is evidence that the novel is unfavorable to men and that Alcott did not really care for her male characters.[32]

Aunt Josephine March 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.

Margaret "Marmee" March 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.[43] Somewhat modeled after the Author's own mother, she is the fulcrum around which the girls' lives unfold as they grow.[44]

Robert "Father" March Formerly wealthy, the father is portrayed as having helped friends who could not repay a debt, resulting in his family's genteel poverty. A scholar and a minister, he serves as a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War and is wounded in December 1862.

Annie Moffat A fashionable and wealthy friend of Meg's and Sallie Gardiner's.

Ned Moffat Annie Moffat's brother, who marries Sallie Gardiner.

Hannah Mullet 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.

Miss Norton A worldly tenant living in Mrs. Kirke's boarding house. She occasionally takes Jo under her wing and entertains her.

Susie Perkins A girl at Amy's school.

The Scotts Friends of Meg and John Brooke. John knows Mr. Scott from work.

Tina The daughter of an employee of Mrs. Kirke. Tina loves Mr. Bhaer and treats him like a father.

The Vaughans English friends of Laurie's who come to visit him. Kate is the oldest of the Vaughn sibling-- very prim and proper, Grace is the youngest. Fred and Frank are twins; Frank is the younger twin.

Fred Vaughan 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.[45]

Publication history[edit]

The first volume of Little Women was published in 1868 by Roberts Brothers.[46] The first printing of 2,000 copies sold out quickly, and the company had trouble keeping up with demand for additional printings. 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."[12] Alcott delivered the manuscript for the second volume on New Year's Day 1869, only three months after publication of part one.[47]

Response[edit]

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."[48] 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.[49]

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".[50] Little Women became "the paradigmatic text for young women of the era and one in which family literary culture is prominently featured."[51] Adult elements of women's fiction in Little Women included "a change of heart necessary" for the female protagonist to evolve in the story.[7]

Since the late 20th century, some scholars have criticized the novel. Susan 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.[52] Women's literature historians and juvenile fiction historians have agreed that Little Women was the beginning of this "downward spiral".[53] But Elbert says that Little Women did not "belittle women's fiction" and that Alcott stayed true to her "Romantic birthright".[54]

Little Women's popular audience was responsive to ideas of social change as they were shown "within the familiar construct of domesticity".[55] 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 "new publishing category with a domestic focus that paralleled boys' adventure stories."[56] 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.[56] "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."[57]

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".[29] 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.[29] "Alcott particularly battled the conventional marriage plot in writing Little Women".[58] 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.[29]

In 2003, the novel was listed at number 18 on the BBC's survey The Big Read.[59] Based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association ranked the book as one of its "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children."[60] It ranked as one of the "Top 100 Chapter Books" of all time in a 2012 poll by School Library Journal.[61]

Influence[edit]

Little Women is one of the most widely read novels.[62] Ruth MacDonald argued that "Louisa May Alcott stands as one of the great American practitioners of the girls' novel and the family story."[63] 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 as social constructs "as class stratification increased".[64] Joy Kasson wrote, "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."[65] Girls related 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.[66]

After reading Little Women, some women felt the need to "acquire new and more public identities", however dependent on other factors such as financial resources.[67] While Little Women showed regular lives of American middle-class girls, it also "legitimized" their dreams to do something different and allowed them to consider the possibilities.[68] More young women started writing stories that had adventurous plots and "stories of individual achievement—traditionally coded male—challenged women's socialization into domesticity."[67] Little Women also influenced contemporary European immigrants to the United States who wanted to assimilate into middle-class culture.

In the pages of Little Women, young and adolescent girls read the normalization of ambitious women. This provided an alternative to the previously normalized gender roles.[57] Little Women repeatedly reinforced the importance of "individuality" and "female vocation".[69] 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."[57] Those interested in domestic reform could look to the pages of Little Women to see how a "democratic household" would operate.[70]

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.[71] "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."[7] 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, they would lose their special individuality.[7]

Alcott "made women's rights integral to her stories, and above all to Little Women."[72] Alcott's fiction became her "most important feminist contribution"—even considering all the effort Alcott made to help facilitate women's rights."[72] She thought that "a democratic household could evolve into a feminist society".[73] In Little Women, she imagined that just such an evolution might begin with Plumfield, a nineteenth century feminist utopia.[73]

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.[74]

See also[edit]

  • Orchard House, where Alcott lived while writing Little Women
  • The Wayside, where Alcott and her sisters had formerly (she portrayed scenes from this residence in Little Women)

References[edit]

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  4. ^ a b c d Cheever, Susan (2011). Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography. Simon and Schuster. p. 202. ISBN 9780399118159. 
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