This much-loved girls' novel by Louisa May Alcott was first published in 1868 and has been in print ever since. It tells the story of the March family, who live in poverty but learn that money can't buy happiness.
The novel begins when the father is away working as a chaplain in the American civil war; the mother and daughters work to maintain their home and support themselves. The mother - or "Marmee", as the girls call her - is a wise and pious woman, always ready to guide and counsel her daughters, but willing also to let them discover the hard way - through experience - how to live their lives. The four March girls are the main characters of the story: the eldest, Meg, plump, pretty, and fond of luxury; Jo, the spirited, tempestuous tomboy; frail Beth, kind, forgiving, and gentle; and little Amy, spoiled, a bit of a prig, and given to affectation. Other main characters are the Marches' next-door neighbour, Theodore Laurence, or "Laurie" as the girls call him, orphaned and bored and living with his rich but gruff uncle, Mr Laurence; severe and crotchety Aunt March; Mr Brooke, Laurie's tutor and, eventually, Meg's husband; and Hannah, the servant, presumably black, and though said to be "like one of the family", generally in the kitchen, cooking and cleaning.
Inspired by the saintly Marmee, the March girls strive to be good, and by the second chapter have given up their Christmas meal to a destitute family, the Himmels, whose children exclaim in German that the Marches are angels. Happily, their good deed is rewarded when Mr Laurence, who hears of this sacrifice through the servant grapevine, sends them a surprise Christmas feast.
All the sisters rely on their mother and the book "The Pilgrim's Progress" for daily inspiration and teaching, but try as they might, find it hard to maintain their virtuous ways for long. Meg remembers when the family had money - Mr March lost it helping someone who had fallen on hard times - and yearns for pretty things and an easy life; she tires of the children she cares for as a governess and envies her rich friends their nice silks and jewels. Boyish Jo can't keep her clothes neat, losing her gloves and staining her dresses with wild romping; she also loses her temper regularly and says hurtful things. Beth, though almost too perfect to be true, does have one fault: she is painfully shy, so much so that she can't go to school, and has to be taught at home. Amy is vain about her appearance and puts on airs, dropping malapropisms galore as she tries to appear sophisticated and worldly.
Besides their faults and their poverty, other dark things loom. Marmee must rush to the side of her ailing husband, leaving her daughters to carry on for a time without her. Then Beth contracts scarlet fever through contact with the Himmel's baby, who dies of the disease; Beth herself becomes an invalid. Finally, Meg leaves the family to marry Mr Brook, to the chagrin of Jo, who wishes - not for the first time - that she were a boy so she could marry Meg herself and keep her in the family. (Wonder what I thought when I read this as a girl. Presumably not what I think now: lesbian incest: oh my!)
And then in the sequel, Good Wives (these days usually included as Book II of Little Women, and sold under the same cover), more hard times as the sisters go through the difficult transition from girlhood to womanhood. Most tragically, perhaps, Beth weakens and dies; many girlish tears have been shed at this point in the story over the years, mine among them, I'm not ashamed to say. Laurie confesses his love for Jo, who says she does not reciprocate the feeling and so cannot accept him; Amy eventually snares that prize. Jo misses out on a trip to Europe with relatives because of her sharp tongue, so Amy takes her place and goes for an extended stay abroad. These are the big trials and tribulations that punctuate all the smaller setbacks, snubs, difficulties, and cruelties attendant on any growing up story, particularly when mixed with poverty amongst the genteel rich.
Besides troubles, the girls also have talents - except for Meg, whose talent seems to lie in staying plump and pretty through poverty1. Jo is a writer, and develops her craft as the girls grow up. In the beginning she writes plays which the sisters perform at home for friends and neighbours, Jo taking all the male leads. She works on stories and novels, eventually having them published, and pens, for a time, lurid romances which earn her money but disapprobation from Professor Friedrich "Fritz" Bhaer, a portly German gentleman she meets at a New York boarding house where she is living; Jo will eventually marry him instead of the dashing, rich, and young Laurie. Beth, meanwhile, is fond of music; Mr Laurence gives her a piano, and she plays and sings in the evenings, the family gathered around and joining in. And Amy is artistic; she draws, paints, and sculpts, and though she eventually realizes she has no genius, her natural talent is enough to make her the envy of the other, richer girls she attends school with. So the industrious March household seems almost like an artist's colony, blissfully together through the first book, then sadly pulled to separate homes by the end.
The story draws to a close as the surviving daughters and their children - for yes, they all have children - are gathered around their mother on her 60th birthday, their husbands, as usual, peripheral but present.
Louisa May Alcott was not fond of this book or its sequels, Little Men and Jo's Boys. She thought them "moral pap for children", and only wrote the first at the urging of her publisher, who wanted a "girls' book" from her. She dashed off a chapter a day, and when she was done both she and her publisher considered the story "flat" and "dull". To their surprise, it was a huge success, and it made Louisa rich and famous overnight.
Why was the book so successful? I asked myself this question as I picked it up to reread it recently. As a girl I probably devoured this book more than a dozen times, as children will, but I hadn't read it in decades. I found it truly insipid at times - Marmee and Beth are particularly sappy - but still entertaining and moving, even as it wound to its inevitable happy ending.
For children, it's no doubt helpful that the book is nicely paced, each chapter a little vignette that sets up a scene and resolves it. It's written in a clear, easy to read style and presents a realistic view of New England life. And for girls, the completeness of the "world of women" is pleasing: even Mr March, when he finally does get home, is virtually a non-presence, and the life of the book revolves from the "little women" themselves. Though the sisters succumb, in the end, to marriage and family - even strong-willed Jo leaves her writing aside as she pitches in to help her Fritz set up a boy's school - they have talents and interests and jobs and a life apart from the life of men for the bulk of the story.
Then too the strong moral overtones are pleasing and instructive, even if sometimes bending the girls into confining female roles: be nice to your sisters, don't tell lies, don't be selfish, be charitable, you can't buy happiness, etc. etc. Sure, it's trite, but it works well as a life lesson, and is easier to take than that smarmy Pollyanna, always looking for the silver lining behind every cloud. It's not always happy for the Marches - they fight, they're poor, they get sick and even die, but still they pull together as a family, with love. It's a happy, rosy picture, particularly for those of us whose families weren't so happy.
Many people read "Little Women" simplistically as an autobiography because Alcott based the book loosely on the experiences of her own family.
Like the Marches, the Alcotts had four daughters: Anna, Louisa, Lizzie, and May. Jo March was in some respects modelled on Louisa herself: both were tomboys, both writers. Superficially, Louisa's sisters were somewhat like Jo's: both Lizzie and Beth died young; Anna and Meg married first, while May and Amy married well. But May married a rich European, for there was no rich Laurie next door. (Though the Alcott children did enjoy the rather more adult company of their father's famous and generous friends, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau).
Marmee was probably more angelic than Louisa's own mother, Abigail ("Abba"), but it was easier for her to be so, for the fictional mother did not have to contend as the real one did with an impractical philosopher husband, Bronson Alcott. Bronson, like Mr March, squandered the family's money, though he did so by pursuing radical projects. A transcendalist with strong ideas about educational reform, he opened a number of experimental schools and took part in several utopian communal experiments, all of which ultimately failed; both Thoreau and Emerson provided material aid to bail out the family on several occasions. As in the book, it was left to Abba and the girls to work to support the family; Louisa became a writer, she would later say, to compensate for the deprivations of her childhood.
In all, the fictional Marches are a sanitized and idealized version of the real-life Alcotts. The mostly absent Mr March was nothing like the dominant Bronson, and Louisa herself was not completely like Jo. For one thing, Louisa, unlike Jo, never married; it seems likely that the real woman only repressed what the fictional woman completely renounced: lesbianism. (For Louisa, it was repressed, though, for she was likely firmly closeted and probably never "active"). But those lesbian tendencies are pretty hard to mistake to modern eyes, and Little Women was voted one of the 100 best gay and lesbian novels of all time by the "Publishing Triangle".
"Little Women" has come to the silver screen several times, most notably in 1933, with Katherine Hepburn as Jo and Joan Bennett as Amy; in 1949, with Janet Leigh as Meg, June Allyson as Jo, Margaret O'Brien as Beth, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy (!), and Peter Lawford as Laurie; and most recently in Gillian Armstrong's 1994 version, with Winona Ryder as Jo, Claire Danes as Beth, Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis as younger and older Amy, Christian Bale as Laurie, and Susan Sarandon as Marmee. This latter is the only one I've seen, and it takes a number of liberties with the story in order to bring it closer into line with Alcott's own life.
The entire text of Little Women is available at many places on the web, including xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/ALCOTT/LWTEXT.html. There is also a chapter summary at xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/ALCOTT/summary.html
My copy of Little Women, with afterword by Nina Auerbach
1Demeter writes indignantly: "Meg does so have a talent - she's a marvellous actress - her younger daughter inherits it and goes on to become famous." I stand corrected.