Louisa May Alcott was born on November 29, 1832, in Germantown, Pennsylvania, where her father, Bronson Alcott-a transcendentalist philosopher and an educator-directed a school for small children. Bronson later founded the Temple School in Boston, but public opposition to his radical methods and a declining enrollment forced him to close the school and incur a large debt. Suffering financially, the Alcotts eventually moved to Concord, Massachusetts, where Bronson tried to support the family by farming a small piece of land. This endeavor, too, failed. When Bronson became ill and suffered a nervous breakdown, Alcott assumed various domestic jobs, took in sewing, and ran a small school to provide financial support for her mother, Abigail, and the rest of the family. An advocate of women’s rights, Alcott remained unmarried in an age when marriage and motherhood were considered the central events of a woman’s life, and achieved such a degree of literary success that she was able to pay off the family’s huge debt with royalties from her writing.
Little Women is a well-told story that features suspense, humor, and engaging characters, as well as lessons about the importance of honesty, hard work, true love, and family unity. Brilliant in its portrayal of nineteenth-century American family life, the novel depicts a secure, placid world in which the home serves as the center for children’s religious and moral education.
Little Women is set in the 1860s in a New England town modeled on Concord, Massachusetts. Most of the action in Part I revolves around the March family home. With Father away, serving as a clergyman for soldiers fighting in the Civil War, the four daughters and their mother remain at home, struggling to live as comfortably as possible under the circumstances. Because Father lost most of his income helping an “unfortunate friend,” the March girls-none of whom had expected to pursue careers-work feverishly to support the family and, in the process, confront conflicts between domestic duties and independence. The setting broadens in Part II as Alcott describes the girls’ travels away from home and their eventual marriages.
Like John Bunyan’s allegorical work Pilgrim’s Progress, in which Christian faces many obstacles in his journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, Alcott’s novel chronicles the four March girls’ efforts to overcome individual character flaws and thereby become “little women.” Sixteen-year-old Meg, who cares too much about her appearance and too little about work, must learn to devote more time to her family and less time to dreaming of a life of glamour and luxury. Fifteen-year-old Jo’s burden is her violent temper. An adventurous, rebellious, spirited girl who writes plays, poems, and short stories, she must reconcile herself to being a girl of poise, grace, and patience. Thirteen-year-old Beth, an excellent pianist, must overcome her shyness. Ten-year-old Amy, artistically talented but impractical, must overcome her thoughtlessness and learn to help others.
In writing Little Women, Alcott broke much new ground while adhering, structurally, to many conventions of mid-nineteenth-century young adult literature. The novel is an unusual example of young adult literature of the time because Alcott endows her characters with both faults and virtues; avoids preaching to the reader; writes in a simple but accurate style; employs simple and often humorous dialogue; and demonstrates great skill as a local colorist. Little Women is typical of young adult books of the time in that it is episodic in structure, with chapters often devoted to individual sisters. Each sister’s quest to overcome her “burden” in life, to become a “little woman,” and to find true love serves as the unifying theme of the novel.
Although Alcott herself was politically active and cared deeply about the social and ethical issues of her time, she preferred to keep Little Women on a happy, domestic level. She includes only the subtlest of references to women’s suffrage, abolition of slavery, the temperance movement, educational reform, and social welfare programs. There is relatively little violence in the novel and there are no “evil” characters. Compared with modern young adult literature, Little Women portrays a safe world, seemingly free of sexual relations, drug abuse, or divorce. Alcott emphasizes good behavior and honest hard work as solutions to personal and societal problems. Modern critics, however, have questioned traditional interpretations of Little Women, noting Alcott’s anger at the subjugation of women to domestic roles. Jo, Alcott’s strongest character, forges through life determined to be independent, and in Alcott’s later novels, Jo counsels young women to seek careers rather than matrimony.
There are two sequels to Little Women. Little Men is set at Plumfield School, which Jo and her husband run according to educational theories similar to those espoused by Bronson Alcott. Jo’s Boys is also set at Plumfield. Both sequels were written primarily to satisfy the public’s demand to know more about the March family.