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.
Alcott’s application of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress reflects both the traditional and the innovative strains in her work. By structuring the moral development of her characters around the story of the pilgrim who travels from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City-facing internal and external demons en route to his destination-Alcott combines allegorical tradition with nineteenth-century literary techniques. Alcott fleshes out Bunyan’s one-dimensional Christian in the forms of her protagonists. Her characterization of Jo in particular offers a portrait of a complex young woman who struggles to reconcile the goals of her own “pilgrim’s progress” with the expectations of her society.
In her preface to Little Women, Alcott restates a portion of Bunyan’s allegorical work; the novel’s first chapter also makes explicit reference to Bunyan’s text, as Mrs. March reminds her daughters of their childhood game of “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Mrs. March later urges the girls to take up the game again, “not in play, but in earnest.” Alcott suggests that the quest for a morally fulfilling life can be achieved through a conscious effort to overcome individual faults. “We never are too old for this, my dear,” she says, “because it is a play we are playing all the time in one way or another. Our burdens are here, our road is before us, and the longing for goodness and happiness is the guide that leads us through many troubles and mistakes to the peace which is a true Celestial City.” Just as Mrs. March presents each of her daughters with an individual copy of Pilgrim’s Progress, so too does Alcott intend her novel to be a handbook for her young readers. The last chapter of Little Women shows the sisters gathered at Jo’s school to assess their progress as pilgrims; by concluding the book with this scene, Alcott lends structural unity to her novel.