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.
At the end of Part I, Father returns home on Christmas Day and evaluates his daughters’ year-long struggles to emulate Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress. He is pleased with what he sees. Meg is less vain. Jo is less boyish, more ladylike and quiet. Beth has recovered from scarlet fever and is gradually conquering her shyness. And Amy is less selfish, less concerned with her appearance.
Mr. March is away from home during the first half of the novel, and even after his return, he remains in the background of the narrative. His presence is felt rather than seen. In his absence, Marmee runs the March household and guides the girls when they are confused or troubled. She is selfless, devoted to her family, and always available when needed. Like Jo, she has a temper, but she keeps it under control.
Next door to the Marches live wealthy Mr. Laurence and his grandson Theodore, called “Laurie,” both of whom contribute much excitement and adventure to the lives of the March girls. In his generosity, Mr. Laurence throws a Christmas party for the girls, gives Beth a piano, and offers Jo access to his vast library. His grandson is as wild and adventurous as Jo but is also studious and a lover of music. In Part II, Laurie proposes marriage to Jo, is refused, and later marries Amy.
While emphasizing young people’s right to independence, the novel also celebrates the importance of family unity. Beth expresses this theme when she describes her greatest desire: “…to stay home safe with Father and Mother, and help take care of the family. … I only wish we may all keep well and be together, nothing else.” Disaster usually takes the form of a threat to the family circle; Alcott addresses large-scale problems such as the Civil War by examining the effect of Father’s absence on the March family.
Death is an omnipresent threat, with several instances of near-disaster foreshadowing Beth’s ultimate demise in Part II. Early in the novel, when Amy burns the book of fairy stories on which Jo has been working for several years, Jo almost drowns her youngest sister. Father is hospitalized with pneumonia while away on service, and Marmee is sent for to care for her husband. While the shadow of death hovers over the home, Jo says, “I feel as if there had been an earthquake,” and Meg comments that “it seems as if half the house was gone.” Father recovers, but all the characters must confront the tragedy of Beth’s death. Through these potentially devastating trials, the family pulls together and grows even stronger.
Alcott develops three major themes in the novel: ambition, domesticity, and true love. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry,” Alcott wrote in her journal following publication of the novel’s first part, “as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.” Having created Jo in her own image, Alcott was strongly tempted to end Part II of the novel with Jo a spinster. Torn between independence and family life, ambition and self-sacrifice, Jo harbors an ambivalent attitude toward marriage. On the one hand, she thinks it would be difficult to “give up her own hopes, plans and desires, and cheerfully live for others.” But she also comes to realize that “the life I wanted then seems selfish, lonely and cold.” After rejecting Laurie’s proposal of marriage, Jo compromises and marries the “learned and good” Professor Fritz Bhaer, a big, middle-aged German. Fritz’s love for Jo enables him to surmount the potential barriers posed by his poverty, age, and foreign heritage; he is a warm and supportive husband who encourages Jo to learn to write good fiction. Eventually Jo raises two children of her own and helps her husband in the operation of Plumfield, a school for boys.
Married life for John and Meg Brooke, meanwhile, is quite different from the life Meg knew at home. Dependent upon her husband’s income for all of her expenses, both household and personal, Meg sometimes behaves like an impulsive child. John does not share in the domestic chores, except for disciplining their son. Meg’s challenge is to overcome her docility-the trait that has allowed her to become dependent and even somewhat dowdy, living in a little cottage with her two children, isolated from the rest of the world. After Marmee reminds Meg that a strong marriage is built upon mutual interests and responsibilities, Meg begins to pay more attention to her clothing, tries to keep up on current affairs, and works toward establishing an egalitarian marriage.
Amy continues to struggle against her burden of frivolity. She and Laurie spend time together in Europe; both are fashionable, talented, and inclined to indolence and coquetry. Amy paints and Laurie plays the piano. When they return from Europe, they announce their romance.