The main character of Little Women, Jo is an outspoken tomboy with a passion for writing. Her character is based in large part on Louisa May Alcott herself. Jo refuses Laurie’s offer of marriage, despite the fact that everyone assumes they will end up together. In the end, Jo gives up her writing and marries Professor Bhaer, which can be seen either as a domestic triumph or as a professional loss, since Jo loses her headstrong independence.
Because she displays good and bad traits in equal measure, Jo is a very unusual character for nineteenth-century didactic fiction. Jo’s bad traits—her rebelliousness, anger, and outspoken ways—do not make her unappealing; rather, they suggest her humanity. Jo is a likely precursor to a whole slew of lovably flawed heroes and heroines of children’s books, among them Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer.
The third March sister, Beth is very shy and quiet. Like Meg, she always tries to please other people, and like Jo, she is concerned with keeping the family together. Beth struggles with minor faults, such as her resentment for the housework she must do.
Beth resembles an old-fashioned heroine like those in the novels of the nineteenth-century English author Charles Dickens. Beth is a good person, but she is also a shade too angelic to survive in Alcott’s more realistic fictional world. With Beth’s death, Alcott lets an old type of heroine die off. The three surviving March sisters are strong enough to live in the changing real world.
Beth is close to Jo; outgoing Jo and quiet Beth both have antisocial tendencies. Neither of them wants to live in the world the way it is, with women forced to conform to social conventions of female behavior. Similarly, it is not surprising that Meg and Amy are particularly close to each other, since generous Meg and selfish Amy both find their places within a gendered world.
The youngest March sister, Amy is an artistic beauty who is good at manipulating other people. Unlike Jo, Amy acts as a perfect lady because it pleases her and those around her. She gets what she wants in the end: popularity, the trip to Europe, and Laurie. Amy serves as a foil—a character whose attitudes or emotions contrast with, and thereby accentuate, those of another character—for Jo, who refuses to submit to the conventions of ladyhood. Both artists struggle to balance society’s expectations with their own natural inclinations. The more genuine of the two and the more generous, Jo compares favorably to Amy. Both characters, however, are more lovable and real for their flaws.
The oldest March sister, Meg battles her girlish weakness for luxury and money, and ends up marrying a poor man she loves. Meg represents the conventional and good; she is similar to her mother, for whom she was named. Meg sometimes tries to alter who she is in order to please other people, a trait that comes forth when she allows other girls to dress her up like a rich girl at her friend Annie Moffat’s house. She becomes an agreeable housewife, pretending to like politics because her husband does, and forgoing luxury because her husband is poor.
The Marches’ charming, fun, and intelligent next-door neighbor, Laurie becomes particularly close to Jo but ends up marrying Amy. In between the publication of Part One and Part Two, Alcott received many letters asking her to marry Jo to Laurie. Perhaps to simultaneously please her readers and teach them a lesson, Alcott had Jo get married, but not to Laurie.
Laurie struggles with his grandfather’s expectations of him, in a similar manner to the way Jo struggles with becoming a lady. Laurie is not manly enough for his grandfather because he does not want to enter the business world. Likewise, Jo is not feminine enough for her sisters because she swears, soils her gloves, and speaks her mind at all times.