Little Women is prefaced by an excerpt from John Bunyan’s seventeenth-century novel The Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegorical, or symbolic, novel about living a Christian life. The excerpt concerns the novel’s female character, Mercy, not its main male character, Christian, indicating that Alcott’s novel will be a guide for young girls.
I’ll try and be what he loves to call me, “a little woman,” and not be rough and wild; but do my duty here instead of wanting to be somewhere else.
One December evening in the mid-nineteenth century, the March girls—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—sit at home, bewailing their poverty. The March family used to be wealthy, but Mr. March lost his money. This year, his daughters expect no Christmas presents. Meg admits to wanting presents anyway. Similarly, Jo, the bookworm, yearns for a copy of Undine and Sintram, a book of two German tales. Beth wants new music, and Amy sighs for drawing pencils. Meg, who works as a nanny, and Jo, who works as a companion to Aunt March, complain about their jobs. Meanwhile, Beth complains about having to do the housekeeping, and Amy complains that she does not have a nice nose.
The girls decide that they will each buy themselves a present in order to brighten their Christmas. Soon, however, they change their minds and resolve to buy presents for their mother, Marmee, instead. They then discuss Jo’s play, “The Witch’s Curse,” which they will perform on Christmas Day. While they talk, Marmee comes home with a letter from Mr. March, who is serving as a Union chaplain in the Civil War. The letter reminds his little women to be good, which makes them feel ashamed of their earlier complaining. They resolve to bear their burdens more cheerfully. Meg’s burden is her vanity, Jo’s is her temper, Beth’s is her housework, and Amy’s is her selfishness. Marmee suggests that the sisters pretend they are playing pilgrims, a game from the girls’ childhood in which they act out scenes from John Bunyan’s didactic novel The Pilgrim’s Progress. In this game, each girl shoulders a burden and tries to make her way to the Celestial City. Bunyan’s novel and the game are both allegories of living a Christian life. The physical burdens stand for real-life burdens, and the Celestial City stands for heaven. The sisters agree to try the game again, but this time by practicing Christian values in their real lives. They all sing before bedtime.
On Christmas morning, the girls wake to find books under their pillows. Jo and Meg go downstairs to find Marmee, but the family servant, Hannah, tells her that Marmee has gone to aid poor neighbors. When Marmee returns, she asks her daughters to give their delicious Christmas breakfast to the starving Hummel family. The girls agree to do so and end up enjoying the good work they have done. That evening, they perform their play, in which Jo gets to play male roles. After the performance, the girls come downstairs to find a feast laid out on the table with fresh flowers and ice cream. Mr. Laurence, their neighbor, had heard of the family’s charitable morning and sent the feast to reward their generosity. Jo wants to meet Mr. Laurence’s grandson.
Jo reads in the attic with her pet rat, Scrabble, while eating apples. Meg comes to her and tells her that the two of them have been invited to a New Year’s Eve party at the home of Meg’s friend, Sallie Gardiner. Meg is very excited, but does not know what to wear. Unlike Meg, Jo is not particularly excited, but agrees to go anyway. Problems plague the girls as they get ready for the party. Jo burns Meg’s hair while trying to curl it, and Meg decides to wear shoes that are too tight. Jo must wear a dress that is burned on the back, and she must hold her gloves balled up in her hand in order to hide the lemonade stains that cover them. Meg cares a great deal about social etiquette and has formed a code for her blundering sister: Meg tells Jo that she will raise her eyebrows at the party if Jo is doing anything improper, and she will nod if Jo is acting ladylike.
At the party, Jo hangs back, not knowing anyone. Finally, fearing that a boy is going to ask her to dance, Jo slips behind a curtain. There, she runs into her neighbor, the Laurence boy, who soon introduces himself as Laurie. The two chat and become very comfortable with each other. They dance, but out of the way of everyone else in order to hide Jo’s dress. Meg sprains her ankle, and Laurie offers to take her and Jo home in his carriage. When they arrive home, Meg and Jo tell their younger sisters all about the party.