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.
After the holiday festivities, the girls find going back to their jobs difficult. Meg does not want to look after the King children, whom she baby-sits, and Jo is reluctant to tend to Aunt March, for Aunt March makes Jo read boring books aloud. Though Aunt March is strict with Jo, Jo does like her; both women are stubborn and determined. Jo loves the book collection Uncle March left behind—she feels that it compensates for having to read to Aunt March.
The shyest March sister, Beth, stays home, does housework dutifully, and takes care of her doll collection, most of which is damaged in some way. Little Amy goes to school and grieves over her flat nose. The girls are all friends, but Amy is special to Meg, and Beth is special to Jo. When the sisters are finished with work, they tell stories from the day to entertain each other. Marmee gives a lecture on being grateful for one’s blessings. Jo playfully quotes Aunt Chloe, a character from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who urges her listeners to be grateful for their blessings.
One winter afternoon, Jo goes outside to shovel a path in the snow. While she is outside, she sees Laurie in a window. She throws a snowball at the window to get his attention. Laurie leans out and tells Jo that he has been ill. Feeling sorry for him, Jo says she will go keep him company if it is all right with her mother. Marmee permits her to go, and Jo arrives at Laurie’s house with food, kittens, and trinkets to make him feel better. They chat and laugh all afternoon. Laurie tells Jo that he is lonely and longs to be friends with her family. To Jo’s delight, Laurie shows her his grandfather’s library. When Laurie must leave to see the doctor, Jo stays in the room. Mr. Laurence comes in, and Jo, thinking he is Laurie, speaks somewhat disparagingly of a painting of Mr. Laurence. Luckily, Mr. Laurence enjoys Jo’s candor, and they become fast friends. He invites Jo to stay for tea, feeling that this companionship is just what Laurie needs. After tea, Laurie plays the piano for Jo. This activity upsets Mr. Laurence, who does not want Laurie to pursue music. Jo goes home and tells her family all about the lovely day and the gorgeous house.
Little Women begins with each of the March daughters making a statement that reveals her personality. With these differing statements, Alcott establishes the framework for an exploration into the different ways the girls grow up. Jo speaks first, showing that she is the most outspoken of the four. Meg’s admission that she hates being poor reveals her tendency to be materialistic. Although she is a very virtuous girl, Meg craves luxury. Amy also loathes her poverty; she adores lovely things and wants to own them. The least selfish sister, Beth, often functions as the conscience of the group. Her happy remark that at least the girls have each other and their parents reveals that although Beth, like her sisters, wants what she does not have, she is content to count her blessings.
As Chapter 1 progresses, we learn more about the girls’ individual tastes and quirks. Jo is a tomboy who “grabs the heels of her boots in a gentlemanly manner,” teases Amy, and dreads the thought of being made to grow up and behave primly and properly. She longs to fight in the Civil War. Meg is motherly, gently reproving her sisters when they quarrel and complain. Beth is the loving peacemaker. Amy is charming and feminine, if vain and mannered.
Over the course of the novel, Alcott develops these girls as separate individuals. The obstacles they face are usually a result of their respective traits, and the trouble one sister faces would not have the same effect on another. Many critics have noted that Alcott’s four girls are different from each other so that every reader may identify with at least one sister and glean some wisdom from that sister’s blunders. Alcott’s novel can thus be seen as a guide for her readers, just as Pilgrim’s Progress is a guide for the March girls.
From the outset, Alcott explores the March girls’ discomfort with their domestic situation. The novel begins with the four girls, their mother, and an absent father. The dissatisfaction the sisters feel at the beginning of the novel seems to stem just as much from the absence of their father as it does from the pangs of anticipating a poverty-stricken Christmas. The girls’ desire for presents is not just materialistic. Their opening lines constitute direct and unusual statements of female desire. All of the March sisters want something greater than the limited existence that nineteenth-century society offers young women; they are not content to do the mundane chores appropriated to them.
Mr. March’s letter inspires the girls to bear their burdens more calmly, illustrating that, from the outset, the March sisters’ task is to become more humble, good, and dutiful. Alcott does not consider this project trifling, even though it occurs in a domestic sphere. By making her characters imitate Pilgrim’s Progress, a novel in which the male character has grand adventures, Alcott elevates women’s everyday lives and indicates that the struggles of ordinary women are as important as the struggles of adventuring men.
Jo is immediately characterized as the most adventuresome, independent sister. She resists the role of typical adult female and tries to carve out a separate space for herself as a different kind of woman. She writes her own plays and creates for herself new roles in which she can play the hero—the sort of role typically reserved for a male character. Jo’s difference from her sisters and other women, however, is as isolating as it is freeing. Jo writes in the attic, apart from the rest of the family, as though she is trying to leave society. In her quest to flout society’s rules for women, Jo must be spiritually alone, as symbolized by her physical isolation in the attic. Additionally, Jo wears a burned dress to the New Year’s Eve ball; the dress, a symbol of traditional femininity, is marred by the burns, which symbolize Jo’s own objections to traditional femininity.
When Jo discovers Laurie at the Gardiners’ party, she finds a friend who is very similar to herself, especially in his nonconformity to gender roles. Jo hates her given name, Josephine, because she thinks it too feminine and “sentimental.” Laurie dislikes his given name, Theodore, because his friends tease him and call him “Dora.” Both Jo and Laurie instead take on androgynous nicknames that are not specifically male or female. Furthermore, just as Jo shies away from stereotypically feminine activities in favor of stereotypically masculine ones, Laurie pursues music, which was considered a feminine pursuit at the time, instead of business, the masculine activity his grandfather wishes him to pursue. Both Jo and Laurie thwart the gender stereotypes of their time and the expectations of their families. Because of their differences from other people and their similarities to one another, they seem to belong together.