Why does Alcott alternate between stories about each of the four March sisters throughout Little Women?
On the surface, the novel presents us with four different young girls so that every reader can identify with at least one of them and learn from their mistakes. In this way, Little Women resembles a didactic novel, a work meant to teach moral lessons. Besides showcasing different kinds of heroines, the four March sisters’ stories each stand for the different options a woman had in the 1860s: she could stay at home, like Beth; she could marry, like Meg; she could become a modern and successful woman, like Amy; or she could struggle with her professional life and her personal life, like Jo.
Many readers claim Jo as their favorite, and it seems as though Alcott may have been doing more in Little Women than just introducing and developing four distinct possible female types. Jo is the only character whose personality most readers like more before she reforms and becomes more stereotypically feminine. With the character of Jo, Alcott creates a new sort of heroine, one who is flawed and human—and infinitely more lovable for those flaws.
Discuss the term “little women.” What does the term say about the status of American women in the 1860s?
A common term in the Victorian era, “little women” is used as a term of endearment in the novel. Mr. March calls his daughters “little women” in the letter he sends them from the war. On the surface, the term indicates the time between being a girl and being a woman, a time that the novel portrays in the lives of the March sisters. However, “little” is also a diminutive word. It is interesting that Alcott uses such a word when she seems interested in enlarging the status of women in general. The novel is also crowded with references to physical size: Jo, for example, is always described as large. She has big feet, and her hands stretch out Meg’s gloves. Additionally, Amy tells Jo that there is “more of [her]” than there is of Amy.
But beyond her physical dimensions, Jo dreams big, and throughout the story she is the sister with the most individual, creative promise. Conversely, Meg is a very conventional girl; likewise, her shoes are described as too tight, and her house with John as too cramped. Alcott mirrors Meg’s limitations with the limitations of her surroundings, suggesting that, in general, women are strictly confined. Through the use of the term “little women,” Alcott may be suggesting that a woman’s role is too small and confining for Jo, as doubtless it was for many women of her day.
Discuss the role of the Civil War in Little Women. Who goes to the war, and who wants to? Why does Alcott deliberately put such a big war so far in the background of her story?
The Civil War is never even mentioned by name in Little Women. At the beginning of the novel, all we know is that Mr. March is “far away, where the fighting [is].” At the beginning of the novel, Jo laments that she cannot participate in the action of the war; only men, such as Mr. March, can go. From that point on, we do not hear too much about the war except when Mr. March is sick. Instead, Alcott focuses heavily on domestic issues and personal matters in the lives of the March sisters. This situation is the opposite of that found in many men’s novels of the time; in those novels, the war features prominently and matters of everyday life are de-emphasized. Since women were usually at home doing something mundane, their stories got lost in such male-dominated works. In Little Women, Alcott spotlights the women and the homefront; she puts the men aside in order to tell women’s stories. In one striking example, Laurie is shown as the male outsider who longs to join the all-female March circle. This situation contrasts with the beginning of the novel, when Jo wants to join the men’s circle of fighting. In her novel, Alcott documents women and their domestic lives, and shows that they are just as important and worthy of focus as men and their pursuits.
Read more about the American Civil War.