Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
In Little Women, music has an interesting relationship to a character’s degree of conformity. For the March girls, the more musically inclined a sister is, the more traditionally feminine and adherent to feminine duty she is. Marmee sings to the girls all the time, and she embodies the ideal dutiful and domestic mother. Beth, similarly, is both very musical and very passive. In contrast, Amy has a bad voice and Jo has the worst voice of all; both girls are independent and impatient with the limitations placed on women. Interestingly, Laurie also likes music and wants to be a professional musician, but this interest makes him ill-adapted to the role expected of him as a man.
Many of the characters in Little Women are teachers, reinforcing the idea that the novel is didactic and that we are supposed to learn from the novel’s lessons. Mr. March, for example, is a minister, and he instructs his congregation. Marmee, a good transcendentalist mother, reinforces the teaching of her husband. Mr. Brooke and Professor Bhaer, two men whom March girls marry, are teachers by profession. In the end, Jo inherits Plumfield, Aunt March’s house, and she and Bhaer turn it into a school for boys. The frequent interaction that the novel’s characters have with teaching—both giving and learning lessons—reflects the structured society in which they live.
Language appears throughout the novel in an interesting inverse relationship with creativity: the more proper the language one of the March girls uses, the less creative and independent she is. Beth does not talk much, for example, and Meg uses proper language; both are typically feminine women, and their relationship to language reflects their alignment with what society expects of them. In contrast, Jo swears and Amy mispronounces words. These two, the independent artists of the family, resist conforming to the behavior that society expects of them, including the use of proper and delicate speech.