After describing the novel’s setting and the March sisters, the narrator of Little Women says, “What the characters of the four sisters were, we will leave to be found out.” As the novel’s coming-of-age plot unfolds, the sisters, along with the novel’s readers, discover who they are. Each gradually comes to understand herself—flaws and strengths, temptations and nobler desires—within a social context offering certain opportunities and barring others. Each of the novel’s primary characters, including Laurie, struggles to balance desires for life with what life demands, and each succeeds in finding a personal resolution through growth.
The novel’s inciting incident occurs as the sisters mope during the Christmas season. Each girl wishes that life were different, and each has a different complaint. Spurred on by Beth, the sisters decide to shoulder their burdens without complaint, to become the “little women” their father encourages them to be. The rising action examines how each sister achieves this goal, learning from her successes and failures. Each must find a way to fill a social role while remaining true to herself. Together, Meg, Beth, Amy, and Jo travel along the novel’s narrative arc, each with her own story, including its own climax and resolution.
For Meg, the eldest, challenges arise because she compares her life with the lives of more privileged girls. Many are from wealthy families, enjoy daily luxuries, and do not have to work as Meg does, caring for young children. The time period’s social structure assumed that caring for children came naturally to all women, yet Meg finds the work irksome. She initially gazes up the social ladder, envious, but events change her perspective. She discovers, as a guest of the Moffats, that wealth can lead to snobbery and laziness, and she becomes aware of families that struggle with daily needs, like the Hummels. With gentle, self-sacrificing Marmee as her model, Meg gradually abandons the idea that she should marry for wealth, embracing the challenges of life with a man she loves and who loves her. The climax, for Meg, comes as she defends John Brooke to Aunt March, choosing a loving home where work is endless to a loveless home in which only servants labor. Later, the novel reveals troubles in Meg and John’s marriage, showing that, even with love, marriage requires commitment and forgiveness.
For Beth, the rising action is bittersweet and muted. Naturally shy and loving, Beth, the family’s “Mouse,” can hardly bear attention. She carries her load of chores, but it exhausts her. She does the right thing even when she must do it alone, and it costs her dearly. Beth overcomes her shyness somewhat, and her attachment to Jo helps Jo become a better version of herself. Sisterhood and female influence were, in mid-nineteenth-century America, the natural realm of women, yet Beth’s fragile health and timidity foreshadow her inability to endure the rigors of childbearing and motherhood. Mr. Laurence’s gift of his late granddaughter’s piano foreshadows Beth’s fate. The child-woman who mothers her broken dolls tries to help mother the Hummel children, leading to her own illness and death. Through no fault of her own, Beth cannot fulfill the social role assigned to a young woman of her class, and her death serves as the climax of her narrative, releasing her from social expectations.
For Amy, the sister least like Beth, the rising action humbles her before she finds her social role. Vain, shallow, and pretty enough to charm her way through life, Amy must confront her self-interested nature when Beth nearly dies. Though Amy is unable to comfort her sister during this illness, it forces her to recognize the frivolousness of her own desires. After she has this realization, Amy is able to travel with Aunt Carrol to Europe, to view beautiful art and scenery, without letting it go to her head. Her story’s climax occurs when she rejects Fred’s proposal, showing that the wealth that had been her goal—wealth that would bring abundant beauty into her life—fades in importance as she learns what she really values. Her story’s falling action integrates with Laurie’s as they discover that they are in love. Laurie makes it clear, too, that Amy will not be a mere ornament in his home but a partner in his life’s work.
Jo, of all the March sisters, is perhaps the most developed as she reflects aspects of Alcott’s own personality. A writer and rebel, Jo feels ill at ease with social expectations for women. She is plagued with anger at the way things are but learns that Marmee, who often feels angry, too, has channeled this energy into service to others. Neither Beth, Amy, nor even Meg understand what drives Jo, but Jo discovers a kindred spirit in Laurie, and as Jo comes to understand herself, she accepts that she cannot have things her own way. She can sell her writing, yet she must tailor it to the market. She can insist on behaving brashly, yet she will pay a cost when ladylike Aunt Carrol chooses Amy for the trip to Europe. Wealth might offer Jo what she needs to live as she likes–in ways considered eccentric for women of her day–so her story’s climax comes when she refuses Laurie’s proposal. He is her dear friend, nearly her brother, but he is not the husband she needs. By rejecting Laurie’s wealth, Jo remains true to herself and is freed to develop affection for Professor Bhaer, the kind but poor man who appeals to both her mind and heart.
Laurie—as if Alcott is suggesting that young, wealthy men also must struggle to balance their desires against social expectations—has his own narrative arc. He wants to follow a path other than the one his wealthy grandfather has laid out. Already wealthy, Laurie is to inherit even greater wealth, yet learning to administer the estate burdens him. He would rather play—at his music, at his leisure. When Jo, who shares his spirited nature, encourages Laurie to run away, Meg persuades him that people of privilege have a role to play in society. Later, with Amy’s help, he charts a philanthropic and compassionate course.
All five young characters have lessons for readers of Alcott’s day and of today. Although social expectations have certainly changed since the novel’s debut, the central conflict remains: as adolescents move into young adulthood, they learn more about their weaknesses, strengths, and gifts. They must negotiate a path into adulthood through social opportunities and barriers, yet still honor their genuine characters. The perfect “happily ever after” situation may elude them, but, as the March sisters’ stories suggest, the resolution to the conflict is to be true to one’s self, while also being faithful to others, a resolution that arrives only through growth offered by sometimes painful experience.