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.