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.