In Chapter 35, in an extremely unusual literary event, Jo rejects Laurie’s offer of marriage. Literary works are inevitably influenced by the values of the society in which their authors live, and at the time Alcott wrote, society did not look kindly on women who turned down eligible men. Women were expected to accept as their destiny the roles of wife and mother, and to dismiss any ideas of living an independent life that rejected these conventional roles. For this reason, very few female characters in literature from before the twentieth century display the sort of assertiveness and expression of individual desires that modern society, for the most part, values in women. It is therefore extremely significant that Jo rejects Laurie despite the fact that he is handsome, kind, loving, and rich, and that she rejects him for no other reason than that she does not love him as she wants to love a husband. Alcott depicts this decision as admirable. As Laurie says, everyone expects the marriage to happen—not only the characters in Little Women, but also everyone in the reading audience. Yet Alcott shows us that a strong woman is perfectly within her rights to flout the expectations of society.
In keeping with Alcott’s progressive ideas about female roles in society, scholar Elizabeth Lennox Keyser has suggested that Beth’s death results almost necessarily from the fact that the society in which she lives is evolving and thus rendering outdated the traditional values to which she clings outdated. Beth’s quiet and old-fashioned character symbolically cannot survive in a world in which women begin to demand more from life than housework. She seems to have no place in the future and, by extension, no place in the second half of the novel.
Eager for her characters and her story not to be flat, Alcott attempts to show life’s complexities by exploring both the positive and the negative aspects of certain experiences and attitudes. She realistically depicts marriage as a mixture of love, grumpiness, miscommunication, and gradual improvement. Similarly, she depicts Jo’s separateness as a mixture of independence and loneliness. Earlier, Meg and John seem to be growing apart; now, however, they strike a balance in their relationship and begin to appreciate it again. Conversely, Jo, who earlier revels in her rebellious nature and defiance of social convention, now begins to envy Meg’s family and see marriage in a more positive light. By putting her characters through this flux of emotion and attitude, Alcott makes her characters more realistic.
Alcott characterizes Meg and John’s twins along traditional gender lines, which seems to reflect her understanding that progress toward a greater role for women would be achieved only gradually. Daisy is a stereotypical girl, while Demi is a stereotypical boy, who often tries to control his sister. While the family considers Demi’s domination sweet, this behavior perpetuates the gender roles that Alcott has blurred with some success in the preceding generation, that of the March girls and Laurie.