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Alcott prefaces Little
Women with an excerpt from John Bunyan’s seventeenth-century
work The Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegorical novel
about leading a Christian life. Alcott’s story begins with the four
March girls—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—sitting in their living room, lamenting
their poverty. The girls decide that they will each buy themselves
a present in order to brighten their Christmas. Soon, however, they
change their minds and decide that instead of buying presents for
themselves, they will buy presents for their mother, Marmee. Marmee
comes home with a letter from Mr. March, the girls’ father, who
is serving as a Union chaplain in the Civil War. The letter inspires
the girls to bear their burdens more cheerfully and not to complain
about their poverty.
On Christmas morning, the girls wake up to find books,
probably copies of The Pilgrim’s Progress, under
their pillows. Later that day, Marmee encourages them to give away
their breakfast to a poor family, the Hummels. Their elderly neighbor,
Mr. Laurence, whom the girls have never met, rewards their charitable
activities by sending over a feast. Soon, Meg and Jo are invited
to attend a New Year’s Party at the home of Meg’s wealthy friend,
Sally Gardiner. At the party, Jo retreats to an alcove, and there
meets Laurie, the boy who lives with Mr. Laurence. While dancing,
Meg sprains her ankle. Laurie escorts the sisters home. The Marches
regret having to return to their daily routine after the holiday
Jo visits Laurie when he is sick, and meets his grandfather,
Mr. Laurence. She inadvertently insults a painting of Mr. Laurence
in front of the man himself. Luckily, Laurie’s grandfather admires
Jo’s spunk, and they become friends. Soon, Mr. Laurence meets all
the sisters, and Beth becomes his special favorite. Mr. Laurence
gives her his deceased granddaughter’s piano.
The girls have various adventures. Amy is caught trading
limes at school, and the teacher hits her as punishment. As a result,
Mrs. March withdraws her daughter from school. Jo refuses to let
Amy go with her to the theater. In retaliation, Amy burns Jo’s manuscript, and
Jo, in her anger, nearly lets Amy drown while ice-s-kating. Pretty Meg
attends her friend Annie Moffat’s party and, after allowing the other
girls to dress her up in high style, learns that appearances are not
everything. While at the party, she hears that people think she intends
to marry Laurie for his money.
That year, the Marches form the Pickwick Club, in which
they write a family newspaper. In the spring, Jo smuggles
Laurie into one of the club meetings, and he becomes a member, presenting
his new circle with a postbox. At the beginning of June, the Marches
decide to neglect their housework. At the end of a lazy week, Marmee
takes a day off too. The girls spoil a dinner, but everyone ends
up laughing over it. One day, Laurie has English friends over, and
the Marches go on a picnic with them. Later, Jo gets a story published
for the first time.
One dark day, the family receives a telegram saying that
Mr. March is sick in the hospital in Washington, D.C. Marmee goes
to tend to him, and Jo sells her hair to help finance the trip.
Chaos ensues in Marmee’s wake, for the girls neglect their chores
again. Only Beth goes to visit the Hummels, and after one of her
visits, she contracts scarlet fever from the Hummel baby. Beth teeters
on the brink of death until Marmee returns. Meanwhile, Amy spends
time at Aunt March’s house in order to escape the disease. Beth
recovers, though not completely, and Mr. Brooke, Laurie’s tutor,
falls in love with Meg, much to Jo’s dismay. Mr. Brooke and Meg
are engaged by the end of Part One.
Three years pass before Part Two begins. Mr. March is
home from the war, and Laurie is nearly done with school. Soon,
Meg marries and moves into a new home with Mr. Brooke. One day, Amy
decides to have a lunch for her art school classmates, but poor weather
ruins the festivities. Jo gets a novel published, but she must cut
it down in order to please her publishers. Meanwhile, Meg struggles
with the duties of keeping house, and she soon gives birth to twins,
Demi and Daisy. Amy gets to go to Paris instead of Jo, who counted
on the trip, because their Aunt Carroll prefers Amy’s ladylike behavior
in a companion.
Jo begins to think that Beth loves Laurie. In order to
escape Laurie’s affections for her, Jo moves to New York so as to
give Beth a chance to win his affections. There Jo meets Professor
Bhaer, a poor German language instructor. Professor Bhaer discourages
Jo from writing sensationalist stories, and she takes his advice
and finds a simpler writing style. When Jo returns home, Laurie
proposes to her, but she turns him down. Beth soon dies.
Amy and Laurie reunite in France, and they fall in love.
They marry and return home. Jo begins to hope that Professor Bhaer
will come for her. He does, and they marry a year later. Amy and
Laurie have a daughter named Beth, who is sickly. Jo inherits Plumfield, Aunt
March’s house, and decides to turn it into a boarding school for
boys. The novel ends with the family happily gathered together, each
sister thankful for her blessings and for each other.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Little Women!