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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
While on the surface a simple story about the four March
girls’ journeys from childhood to adulthood, Little Women centers
on the conflict between two emphases in a young woman’s life—that which
she places on herself, and that which she places on her family. In
the novel, an emphasis on domestic duties and family detracts from
various women’s abilities to attend to their own personal growth.
For Jo and, in some cases, Amy, the problem of being both a professional
artist and a dutiful woman creates conflict and pushes the boundaries
set by nineteenth-century American society.
At the time when Alcott composed the novel, women’s status
in society was slowly increasing. As with any change in social norms, however,
progress toward gender equality was made slowly. Through the four
different sisters, Alcott explores four possible ways to deal with
being a woman bound by the constraints of nineteenth-century social
expectations: marry young and create a new family, as Meg does;
be subservient and dutiful to one’s parents and immediate family,
as Beth is; focus on one’s art, pleasure, and person, as Amy does
at first; or struggle to live both a dutiful family life and
a meaningful professional life, as Jo does. While Meg and Beth conform
to society’s expectations of the role that women should play, Amy
and Jo initially attempt to break free from these constraints and nurture
their individuality. Eventually, however, both Amy and Jo marry
and settle into a more customary life. While Alcott does not suggest
that one model of womanhood is more desirable than the other, she
does recognize that one is more realistic than the other.
Little Women questions the validity of
gender stereotypes, both male and female. Jo, at times, does not
want to be a conventional female. In her desires and her actions,
she frustrates typical gender expectations. She wants to earn a
living, for example—a duty conventionally reserved for men. Also,
she wears a dress with a burn mark to a party, evidence that she
does not possess tremendous social grace, a quality that nineteenth-century
American society cultivated in women. Similarly, there are times
when Laurie does not want to be a conventional man. He wants to
pursue music, at that time a culturally feminine pursuit, instead
of business, a culturally masculine pursuit. Even his nickname,
Laurie, which he uses in favor of his much more masculine given
name, Theodore, suggests his feminine side. Alcott bestows the highest
esteem upon Jo and Laurie, who, in their refusal to embody gender
stereotypes, willingly expose themselves to particular obstacles.
Over the course of Little Women, the
March sisters try to find happiness through daily activities, their
dreams, and each other; but when they do not engage in any productive
work, they end up guilty and remorseful. When they indulge in selfishness
by dressing up in finery, hoarding limes, neglecting chores, or
getting revenge, the girls end up unhappy. The only way they find
meaningful happiness is when they are working, either for a living
or for the benefit of their families. The novel demonstrates the
importance of the Puritan work ethic, which dictates that it is
holy to do work. This work ethic, in line with the transcendentalist
teachings with which Alcott grew up, thrived in New England, where
many Puritans lived and where the novel takes place. Alcott ultimately
recommends work not as a means to a material end, but rather as
a means to the expression of inner goodness and creativity through
Little Women takes great pains to teach
a lesson about the importance of being genuine. To make this point,
Alcott contrasts the Marches with more well-to-do young women like
Amy Moffat and Sally Gardiner. Transcendentalists emphasized the
importance of paying more attention to the inner spiritual self
than to temporary, earthly conditions like wealth and impressive
appearances, and Alcott incorporates this philosophy into Little
Women. For instance, Meg and Amy constantly struggle with
vanity, and eventually overcome it. Amy turns down Fred Vaughn’s
offer of marriage, even though he is rich, because she does not
love him. The March sisters all learn to be happy with their respective
lots in life and not to yearn for meaningless riches. The Marches’
snug New England home is presented as more desirable than mansions
in Paris. This theme is particularly American, especially distinctive
of New England. Unlike their counterparts in Europe, many middle-class Americans
at the time did not mind having come from humble origins and did
not crave titles or other superficial trappings of wealth. These
Americans wanted only what they deserved and believed that what
they deserved depended on how hard they worked.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Little Women!