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Little Women is the classic 19th century American novel authored by Louisa May Alcott. It concerns the lives of four young women growing up during the midst of and in the aftermath of the Civil War. The novel specifically deals with the roles of young women, as both independent but also deeply rooted in Christianity. Their formerly wealthy parents show deep affection for the four daughters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March.
At the start of the novel, the girls eagerly await a letter from their father, who is acting as a minister to the Northern troops. When the letter arrives, Papa March enjoins the young girls to be mature, patient and loving, to be “Little Women” in their actions.
The novel then deals with how each girl follows her own path to becoming women. This is a hard journey for some of them, particularly Jo March, who wishes with all her heart she had been born a boy. Her tomboyish ways tend to keep her at odds with social conventions for the polite behavior of women. Both she and her older sister Meg work each day to contribute to the family’s small income. Jo tends her old crotchety Aunt March, while Meg works as a governess and sometimes mourns her family’s descent into poverty.
The younger Little Women are Beth and Amy. Beth is almost too sweet to be real, and many criticize Little Women as overly sentimental when it comes to its treatment of Beth. Beth is a lover of music, but shy, and has no desire to stray from home. Yet she is the confidante of Jo, and often points Jo to a more softer, “little women” way of resolving her conflicts.
For those who love Little Women, the death of Beth in the later part of the novel is the signal to get out the tissues and weep. Those who charge the book with excess sentimentality find little to praise in Beth’s departure. However, Alcott wrote this part much from her own experience in dealing with a beloved sister’s death. Thus many are inclined to view the sentimentality of the book as quite true to Alcott’s feelings on her own personal tragedy.
Jo March is often seen as a semi-autobiographical depiction of Alcott. Like Alcott, Jo fulfills her ambition of becoming a writer. That the parents encourage Jo to fulfill her dreams is certainly forward thinking, yet the book does seem to rest with the idea that a woman is most happy when she is happily married and a mother.
Amy March is the youngest of the Little Women, not even a teenager at the beginning of the novel. She nurses aspirations of becoming a great painter but instead finds fulfillment in her marriage to Laurie Lawrence, which occurs toward the end of the novel. The marriage is somewhat complex since Laurie first falls in love with Jo, who see they would never be suited as a couple. Ultimately, Laurie transfers his affections to Amy, and Jo marries the German philosopher and teacher, Professor Bhaer.
Little Women has been adapted for the stage and for multiple films. None of these films remain completely true to the novel. Some veer far off course while others merely lack the spirit of the rather lengthy but for many, beloved, story.