Little Women

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Little Women
Written by: Louisa May Alcott
Central Theme: Sorority
Synopsis: The coming of age of four sisters during the Civil War.
Genre(s): Coming of age story
First published: 1868, 1869
More Information
Source: Read Little Women here
The Wiki Rule: Little Women Wiki
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"A book for girls being wanted by a certain publisher, she hastily scribbled a little story describing a few scenes and adventures in the lives of herself and sisters - though boys were more in her line - and with very slight hopes of success sent it out to seek its fortune.
Things always went by contraries with Jo. Her first book, labored over for years, and launched full of the high hopes and ambitious dreams of youth, floundered on its voyage, though the wreck continued to float long afterward, to the profit of the publisher at least. The hastily written story, sent away with no thought beyond the few dollars it might bring, sailed with a fair wind and a wise pilot at the helm into public favor, and came home heavily laden with an unexpected cargo of gold and glory."

So Louisa May Alcott vicariously describes the story behind the publication of the book that made her a celebrity overnight with an instant success most authors never dare to dream of. Alcott never intended, however, for Little Women to be her magnum opus; she only needed a little money. Isn't Irony wonderful?

Little Women is the story of four sisters, modeled after Alcott and her own, trying to get along and grow up while their father is away during the Civil War. The March sisters are:

Their closest friend is their wealthy old neighbor's newly-arrived grandson: handsome, mischievous, half-Italian Theodore 'Laurie' Laurence. He quickly befriends Jo, and the others soon after. Women in town wonder to which sister their mother is planning to marry him off, but in fact they are all Just Friends, Like Brother And Sisters - which becomes a significant plot point later.

Other characters include: their strong-willed mother Margaret, whom they call Marmee (usually pronounced phonetically in filmed versions, ignoring the reality that with a 19th-century New England accent, "Marmee" would be pronounced "Mommy"); their father, a gentleman reverend ruined financially through helping a friend (an idealized version of Louisa's father, prominent Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott); their maid and friend, Hannah; Laurie's tutor, John Brooke, who falls in love with Meg; and their nightmare of a meddling relative, Aunt March, for whom Jo and later Amy work as a companion. The book is fraught with Shout Outs and Homages to Pilgrims Progress and Anvilicious Aesops at a time before that was considered cliche.

The first edition of Little Women ended with Meg's and John's engagement. With no Fora or wikis to conduct their Ship-to-Ship Combat, the fans were left to bombard Alcott with letters demanding a sequel, mostly to see Jo and Laurie get married, in the earliest case of Shipping as we know it today. Alcott wrote the sequel BUT with the almost sadistic resolve that "I won't marry Jo to Laurie to please anybody."

Thus came Part II, occasionally published separately under the title Good Wives in the UK (definitely not Alcott's idea for a title). Meg and John get married and have their twins, Beth dies, Amy goes to Paris, and Jo turns down Laurie and goes to New York to pursue her career. Laurie, faced with the dilemma of killing himself or going to Europe, opts for the latter, where he falls in love with and marries Amy. Manfully supporting her parents while grieving for her Dead Little Sister, life improves for Jo near the end when she marries her beta reader and best friend, a wise German professor, Friedrich Bhaer, and Aunt March dies and leaves Jo her estate, Plumfield.

The next sequel, Little Men, takes place at Plumfield, which Jo and Fritz have turned into an orphanage/school for young boys, based not-so-subtly on Bronson Alcott's then-controversial educational theories. We are introduced to Jo's sons, Rob and Teddy, Laurie and Amy's daughter Bess, the Brooke twins Daisy and Demijohn (a clever way of avoiding Margaret and John Jr.), their baby sister Josie, Daisy's tomboyish friend Nan, and Professor Bhaer's orphaned nephews Franz and Emil, along with a mixed assortment of other Aesop-appropriate youngsters, the most important ones being an ex pickpocket and street violinist named Nat and his best friend Dan.

Ten years later in Jo's Boys, Plumfield has grown into a mixed college (a rare phenomenon at the time) and we rejoin these Loads and Loads of Characters as young adults, plagued by an epidemic of romance and broken hearts amidst chasing dreams and choosing careers.

The book has been made into seven films (including one with an All-Star Cast in December 2019), four anime works (three TV series, including one based on Jo's Boys, and a TV special), seven television versions (four by the BBC, two American versions, and one Indian version), three musical theatrical adaptations, and an opera.

Also, despite sharing the same names for the protagonists, this one has absolutely nothing to do with Burst Angel.

Little Women and its sequels provide examples of:
  • Accidental Marriage: Tom finds himself accidentally engaged to Dora in Jo's Boys, although he doesn't really mind afterward.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: In the 1994 film, Professor Bhaer, who is described in the novel as overweight and rather grisly, is played by Gabriel Byrne.
    • Likewise Jo, who in the book is described as "tall and brown, with big hands and feet and a flyway look to her" is played by petite, fair-skinned Winona Ryder.
    • Marmee too, who is described as "greying and not particularly handsome". She's played by Susan freakin' Sarandon.
  • Alpha Bitch: Amy's classmate, April Snow, and her artistic rival, May Chester
  • Ambiguously Brown: In Little Men, Dan is described with black eyes, black hair, and, at several points where his skin is mentioned, brown skin. It's unclear as to whether this is racial, tanned, or just dirty, but Jo theorizes in Jo's Boys that Dan has Indian blood in him. Everyone else in the book seems to be Caucasian (several are specifically blond Germans) except for a Black cook[1], but Dan just seems like the odd boy out.
  • Author Appeal: Professor Bhaer, according to some theories
  • Author Filibuster: Some of the Author Tract pages mentioned below can get a little boring and preachy. Alcott pleads guilty when she writes about Jo's experience writing a novel that might more accurately "have been called an essay or a sermon, so intensely moral was it."
  • Author Tract: The entire series has whole pages of Alcott's views on life, from respecting old maids to staying true to your faith.
  • Backup Twin: They did this in the 1979 film adaptation; Eve Plumb had the role of Beth, and she was so popular they brought her back as an identical cousin.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: the old "a week of all play and no work" experiment in Little Women.
    • Also "Jo's Last Scrape", in which Jo, after trying for twenty years, has her dream of becoming a famous author come true, and has to deal with hoards of fans and reporters.
  • Better as Friends: Jo feels this way about Laurie. She says that the two of them are too much alike ever to pursue a romantic relationship successfully. Laurie disagrees until he marries Amy, after which he tells Jo he's happy to love her as his sister. As the Like Brother and Sister analogy was used to describe both his relationships with Jo and Amy, this has done nothing to convince shippers from the 1860s onwards that they are not better as friends.
  • Betty and Veronica: Amy and Jo, for Laurie, except that Jo doesn't actually want the guy. Dora and Nan, for Tom.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The Moffats
  • Blondes Are Evil: Amy is more self-centered than outright malicious, though: the one who throws tantrums, particularly when she burns the years worth of Jo's unfinished novel out of revenge for not being allowed to accompany Jo and Laurie to the theater, and was so vain she tried to fix the shape of her nose with a clothespin.
  • Bookworm: Jo, naturally. Also Demi in Little Men.
  • Brainy Brunette: Jo has thick chestnut hair.
  • Break the Cutie: Jo for most of Little Women Part II
  • Break the Haughty: Amy tries to be In with the In Crowd at school and gets humiliated by her Sadist Teacher. Meg attempts the same when visiting the Moffats and gets to see the ugly side of wealth when overhearing a bunch of Gossipy Hens talking trash about their family and the Laurences.
  • Broken Aesop: Amy dumps Fred Vaughn, deciding it's wrong to marry someone you don't love for their money, only to turn around and fall in love with her wealthy childhood friend Laurie. This is probably more of an author fumble. It's supposed to be taken for granted that Amy is the perfect girl for Laurie (Jo even says he needs a refined girl in her "Like Brother and Sister" speech), and they actually do fall in love over time. Still, the fact that Amy gets true love AND a rich man makes it a broken aesop.
    • Nat is caught telling a lie, and this is treated as a very serious issue. The problem is, a much older boy was threatening to beat him if he'd ran through the boy's veggie patch - which he'd done because he was being chased by another older boy - so Nat got scared and denied it. And neither of the other boys were punished or even given a talking-to, leaving us with the message that lying to get out of a dangerous situation is not only wrong, but so much worse than threatening and bullying little kids who aren't able to defend themselves.
      • This was the Victorian Era. Lying was worse than anything but murder, esp if you were a child.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': If one of the kids commits a mistake, they suffer the consequences soon.
  • The Caretaker: Jo, towards Beth in the second half of Little Women.
  • Caught in the Rain: When Jo shares an umbrella with Mr. Bhaer, a proposal soon follows.
  • Childhood Marriage Promise: Nan and Tommy in Little Men. Tommy is still trying to hold her to it ten years later in Jo's Boys, but she will have nothing of it.
  • Christmas Cake: By the time Part II of Little Women is near its end, Jo is almost 25 and starting to feel that she'll have to face life as an old maid.
  • Cleaning Up Romantic Loose Ends: The last paragraph of Jo's Boys
  • Collateral Angst: It's painful for Beth to die young; it's more painful for Jo to live without her Dead Little Sister. As Louisa knew firsthand.
  • Cool Old Lady: Averted with Aunt March, to the point the aversion is even Lampshaded: "Some old people keep young at heart in spite of wrinkles and grey hair, can sympathize with children's little cares and joys, make them feel at home, and can hide wise lessons under pleasant plays, giving and receiving friendship in the sweetest way. But Aunt March had not this gift."
    • Marmee may count, especially when she's played by Susan Sarandon of all people.
  • Dead Guy, Junior: Bess, of course, is short for Elizabeth. In the second half of Little Women, she is even identified as "little Beth" and doesn't become Bess until Little Men.
  • Dead Little Sister: Beth
  • Deadpan Snarker: Jo, Laurie, Josie, and Nan
  • Demoted to Extra: Beth in the film starring Winona Ryder. Y'know, the girl played by Claire Danes?
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Laurie in Little Women; Dan in Jo's Boys. Tommy doesn't get the girl he originally wanted and seemed to be the best bet.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • Amy burns Jo's manuscript of the book she'd labored over for years in order to make her sister "pay" for the heinous crime of not allowing her to accompany the "adults" to the theater.
    • The next morning, Jo and Laurie go skating. Amy, after having her apology rejected by Jo, follows them to try and make amends. She skates on a dangerous part of the ice, but she doesn't know this. Jo does, but doesn't warn her. Amy almost drowns as a result. Jo suffers a My God, What Have I Done?. Many fans miss the fact that the chapter, which was titled Jo meets Apollyon, was about Jo's fear that her tempestuous temper might make her harm her loved ones, rather than about Amy's preteen tantrums.
  • Distracted From Death: In the 1994 film, Jo gets up from Beth's deathbed when the wind opens some shutters. When she returns to the bedside, Beth has died.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Laurie.
  • Education Mama: In Little Men, one of the titular Little Men (Billy) has a education papa who drove his promising student son to mental retardation and physical frailty and then dropped him off at boarding school in shame.
  • Embarrassing First Name: Laurie is not too fond of being a Theodore because he objects to the schoolboy nickname Dora; he insists upon being called Laurie... a feminine name to modern readers.
    • This is referenced in an episode of Friends where Joey reads the book, which Rachel has stated is the only book she's read more than once. He believes Jo and Laurie are both girls, and is confused when the others tell him otherwise. He sighs and says, "No wonder Rachel had to read this book so many times!"
    • Lampshaded in the 1994 movie when Jo mentions Laurie to Professor Bhaer and he thinks she's talking about one of her sisters.
  • Executive Meddling: Not an influence on the plot but lampshaded within. Jo meets several publishers who won't publish her work unless she piles up the tragedy and gore and cuts the aesops because "Morals don't sell."
  • Expy: Meg's youngest daughter, Josie.
  • Falling Into His Arms: Done for laughs in the in the Winona Ryder film. Meg, Jo, Laurie and John Brooke return from an evening at the theater, and as they exit the carriage, Jo raves about the lead actress being "a wonderful swooner."

Jo: If only I were the swooning type! [dramatically falling from the carriage]
Laurie: [sardonically, watching her fall] If only I were the catching type.

  • Fanfic: A more unusual example-- Geraldine Brooks' March tells the story of Mr. March, the mostly absent father from Little Women. She won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Take that Robin Hobb.
  • Fashion Hurts: But oh, my, we must be elegant or die!
  • Fiery Redhead: Jo (chestnut brown, which has red in it, depending on one's interpretation of chestnut). She is also, however, almost always a redhead in The Musical, as that is how she was initially played by Sutton Foster.
    • Although, some of the anime adaptations portray her as a blonde.
  • The Film of the Book: Many, including
  • First-Name Basis: In the middle of their Relationship Upgrade, Jo slips and calls Professor Bhaer "Fritz," which is what she's always called him in her head.
  • Fish Out of Water: Nat, when he first comes to Plumfield
  • Flower Motifs: While Laurie and Amy are taking a walk through a rose garden, Laurie gets pricked by a red rose he tried to pick while thinking of Jo, whom he last saw when she turned down his marriage proposal. Amy then gives him a thorn-free white rose. Laurie instantly thinks of the color symbolism - red roses are for romance, white roses are for funerals, and he wonders if this is either a sign about his changing feelings for the two sisters or an omen of death. He chides himself for being so superstitious and laughs it off, but since eventually he and Amy fall in love and Beth dies, it doesn't sound so funny.
  • Foreshadowing: When introducing Beth, the narrator makes a remark about how her type of quiet kindness and cheerfulness is never fully appreciated until it is gone forever; the tone is such that there might as well be an arrow pointing to Beth with "DOOMED" written on it in letters of fire.
  • Four-Girl Ensemble: The original!
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble
  • Forbidden Fruit: Meg is poised and ready to reject John Brooke's marriage proposal out of fear, until Aunt March shows up and, unaware of her decision, orders her not to accept him.
  • Full Name Ultimatum: When Aunt March calls Jo "Josephine."
  • Get a Hold of Yourself, Man!: Laurie gets this treatment from Amy after Jo rejects him. It works very well.
  • The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: Amy and Jo, especially in the chapter "Calls"
  • Gossipy Hens: The old ladies that wonder if Meg is a Gold Digger in training. They also appear in at least one of the movie adaptations.
  • Grief Song: "Days of Plenty" from the Musical.
    • More of a Grief Score, but "Valley of The Shadow" by Thomas Newman from the 1994 movie.
  • Hair of Gold: Amy and her daughter, Bess
  • Happily Married: Parents Margaret and Robert, Amy and Laurie, Meg and John, Jo and Fritz.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: There's a lot to referring to Jo's Boys as "gay." Also, Little Women contains this doozy:

Mothers are the best lovers in the world, but I don't mind whispering to Marmee that I'd like to try all kinds. It's very curious, but the more I try to satisfy myself with all sorts of natural affections, the more I seem to want.

  • Held Gaze: In the 1994 adaptation starring Winona Ryder and Christian Bale, Jo and Laurie share one before Laurie's Anguished Declaration of Love and their Big Damn Kiss. It's actually kind of funny because on Jo's side, it seems more like she's frozen in fear.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Laurie wants Jo but doesn't get her in the end (see above).
  • Hidden Heart of Gold: Laurie's grandfather is quite a softie, especially towards Beth.
  • Hopeless Suitor: Laurie for Jo; Tom for Nan.
  • Hot Librarian: Nan in Jo's Boys, who attracts many suitors but is only in love with her studies in medicine.
  • Ill Girl: Beth
  • Impoverished Patrician: The Marches were once very well-to-do. Amy acts like they still are.
  • In Medias Res: The Musical adaptation.
  • Inter Class Romance: One of the March sisters is expected to marry their rich neighbor Laurie. Eventually Amy does.
  • I Should Write a Book About This
  • It's for a Book: Jo actually does research poisons for her horror stories.
  • Kissing Cousins: Possibly Josie and Ted in Jo's Boys
  • Lampshade Hanging: It's Laurie himself who points out the Broken Aesop of Amy marrying him after she decided against marrying Fred Vaughn for his money. Amy responds she would still love him if he was poor and he believes her.
  • Lethal Chef: Jo
  • Limited Wardrobe: The entire March family, and pretty much the whole cast, in the Nippon Animation adaptation.
  • Long Hair Is Feminine: Everyone admires Jo when she sells her hair to get money for her family.
  • Love Epiphany: Laurie has one of these while recovering from Jo's rejection.
  • Love Hurts: Poor Laurie...
  • Love Letter Lunacy: A prank by Laurie. The victims -- Meg and John. The one in charge of smoothing things over -- Jo.
  • Love Potion: The sisters perform a play with a villain who purchases a love potion from a witch, along with poison to kill his romantic rival (probably to avoid that "power of true love" loophole). The witch, however, double-crosses him, stops the princess from drinking the potion, and slips the villain his own poison.
  • Make-up Is Evil: Meg penitently confesses to having worn make-up among other sins at a party, and her mother says that she was wrong to let Meg stay with these people without knowing them better.
  • Malaproper: Amy ("I know what I mean, and you needn't be 'statirical' about it! It's proper to use good words and improve your 'vocabilary.' ")
  • May-December Romance: Fritz is 15 years older than Jo.
  • Miss Imagination: Beth's "little world was peopled with imaginary friends," and she cares for her sisters' cast-off dolls as if they were invalids in a hospital.
  • Most Writers Are Writers
  • Mrs. Hypothetical: Jo realizes she is in danger of, as she sees it, losing Meg when she finds out Meg has been scribbling "Mrs. John Brooke."
  • The Musical
  • Neat Freak: Aunt March.
  • New England
  • No Antagonist
  • Of Corset Hurts: In the 1994 film, Marmee is prone to rants about how corsets are responsible for womankind's reputation as weak and ill, and when Meg gives in to pressure from her stylish friends, there is the obligatory scene where she is painfully laced into a corset by a strong-armed maid.
  • The One Guy: Laurie
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Three of the four March sisters are routinely identified by shortened forms of their lengthy first names. Although the real names are given in the introductory chapter, they are rarely otherwise used in the novel and readers grow quite used to thinking of them as Meg, Jo, and Beth. (This creates a bit of confusion for some readers when, in one chapter, Jo refers to Meg as "Peggy" - a name by which she had never previously been addressed and one which is never used again.)
    • Also Marmee, whose real name is never actually stated; it's understood that her name is Margaret (and Meg, and later Daisy, are named after her), but no character ever addresses her by her name. In the Winona Ryder film adaptation, her name is changed to Abigail, and one has to wonder if this is a screenwriting error caused by the fact that her name never appears in the narrative.
  • Overprotective Mom: In Jo's Boys, Meg is the overprotective mother who doesn't believe Nat is good enough for her daughter.
  • Padding: Alcott, like many authors of her time, wrote Little Women to be published in installments in a magazine, so each chunk of the story was structured in an episodic fashion. Every so often you get a chapter which has little to nothing to do with advancing the story, and more to do with a lovely picnic gone comically awry or some such thing. Somewhat peculiar, to the reader who is more used to reading novels written as novels.
  • Pair the Spares: Bhaer proposes to Jo at Amy and Laurie's wedding. This is really prominent in the musical, as it occurs on the third to last page.
    • This only happens in the musical. In the novel, Amy and Laurie are quietly married before they come home from Europe; Jo is still at home with her parents, observing the formal mourning period for Beth.
  • Parasol of Prettiness: In part 1, Meg wants a white parasol with a black handle to take to a wealthy society friend's house, but Marmee gets her a green-and-yellow one by mistake.
  • Parental Marriage Veto: Meg towards Nat and Daisy for most of Jo's Boys. In Little Women, Aunt March tries to do this to Meg and fails.
  • Penny Among Diamonds: In Jo's Boys, Nat goes to Europe for school. Due to his having wealthy and influential friends, everyone thinks that he's wealthy and influential as well. Too bad he's an orphan who spent a number of years as a street musician, and thus has little idea of how to handle money. Cue the nineteenth century version of a Credit Card Plot.
  • Pet the Dog: Dan's soft side for baby Teddy and animals
  • Princess for a Day: In "Vanity Fair", Meg attends a high class party only to be humbled by ladies whispering behind her back about her and her family's poverty. That and those dancing slippers really hurt.
  • Proper Lady: "If Amy was to go to court without any rehearsal, she'd know exactly what to do."
    • Many female characters qualify.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Beth is this, to an extent, for Laurie's grandfather - as it happens, she has a personality very similar to that of his deceased granddaughter, whom he adored. The animated adaptation takes it a bit too literally and has Beth look exactly like the granddaughter, which freaks them both out.
  • School Play: A couple in Little Men, Several in the chapter "Class Day" in Jo's Boys
  • Settle for Sibling: Laurie's marriage to Amy.
  • Shallow Love Interest: Dora in Jo's Boys, whom Tommy originally started dating foolishly trying to make Nan jealous, only to find he actually enjoyed the way she treated him and "accidentally" proposed to her.
  • She's All Grown Up: Amy
  • Shipper on Deck: Jo is a Meg/Laurie shipper in Part I and a Beth/Laurie fangirl in Part II.
  • Ship Sinking: "I won't marry Jo to Laurie to please anybody!"
  • Shrinking Violet: Beth
  • A Simple Plan: Jo's dinner party in Little Women; Amy's party in Little Women Part II
  • Snooping Little Kid: In the 1949 movie, Beth (played by Margaret O'Brien) and Amy (played by Elizabeth Taylor) fulfill the role in the Christmas party. Then they overhear some Gossipy Hens...
  • Spirited Young Lady: Jo.
  • Spoiled Brat: Amy, as a child.
  • Stock Foreign Name: Friedrich, for Professor Bhaer. Jo calls him "Fritz," which is another example of the trope.
  • Sweet and Sour Grapes: Laurie himself is the first to point out that Amy married him after learning her lesson not to marry Fred Vaughn for his money.
  • Team Dad: Franz to the younger kids during Little Men.
  • Team Mom: Meg to her sisters; later, Jo in Little Men
  • Theme Twin Naming: Daisy and Demi, named after their parents Margaret (Meg) and John.
  • Those Two Guys: In Jo's Boys, Stuffy and Dolly.
    • And in Little Men, Dick and Dolly
  • Title Drop: In the first chapter, Mr. March's letter ends with his hopes that the improvements the girls will make to their characters by the time he sees them again will make him "fonder and prouder than ever of my little women."
  • Together Umbrella: Jo and Professor Bhaer
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Jo and Amy
    • Little Men: Nan and Daisy
    • Jo's Boys: Josie and Bess
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Beth is "a dear, and nothing more" and "the pet of the family," virtuous and selfless. She's the only one who doesn't have extravagant ambitions in the chapter "Castles in the Air." In the end, of course, she dies.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The Penguin (and almost any other edition) of Little Women states plainly that readers will "cry over Beth's untimely death," which doesn't happen well into the second half of the novel. This might be a case of It Was His Sled, but still.
  • Trying Not to Cry: Jo promises herself (and Laurie) she won't cry at Meg's wedding.
  • Underdressed for the Occasion: Meg doesn't have a silk ball dress to wear when visiting Sallie Moffat, so she wears an old tarlatan instead. She actually makes a better impression in her simple and worn out clothing than she does when her friends dress her in borrowed splendor.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Jo and Laurie. This is exactly why she turns him down when he proposes to her.
  • Unto Us a Son and Daughter Are Born: Meg's twins.
  • Unusual Euphemism: In Little Men, Dan tries to get Nat and Tommy to swear. Tommy's swear? "Thunder Turtles." He uses it more than once in the book too.
    • Jo's favorite exclamation of "Christopher Columbus!" also counts as this, since it's generally understood to be her version of swearing. In Little Men they actually name the dog Christopher Columbus so that she has an excuse to say it.
      • In the musical, Aunt March interrupts Bhaer's marriage proposal and he says it.
  • Victorious Childhood Friend: Nat and Daisy, who have been good friends since Little Men, get married in Jo's Boys.
    • Little Women itself plays with the trope, as Laurie ultimately marries a girl he's known since childhood (Amy) but not the one he's harbored romantic feelings for since then (Jo). So Laurie was both unlucky and victorious.
  • Wham! Line
  1. and, given some hints in the narrative, possibly another Black character in the background