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Little Women is a novel by American author Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888), which was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. Alcott wrote the books rapidly over several months at the request of her publisher. The novel follows the lives of four sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March—detailing their passage from childhood to womanhood, and is loosely based on the author and her three sisters.
Little Women was an immediate commercial and critical success, and readers demanded to know more about the characters. Alcott quickly completed a second volume (entitled Good Wives in the United Kingdom, although this name originated from the publisher and not from Alcott). It was also successful. The two volumes were issued in 1880 in a single work entitled Little Women.
Alcott wrote two sequels to her popular work, both of which also featured the March sisters: Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886). Although Little Women was a novel for girls, it differed notably from the current writings for children, especially girls. The novel addressed three major themes: "domesticity, work, and true love, all of them interdependent and each necessary to the achievement of its heroine's individual identity."
Little Women "has been read as a romance or as a quest, or both. It has been read as a family drama that validates virtue over wealth", but also "as a means of escaping that life by women who knew its gender constraints only too well". According to Sarah Elbert, Alcott created a new form of literature, one that took elements from Romantic children's fiction and combined it with others from sentimental novels, resulting in a totally new format. Elbert argued that within Little Women can be found the first vision of the "All-American girl" and that her multiple aspects are embodied in the differing March sisters.
The book has been adapted for film twice as silent films, and four times with sound, in 1933, 1949, 1978 and 1994. Four television series were made, including two in Britain in the 1950s and two anime series in Japan in the 1980s. A musical version opened on Broadway in 2005. An American opera version in 1998 has been performed internationally and filmed for broadcast on US television in 2001.
In 1868, Thomas Niles, the publisher of Louisa May Alcott, recommended that she write a book about girls that would have widespread appeal. At first she resisted, preferring to publish a collection of her short stories. Niles pressed her to write the girls' book first, and he was aided by her father Amos Bronson Alcott, who also urged her to do so.
In May 1868, Alcott wrote in her journal: "Niles, partner of Roberts, asked me to write a girl's book. I said I'd try." Alcott set her novel in an imaginary Orchard House modeled on her own residence of the same name, where she wrote the novel. She later recalled that she did not think she could write a successful book for girls and did not enjoy writing it. "I plod away," she wrote in her diary, "although I don't enjoy this sort of things." Scholars classify Little Women as an autobiographical or semi-autobiographical novel.
By June, Alcott had sent the first dozen chapters to Niles, and both agreed these were dull. But Niles' niece Lillie Almy read them and said she enjoyed them. The completed manuscript was shown to several girls, who agreed it was "splendid". Alcott wrote, "they are the best critics, so I should definitely be satisfied." She wrote Little Women "in record time for money", but the book's immediate success surprised both her and her publisher.
Explanation of the novel's title
According to literary critic Sarah Elbert, when using the term "little women", Alcott was drawing on its Dickensian meaning; it represented the period in a young woman's life where childhood and elder childhood were "overlapping" with young womanhood. Each of the March sister heroines had a harrowing experience that alerted her and the reader that "childhood innocence" was of the past, and that "the inescapable woman problem" was all that remained. Other views suggest that the title was meant to highlight the inferiority of women as compared to men, or, alternatively, describe the lives of simple people, "unimportant" in the social sense.
Four sisters live with their mother, facing Christmas without their father as the American Civil War is underway. The family is settled in a new neighborhood, living in genteel poverty after the father lost their money. Meg and Jo March, the elder sisters, both work outside the home for money to support the family. Meg teaches four children in a nearby family, while Jo aids her grand-aunt March, a wealthy widow whose strength is failing. Beth helps with housework, and Amy attends school. Meg is the beautiful sister; Jo is the tomboy; Beth is the musician; and Amy is the charming artist with blond curls. Jo is impulsive and quick to anger. One of her challenges in growing up is to control acting out of anger, a challenge that also faced her mother, Marmee. Marmee advises Jo on speaking with forethought. The boy Laurie's grandfather, Mr. Laurence, is charmed by Beth, and gives her the piano used by Laurie’s late sister.
Beth contracts scarlet fever after tending to a family where three children died of it. Her poor condition forces her sisters and the Laurences to call Marmee back from Washington, where she has gone to tend her husband, who contracted pneumonia. Beth recovers, but never fully. Jo tends Beth in her illness. Amy, not yet exposed to scarlet fever, is sent to live with Aunt March, replacing Jo after Beth recovers. Jo has success earning money with her writing. Meg spends two weeks with friends, where there are parties for the girls to dance with boys and improve social skills. Laurie is invited to one of the dances, as her friends incorrectly think Meg is in love with him. Meg is more interested in the young tutor for Laurie, John Brooke. Brooke traveled to Washington to help Mr. March, staying there when Marmee comes back to tend Beth. While with both March parents, Brooke confesses his love for Meg. The parents agree, but suggest they are both too young to marry, as Meg is just seventeen. They agree to wait. In the interim, Brooke serves a year in the war, is wounded, returns home and finds work so he can get a house for their upcoming marriage. Laurie’s need for a tutor ends, as he goes off to college. The war ends.
Meg and John marry and learn how to live together, and soon have twins. Meg is a devoted mother that first year, and John begins to feel left out. Marmee advises Meg on how to balance caring for her children and being with her husband. Meg accepts help in watching them from the March family cook, and sees that John is a good father, rejuvenating their marriage. Laurie graduates from college, putting in effort to do well in his last year, at Jo’s prompting. Jo decides she needs a break, and spends six months with a friend of her mother in New York City, serving as governess for her two children. The family runs a boarding house, with new people for Jo, the writer, to consider. She takes German lessons with Professor Bhaer, who lives in the house. He has come to America from Berlin to care for the orphaned sons of his sister. For extra money, Jo writes stories without a moral, which disappoints Bhaer. Amy goes on a European tour with her aunt, uncle and cousin. Jo returns home, where Laurie proposes marriage to her, and she turns him down. He is heartbroken; both he and his grandfather go to Europe. Beth’s health has seriously deteriorated, as Jo sees on her return. She devotes herself to the care of her sister, until Beth dies. In Europe, Laurie encounters Amy, who is growing up. On news of Beth’s death, the two meet for consolation, and their romance grows strong, as Amy learns how to manage him. They marry in Europe, as Amy’s aunt will not allow Amy to return with Laurie and his grandfather and no other chaperone. The day they return home, Professor Bhaer shows up at the March home. He spends two weeks there, on the last day proposing marriage to Jo. Their marriage is deferred as Bhaer teaches at a college in the west. Aunt March dies, leaving her large home, Plumfield, to Jo. She and Bhaer marry, turning the house into a school for boys. They have two sons of their own, and Amy and Laurie have a daughter. In the fall at apple-picking time, Marmee’s 60th birthday is celebrated at Jo’s place, with her three daughters, their husbands, her husband, and her five grandchildren.
Margaret "Meg" March
Meg, the eldest sister, is sixteen when the story starts. She is referred to as a beauty, and manages the household when her mother is absent. Meg fulfills expectations for women of the time; from the start, she is already a nearly perfect "little woman". As such, Meg is based in the domestic household; she does not have significant employment or activities outside of it. Prior to her marriage to John Brooke, while still living at home, she often lectures her younger sisters to ensure they grow to embody the title of "little women".
Meg is employed as a governess for the Kings, a wealthy local family. Because of their father's family's social standing, Meg makes her debut in to high society, but is lectured by her friend and neighbor, Theodore "Laurie" Laurence, for behaving like a snob. Meg marries John Brooke, the tutor of Laurie. They have twins, Margaret "Daisy" Brooke and John "Demi" Brooke. The sequel, Little Men, mentions a baby daughter, Josephine "Josy" Brooke, who is fourteen at the beginning of the final book.
Critics have portrayed Meg as lacking in independence, reliant entirely on her husband, and "isolated in her little cottage with two small children". From this perspective, Meg is seen as the compliant daughter who does not "attain Alcott's ideal womanhood" of equality. According to critic Sarah Elbert, "democratic domesticity requires maturity, strength, and above all a secure identity that Meg lacks". Others believe that Alcott does not intend to belittle Meg for her ordinary life, and portrays her in loving details, suffused in a sentimental light.
Josephine "Jo" March
The principal character, Jo, 15 years old at the beginning of the book, is a strong and willful young woman, struggling to subdue her strong willed personality.
The second-oldest of four sisters, Josephine March is the boyish one; her father has referred to her as his "son Jo", and her best friend and neighbor, Theodore "Laurie" Laurence, sometimes calls her "my dear fellow", and she alone calls him Teddy. Jo has a "hot" temper that often leads her into trouble. With the help of her own misguided sense of humor, her sister Beth, and her mother, she works on controlling it.
Jo loves literature, both reading and writing. She composes plays for her sisters to perform and writes short stories. She initially rejects the idea of marriage and romance, feeling that it would break up her family and separate her from the sisters whom she adores. While pursuing a literary career in New York City, she meets Friederich Bhaer, a German professor. On her return home, Jo rejects Laurie's marriage proposal.
After Beth dies, Professor Bhaer woos Jo at her home, when "They decide to share life's burdens just as they shared the load of bundles on their shopping expedition". She is 25 years old when she accepts his proposal. The marriage is deferred until her unexpected inheritance of her Aunt March's home a year later. "The crucial first point is that the choice is hers, its quirkiness another sign of her much-prized individuality." They have two sons, Robin "Rob" Bhaer and Teddy Bhaer. Jo also writes the first part of Little Women during the second portion of the novel. According to Elbert, "her narration signals a successfully completed adolescence".
Elizabeth "Beth" March
Beth, thirteen when the story starts, is described as kind, gentle, sweet, shy, quiet and musical. She is the shyest March sister. Infused with quiet wisdom, she is the peacemaker of the family and gently scolds her sisters when they argue. As her sisters grow up, they begin to leave home, but Beth has no desire to leave her house or family. She is especially close to Jo: when Beth develops scarlet fever after visiting the Hummels, Jo does most of the nursing and rarely leaves her side. Beth recovers from the acute disease but her health is permanently weakened.
As she grows, Beth begins to realize that her time with her loved ones is coming to an end. Finally, the family accepts that Beth will not live much longer. They make a special room for her, filled with all the things she loves best: her kittens, piano, Father's books, Amy's sketches, and her beloved dolls. She is never idle; she knits and sews things for the children who pass by on their way to and from school. But eventually she puts down her sewing needle, saying it grew "heavy." Beth's final sickness has a strong effect on her sisters, especially Jo, who resolves to live her life with more consideration and care for everyone. The main loss during Little Women is the death of beloved Beth. Her "self-sacrifice" is ultimately the greatest in the novel. She gives up her life knowing that it has had only private, domestic meaning."
Amy Curtis March
Amy is the youngest sister and baby of the family, aged twelve when the story begins. Interested in art, she is described as a "regular snow-maiden" with curly golden hair and blue eyes, "pale and slender" and "always carrying herself" like a proper young lady. She is the artist of the family. Often "petted" because she is the youngest, Amy can behave in a vain and self-centered way. She has the middle name Curtis, and is called by her full name, Amy.
She is chosen by her aunt and uncle to travel in Europe with them, where she grows and makes a decision about the level of her artistic talent and how to direct her adult life. She encounters "Laurie" Laurence and his grandfather during the extended visit. Amy is the least inclined of the sisters to sacrifice and self-denial. She behaves well in good society, at ease with herself. Critic Martha Saxton observes the author was never fully at ease with Amy's moral development and her success in life seemed relatively accidental. Due to her selfishness and attachment to material things, Amy has been described as the least likable of the four sisters, but she is also the only one who strives to excel at art purely for self-expression, in contrast to Jo, who sometimes writes for financial gain.
For her books, Alcott was often inspired by familiar elements. The characters in Little Women are recognizably drawn from family members and friends. Her married sister Anna was Meg, the family beauty. Lizzie, Alcott's beloved sister who died at the age of twenty-three, was the model for Beth, and May, Alcott's strong-willed sister, was portrayed as Amy, whose pretentious affectations cause her occasional downfalls. Alcott portrayed herself as Jo. Alcott readily corresponded with readers who addressed her as "Miss March" or "Jo", and she did not correct them.
However, Alcott's portrayal, even if inspired by her family, is an idealized one. For instance, Mr. March is portrayed as a hero of the American Civil War, a gainfully employed chaplain, and, presumably, a source of inspiration to the women of the family. He is absent for most of the novel. In contrast, Bronson Alcott was very present in his family's household, due in part to his inability to find steady work. While he espoused many of the educational principles touted by the March family, he was loud and dictatorial. His lack of financial independence was a source of humiliation to his wife and daughters. The March family is portrayed living in genteel penury, but the Alcott family, dependent on an improvident, impractical father, suffered real poverty and occasional hunger. In addition to her own childhood and that of her sisters, scholars who have examined the diaries of Louisa Alcott's mother, Abigail Alcott, have surmised that Little Women was also heavily inspired by Abigail Alcott's own early life.
The first volume of Little Women was published in 1868 by Roberts Brothers.
The first printing of 2,000 copies sold out quickly, and the company had trouble keeping up with demand for additional printings. They announced: "The great literary hit of the season is undoubtedly Miss Alcott's Little Women, the orders for which continue to flow in upon us to such an extent as to make it impossible to answer them with promptness." The last line of Chapter 23 in the first volume is "So the curtain falls upon Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Whether it ever rises again, depends upon the reception given the first act of the domestic drama called Little Women." Alcott delivered the manuscript for the second volume on New Year's Day 1869, just three months after publication of part one.
Versions in the late 20th and 21st centuries combine both portions into one book, under the title Little Women, with the later-written portion marked as Part 2, as this Bantam Classic paperback edition, initially published in 1983 typifies. There are 23 chapters in Part 1 and 47 chapters in the complete book. Each chapter is numbered and has a title as well. Part 2, Chapter 24 opens with "In order that we may start afresh and go to Meg's wedding with free minds, it will be well to begin with a little gossip about the Marches." Editions published in the 21st century may be the original text unaltered, the original text with illustrations, the original text annotated for the reader (explaining terms of 1868-69 that are less common now), the original text modernized and abridged, the original text abridged.
The British influence, giving Part 2 its own title, Good Wives, has the book still published in two volumes, with Good Wives beginning three years after Little Women ends, especially in the UK and Canada, but also with some USA editions. Some editions listed under Little Women appear to include both parts, especially in the audio book versions. Editions are shown in continuous print from many publishers, as hardback, paperback, audio, and e-book versions, from the 1980s to 2015. This split of the two volumes also shows at Goodreads, which refers to the books as the Little Women series, including Little Women, Good Wives, Little Men and Jo's Boys.
G. K. Chesterton notes that in Little Women, Alcott "anticipated realism by twenty or thirty years," and that Fritz's proposal to Jo, and her acceptance, "is one of the really human things in human literature." Gregory S. Jackson said that Alcott's use of realism belongs to the American Protestant pedagogical tradition, which includes a range of religious literary traditions with which Alcott was familiar. He has copies in his book of nineteenth-century images of devotional children's guides, which provide background for the game of "playing pilgrim" that Alcott uses in her plot of Book One.
When Little Women was published, it was well received. According to 21st-century critic Barbara Sicherman, during the 19th century, there was a "scarcity of models for nontraditional womanhood", which led more women to look toward "literature for self-authorization. This is especially true during adolescence". Little Women became "the paradigmatic text for young women of the era and one in which family literary culture is prominently featured." Adult elements of women's fiction in Little Women included "a change of heart necessary" for the female protagonist to evolve in the story.
In late 20th century, some scholars have criticized the novel. Sarah Elbert, for instance, wrote that Little Women was the beginning of "a decline in the radical power of women's fiction", partly because women's fiction was being idealized with a "hearth and home" children's story. Women's literature historians and juvenile fiction historians have agreed that Little Women was the beginning of this "downward spiral". But Elbert says that Little Women did not "belittle women's fiction" and that Alcott stayed true to her "Romantic birthright".
Little Women's popular audience was responsive to ideas of social change as they were shown "within the familiar construct of domesticity". While Alcott had been commissioned to "write a story for girls", her primary heroine, Jo March, became a favorite of many different women, including educated women writers through the 20th century. The girl story became a "new publishing category with a domestic focus that paralleled boys' adventure stories."
One reason the novel was so popular was that it appealed to different classes of women along with those of different national backgrounds, at a time of high immigration to the United States. Through the March sisters, women could relate and dream where they may not have before. "Both the passion Little Women has engendered in diverse readers and its ability to survive its era and transcend its genre point to a text of unusual permeability."
At the time, young girls perceived that marriage was their end goal. After publication of the first volume, many girls wrote to Alcott asking her "who the little women marry". The unresolved ending added to the popularity of Little Women. Sicherman said that the unsatisfying ending worked to "keep the story alive", as if the reader might find it ended differently upon different readings. "Alcott particularly battled the conventional marriage plot in writing Little Women". Alcott did not have Jo accept Laurie's hand in marriage; rather, when she arranged for Jo to marry, she portrayed an unconventional man as her husband. Alcott used Friederich to "subvert adolescent romantic ideals", because he was much older and seemingly unsuited for Jo.
In 2003 Little Women was ranked number 18 in The Big Read, a survey of the British public by the BBC to determine the "Nation's Best-loved Novel" (not children's novel); it is fourth-highest among novels published in the U.S. on that list. Based on a 2007 online poll, the U.S. National Education Association named it one of "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children". In 2012 it was ranked number 48 among all-time children's novels in a survey published by School Library Journal, a monthly with primarily U.S. audience.
Little Women has been one of the most widely read novels, noted by Stern from a 1927 report in the New York Times and cited in Little Women and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays. Ruth MacDonald argued that "Louisa May Alcott stands as one of the great American practitioners of the girls' novel and the family story."
In the 1860s, gendered separation of children's fiction was a newer division in literature. This division signaled a beginning of polarization of gender roles as social constructs "as class stratification increased". Joy Kasson wrote, "Alcott chronicled the coming of age of young girls, their struggles with issues such as selfishness and generosity, the nature of individual integrity, and, above all, the question of their place in the world around them." Girls related to the March sisters in Little Women, along with following the lead of their heroines, by assimilating aspects of the story into their own lives.
After reading Little Women, some women felt the need to "acquire new and more public identities", however dependent on other factors such as financial resources. While Little Women showed regular lives of American middle-class girls, it also "legitimized" their dreams to do something different and allowed them to consider the possibilities. More young women started writing stories that had adventurous plots and "stories of individual achievement—traditionally coded male—challenged women's socialization into domesticity." Little Women also influenced contemporary European immigrants to the United States who wanted to assimilate into middle-class culture.
In the pages of Little Women, young and adolescent girls read the normalization of ambitious women. This provided an alternative to the previously normalized gender roles. Little Women repeatedly reinforced the importance of "individuality" and "female vocation". Little Women had "continued relevance of its subject" and "its longevity points as well to surprising continuities in gender norms from the 1860s at least through the 1960s." Those interested in domestic reform could look to the pages of Little Women to see how a "democratic household" would operate.
While "Alcott never questioned the value of domesticity", she challenged the social constructs that made spinsters obscure and fringe members of society solely because they were not married. "Little Women indisputably enlarges the myth of American womanhood by insisting that the home and the women's sphere cherish individuality and thus produce young adults who can make their way in the world while preserving a critical distance from its social arrangements." As with all youth, the March girls had to grow up. These sisters, and in particular Jo, were apprehensive about adulthood because they were afraid that, by conforming to what society wanted, they would lose their special individuality.
Alcott "made women's rights integral to her stories, and above all to Little Women." Alcott's fiction became her "most important feminist contribution"—even considering all the effort Alcott made to help facilitate women's rights." She thought that "a democratic household could evolve into a feminist society". In Little Women, she imagined that just such an evolution might begin with Plumfield, a nineteenth century feminist utopia.
Besides silent versions in 1917 and 1918, Little Women was filmed by George Cukor in 1933, Mervyn LeRoy in 1949, David Lowell Rich in 1978, and Gillian Armstrong in 1994.
In January 2017, a Little Women film was announced with a casting call The film is to be produced by Maclain Nelson and Jake Van Wagoner.
Little Women was adapted into a television musical, in 1958, by composer Richard Adler for CBS. Little Women has been made into a serial three times by the BBC: in 1950 (when it was shown live), in 1958, and in 1970.
In the 1980s, two anime series were made in Japan Little Women in 1981 and Tales of Little Women in 1987. Both anime series were dubbed in English and shown on American television as well. In 2012, The March Sisters at Christmas, used the characters of the novel, set in 2012, concerned their house would be sold, was aired, directed by John Simpson.
Musicals and opera
Little Women was performed on Broadway in 2005, then toured in the US. It was staged in Sydney, Australia in 2008.
The Houston Grand Opera commissioned and performed Little Women in 1998, and NPR broadcast it on radio in the US. The opera was shown on television in 2001 and has been staged by other opera companies since the premiere.
A one-act stage version has been produced in the U.S., U.K., Italy, Australia, Ireland, and Singapore.
Myriad Theatre & Film adapted the novel as a full-length play which was staged in London and Essex in 2011.
Marisha Chamberlain and June Lowery have both adapted the novel as a full-length play; the latter play was staged in Luxembourg in 2014.
A modern adaptation of the novel, titled The March Family Letters, was produced by Cherrydale Productions and distributed by Pemberly Digital on YouTube, with the original run beginning December 25, 2014.
A dramatized version, produced by Focus on the Family Radio Theatre was released on September 4, 2012.