Little Women

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Novels

Little Women is a novel by Louisa May Alcott published on September 30, 1868, concerning the lives and loves of four sisters growing up during the American Civil War. It was based on Alcott's own experiences as a child in Concord, Massachusetts. After much demand, Louisa May Alcott wrote a sequel, Good Wives, which was published in 1869 and is often published together with Little Women as if it were a single work. Good Wives picks up three years after the events in the last chapter of Little Women ("Aunt March Settles The Question"), and includes characters and events often felt by fans to be essential to the Little Women story.

Alcott later wrote Little Men and Jo's Boys (which followed the lives of the girls' children), and An Old Fashioned Girl, Rose in Bloom and How They Turned Out.

Plot introduction

Alcott's original work explores the overcoming of character flaws by following the example of Christian in Pilgrim's Progress (many of the chapter titles in this first part are allusions to the allegorical concepts and places in Pilgrim's Progress). The girls' "guidebooks" in their figurative quest are the Bibles they each receive on Christmas morning in Chapter two. Each of the March girls displays a major character flaw: Meg, greed; Jo, anger; Beth, crippling shyness; and Amy, selfishness. They overcome their flaws through lessons learned the hard way. Most of the flaws are in check for a time after lessons are learned, but even as young women the girls must work out these flaws in order to become archetypal mothers, wives, sisters, and citizens. Yet despite the moralizing in Little Women, and Alcott’s employment of the often used theme of "the good die young" (Beth) when it was published it was considered a break from the didactic, prescriptive literature of its time.

In the course of the novel the girls become friends with their next-door neighbour Laurie, who becomes a special friend of Jo. As well as the more serious themes outlined above, the book describes the activities of the sisters and their friend, such as creating a newspaper and picnicking, and the scrapes that Jo and Laurie get into.


Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.
  • Josephine or "Jo": The protagonist of the novel. Jo is a tomboy and the second-oldest sister. She is very outspoken and has a passion for writing. Her bold nature often gets her into trouble. She is especially close to her younger sister Beth, who helps her become a gentler person. Jo cuts off her long hair "her one beauty" - as Amy calls it, and sells it to a wig shop to get money for her mother to visit their father, a wounded Civil War chaplain. She refuses the proposal of marriage from family friend Theodore Laurence ("Laurie"), and later marries Professor Fritz Bhaer.
  • Margaret or "Meg": The eldest sister. She is described as being very pretty and somewhat vain about her looks, with smooth hair and small, white hands. She is the most responsible and helps run the household in her mother's absence. Meg also guards Amy from Jo when they have fights, just like Jo protects Beth. Due to the family's poverty she must work as a governess for wealthy friends. After having bad experiences with some rich people, Meg learns to tolerate being poor, and eventually discovers that true worth does not lie with money. She falls in love with Mr. John Brooke, Laurie's poor tutor. She eventually marries Mr. Brooke and bears twin children, Margaret ("Daisy") and John, Jr. ("Demi", short for "Demi-John").
  • Elizabeth or "Beth": The second-youngest sister, is a quiet, kind young woman who loves playing the piano and looking after her dolls. She is docile and shy almost to a fault. Beth also engages with charity. While her mother is nursing their father, she contracts scarlet fever from a poor family and ultimately dies, never recovering from her illness. She is described as having a round face, and appearing younger than her years.
  • Amy: The youngest sister and a talented artist, Amy is described as a beautiful young girl with golden hair (in curls) and blue eyes (she is described as having the general traits of a "snow maiden"). She cares about her family, but is also very self-centered and vain, often feeling the need to have what all of the other girls have and feeling that she is of "high importance". In her youth she is slightly spoiled and is inclined to throw tantrums when things do not go her way, being often "petted" since she was the youngest. She eventually travels abroad thanks to her aunt Carrol, and finally marries Laurie in Good Wives.
  • Margaret March a.k.a. "Marmee": The girls' mother and head of household while her husband is away. She engages in charitable works and attempts to guide her girls' morals and shape their characters.
  • Theodore "Laurie" Laurence: A charming, playful, and rich young man who lives next door to the March family with his stern grandfather. He is often misunderstood by his grandfather, who loves him, yet worries that Laurie will follow in his father's footsteps. His father was a free-spirited young man who eloped with an Italian pianist and was disowned for that, only to die young of illness along with his wife and eldest daughter; Laurie is the only one of their little family who survives, and then he's sent to live with Mr. Laurence. After Jo refuses to marry him he flees to Europe to study art. While there, he falls in love with and marries Amy.
  • Hannah Mullet: The maid of the March family, an older woman, who (from a letter written in the first person in the text) is described as kind and loyal, if lacking in formal education.
  • Aunt March: A rich widow. She lives alone in her mansion and Jo is employed to wait on her each day. Actually Mr. March's aunt, she disapproves of his family's charitable work and loss of wealth, while throwing her weight around with hers. Amy is sent to be Aunt March's "companion" when Beth is ill; though at first she is dismayed, her tenure there does the spoiled little girl good.
  • Mrs. Kirke: A friend of Marmee's who runs a boarding house in New York. She employs Jo as governess to her two girls, Kitty and Minnie, for a time.
  • Professor Friedrich (Fritz) Bhaer: A poor, German immigrant, who lives in Mrs. Kirke's boarding house and tutors her children. He and Jo become friends and he critiques Jo's work, encouraging her to become a serious writer instead of writing "sensation" stories for weekly tabloids. The two eventually marry.
  • Mr. March: Formerly wealthy, it is implied that he helped unscrupulous friends who did not repay the debt, resulting in the family's poverty. A great scholar and a minister, he serves as a chaplain for the Union Army.
  • Mr. Laurence: A wealthy neighbour to the Marches. Lonely in his mansion, and often at odds with his high-spirited grandson, Laurie, he finds comfort in becoming a benefactor to the Marches. He admires their charity, and develops a special friendship with Beth, who reminds him of his dead granddaughter (Laurie's deceased sister).
  • John Brooke: Tutor to Laurie, a naturalized citizen (he is English). He falls in love with Meg; she initially rejects him until Aunt March prohibits the match, at which point she realizes she is in love as well. He serves in the Union Army after late 1861, and marries Meg after the war.

Other characters:

Franz and Emil: Mr. Bhaer's two nephews whom he looks after following the death of his sister.

Miss Norton: A worldly tenant living in Mrs. Kirke's boarding house. She occasionally takes Jo under her wing and entertains her.

The Kings: Family who employ Meg as a governess.

The Hummels: Very poor German immigrant family. Marmee and the girls, though poor themselves, try to help them. Their baby dies of scarlet fever and Beth contracts it while caring for the child.

The Gardiners: Wealthy friends of Meg's. Before the Marches lost their wealth, the two families were societal equals. The Gardiners are portrayed as good-hearted but vapid, and believing in marriage for money and position. Meg's friend Sallie Gardiner eventually marries Ned Moffat, but is unhappy in her marriage.

Uncle and Aunt Carrol: Sister and brother-in-law of Mr. March. Amy travels to Europe with them and their daughter Florence.

Major themes

The Christian theme of the novel is usually lessened in film versions. Of the many popular versions, the four-hour miniseries with Dey, Birney, and Plumb is considered most faithful to the novel.

Notable adaptations


Little Women, a play in four acts, adapted by Marian De Forest from the story by Louisa May Alcott, opened on Broadway at the Playhouse Theatre, on October 14, 1912. The production was directed by Jessie Bonstelle and Bertram Harrison. The cast included Marie Pavey, Alice Brady, Gladys Hulette and Beverly West. It ran for 184 performances.

The play was revived on 18 December 1916 at the Park Theatre for 24 performances.

Another revival opened on 7 December 1931 at the Playhouse Theatre in a production directed by William A. Brady, Jr. with Jessie Royce Landis, Marie Curtis and Jane Corcoran. It ran for 17 performances.


In 2005, Geraldine Brooks published March, a novel exploring the gaps in Little Women, telling the story of Mr. March during the Civil War. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.


  • 1933 version: Katharine Hepburn as Jo, Spring Byington as Marmee.
  • 1949 version: Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, June Allyson as Jo, Janet Leigh as Meg, Margaret O'Brien as Beth, Mary Astor as Marmee, and Peter Lawford as Laurie.
  • 1978 version: Meredith Baxter as Meg, Susan Dey as Jo, Eve Plumb as Beth, William Shatner as Friedrich Bhaer, Greer Garson as Aunt March, and Robert Young as Grandpa James Lawrence.
  • 1994 version: Susan Sarandon as Marmee, Winona Ryder as Jo, Kirsten Dunst as the younger Amy, Claire Danes as Beth, Christian Bale as Laurie and Samantha Mathis as the older Amy.

Additional versions appeared in 1917, 1918, 1946,1948, 1950, 1958, 1970, 1979, and 2001 .

Opera and musical

  • In 1998 the book was adapted as an opera by composer Mark Adamo.
  • In January 23, 2005, a Broadway musical adapted from the book opened at the August Wilson Theatre in New York City with book by Allan Knee, score by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein. The musical starred pop singer Maureen McGovern (Marmee), of The Morning After fame, Sutton Foster (Jo March), and Jenny Powers (Meg March). The show closed on May 22, 2005. A national tour, again starring Maureen McGovern, began August 30 of that year.


In 1987, the Japanese animation studio Nippon Animation did an anime adaptation titled Ai no Wakakusa Monogatari (The Story of Love's Young Grass). The series was part of the studio's World Masterpiece Theatre series of animated adaptations of classic Western literary works. The series was directed by Fumio Kurokawa with character designs by Yoshifumi Kondo. Saban Entertainment produced an English dubbed version (Tales of Little Women) which aired on HBO in the United States in 1988-89, and the series has also achieved immense popularity in Europe (Una per tutte, tutte per una in Italy, Les quatre filles du Docteur March in France, Mujercitas in Spain).

This series changed the name of the town in which the series takes place from "Concord" to "Newcord", and also added episodes depicting scenes not from the novel at the beginning as a way of introducing the characters and educating the Japanese audience about the American Civil War, but is otherwise a faithful and highly regarded adaptation. Nippon Animation also produced an anime adaptation of Jo's Boys in 1993 for the World Masterpiece Theatre, titled Wakakusa monogatari: Nan to Jo-sensei (The Story of Young Grass: Nan and Mrs. Jo) and directed by Kozo Kusuba.

Two other anime adaptations of Little Women were made in the early 1980s: a 1980 TV special produced by Toei Animation and directed by Yugo Serikawa, and Wakakusa Monogatari yori: Wakakusa no Yon Shimai (From the Story of Young Grass: Four Sisters of Young Grass), a 1981 Toei Animation/ Kokusai Eigasha TV series directed by Kazuya Miyazaki and from the same animation team. The 1981 TV series was also released in the United States on video, courtesy of Sony. Still, Nippon Animation's 1987 version is the most successful and also widely regarded as the best of all anime adaptations of the story. As an interesting aside, seiyuu Keiko Han was cast in both the 1981 (as Beth) and 1987 (as Meg) TV series.

In addition, Bakuretsu Tenshi (Burst Angel in English), a 24-episode anime TV series which aired in 2004 on TV Asahi and is released in the U.S. by Funimation Productions, features main characters named Meg, Jo and Amy — which, although the series has nothing to do with Alcott's novel, attests to the popularity the story enjoys in Japan to this day.

A nod to the characters can be seen in the English release of the Nintendo 64 game, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. In the Forest Temple, the player must solve four puzzles hosted by ghosts by the names of Amy, Beth, Joelle and Meg in order to progress through the game.

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