Alcott and the Novel

Louisa May Alcott was born on November 29, 1832 in Germantown, Pennsylvania. She was the second of four daughters to Abigail May and Amos Bronson Alcott, a noted educator, writer, philosopher, and Transcendentalist. The Alcott girls were educated mainly by their father, but also received lessons from family friends such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret Fuller. Despite Bronson’s notoriety, the family was often plagued with financial problems, and Louisa worked several different jobs to help support the family. Before turning to writing as a career, Louisa worked as a teacher, governess, seamstress, and even a household servant.

Louisa also volunteered as a nurse during the Civil War. She eventually published her experiences during this time in Hospital Sketches (1863), her first major work, based on letters she had written home from the hospital. In 1868, Louisa’s publisher asked her to write a novel for girls. Little Women was written in three months, and is based on the experiences of Louisa and her sisters’ adolescence in New England during the Civil War. The protagonist, Jo March, is based on Louisa herself – a tomboy, a passionate writer, struggling to find a path in a society with so few opportunities for women, and reluctant to conform to the typical ideas of femininity.

Little Women was published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, and was wildly successful. As Louisa never married, she used her earnings to support her family. Her youngest sister, May, died in 1879, and Louisa adopted May’s daughter and raised her until Louisa’s death in 1888.[1]

Plot Summary

Little Women is centered on the March family in Concord, Massachusetts. It follows the lives of the four March girls – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy – as they come of age in during and after the Civil War. Their father is serving as a chaplain in the Union Army, leaving their mother, or Marmee, in charge of raising the girls. With Mr. March away at war, the family has very little means of financial support. Throughout the first volume, Marmee helps the girls in overcoming their weaknesses: for Meg, vanity; Jo, stubbornness; Beth, shyness; and Amy, selfishness. The girls carry copies of John Bunyan’s allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, and look to it for guidance. As they grow up, they each try to find their place in the world. Meg, the most traditional of the girls, marries and raises a family. Jo, after refusing an advantageous marriage proposal, travels to New York to advance her writing career; she eventually marries as well. Sadly, Beth catches scarlet fever while doing charitable work, and she dies. Amy, a talented artist, travels to Europe and marries a wealthy family friend.

[1] Jan Turnquist, “Louisa May Alcott,” Orchard House: Home of ‘Little Women’, (accessed October 20, 2010).

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