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Little Women, Louisa May Alcott's defining work, which brought her much fame in her time, is a biographical account of her family. In the book, her father Amos Bronson is Mr. March and her mother Abigail May is Marmee, while her older sister Anna is Meg and younger sisters Lizzie and May are Beth and Amy, respectively. And Louisa May is the lead character, Josephine or Jo March, the second daughter. The novel, published in 1868-1869, made Alcott a major author of her era.
The March family is poor all throughout, and the women are always doing routine housework, which bores and frustrates them. Mr. March serves as a Union chaplain in the Civil War, which then rages, and he writes his family to inspire them to be more tolerant of their poverty and hardships. The girls wake up on Christmas morning to find copies of books under their pillows, probably "Pilgrim's Progress" as gifts for them from their father. True to their shaping as charitable Christians, they donate their breakfast to another poor family, the Hummels. But Meg, the eldest, has wealthy friend, Sally Gardiner, who invites her and Jo to Sally's New Year's party. Jo meets Laurie at that party and when Meg injures her ankle, Laurie takes the sisters home. Once home, Meg and Jo confront the grilling home chores that frustrate them.
The story caters most to Jo - Alcott's impersonation - who is tomboyish, self-expressive, has a temper, hates romance and is obsessed with family unity and welfare. She wants to be a writer and she becomes one, in the book as well as in real life. She rejects Laurie's offer of marriage, although everyone expects they would end up with each other. In the latter part, she instead marries Professor Bhaer when she gives up writing, and this can be interpreted as either a triumph for her domestic values or a professional loss to and in her, who consistently displays an independent spirit in the novel. The sharp contradiction in Jo's choices is the very contradiction in Alcott's values between domesticity and personal rebellion, anger, mental strength and independence she exuded in real life, and something which her father deplored deeply.
The sisters' interactions demonstrate the varying levels of maturity and vigor in young girls of their time. Alcott faithfully represents these in the different scenes of the novel. Amy's teacher catches her trading limes in school and punishes her. Marmee reacts by withdrawing Amy from school. When Jo refuses to bring Amy along to the theater, Amy hits back by burning Jo's manuscripts. In further retaliation, Jo almost lets Amy drown while ice-skating.
A telegram arrives to tell the women that Mr. March is hospitalized in Washington DC. They are so penniless that Jo has to sell her hair to have money for Marmee's trip for Washington. While out of the house, the girls abandon housework, which they hate. Meantime, Beth visits the Hummel family and in that visit, she is infected with the baby's scarlet fever, just like Alcott's real-life sister Lizzie caught the disease. To avoid getting infected, Amy, the youngest, escapes to the house of their aunt. Beth soon recovers. Meanwhile, Laurie's tutor, Mr. Brooke, falls in love with Meg. Meg, the eldest, has a sense of responsibility towards her younger sisters and the most domestically inclined. She has some liking for luxury and leisure but is, on the whole, kind and loving. Right before the end of the first part of the novel, Mr. Brooke and Meg become engaged, to the shock and displeasure of Jo.
In the second part, Meg and Mr. Brooke have moved into a new home and Mr. March is also back from the War. Jo gets published for the first time, but she has to trim her manuscript first as the condition set by her publishers. Meg gives birth to twins, Demi and Daisy, and gets immersed in household duties even more than before. And their Aunt Carroll goes to Paris with Amy instead of Jo, because the aunt prefers Amy's ladylike manners and looks to Jo's rugged tomboyish appearance and ways.
Left alone, Jo perceives that Beth likes Laurie for herself and so leaves for New York to give her a chance to win him. In New York, Jo meets Professor Bhaer, who counsels her to change from sensationalistic writing to a simpler one, and she takes the advice. Upon her return, Laurie once more proposes to her, but she rejects him again. At this time, Beth passes away - a parallelism of the passing away of Lizzie, Alcott's real-life sister. In the story, Laurie meets Amy instead in France and there they begin a relationship and soon marry. They soon have a daughter, named after their deceased sister Beth and also as sickly. Meantime, Jo develops a longing for Professor Bhaer and he follows her. They are soon married also. Jo inherits her aunt's house, which she afterwards makes into a boarding school for boys. The family is once more happily gathered and each expresses thanks for everyone's blessings.
Jo March seems to possess a combination of pleasant and unpleasant traits in equal measure. As such, she is an oddity for a 19th-century fiction like Alcott's. But looking more deeply, Jo's rebellion, anger and frankness are not un-appealing but merely reveal her humanity, her genuine personality. She depicts what can be said to be the first among many in a class of flawed but lovable heroes and heroines of children's fiction.
Beth March is quiet, very virtuous, shy and docile. Her first passion is to please others, although she utterly resents the housework she is doomed to do. She is also after keeping the family together and surviving. She embodies old-fashioned women's characteristics in 19th-century English works, such as those by Charles Dickens. Her all-too-good personality, however, does not seem to fit the realistic and grim framework of Alcott's fiction, which appears to shake the imbalance off with Beth's death. Of the four sisters, Beth is very close to Jo, while Amy is closer to Meg than to the other sisters. And it makes sense, because Beth's weakness complements Jo's strength and both of them exude a rebellion against the preferred ways for women in their time. Meg and Amy, on the other hand, complement each other too Meg's generosity parallels Amy's selfishness and coveting, and both can survive in a chauvinist world. Like Amy, Meg too has some liking for luxury and money, thus makes friends with rich girls, Annie Moffat and Sally Gardiner. She is the typical or conventional woman who takes after her mother. Meg, like her mother, turns into a pleasant housewife, although she hates both housework and politics, which her husband adores. In her inherent desire to please, she submerges her preference for wealth into a marriage to a man who is poor.
Amy March is the youngest, the most artistic and the most calculating of the sisters. She has the refined manners of a lady that win others, like their aunt, whose favor she comes after, and Laurie himself, who first loved Jo. She is Jo's direct contrast in inclination, although both are varieties of what is genuinely human.
Marmee, the mother, is a paragon of devotion and endurance to her family, whose courage is shown while her husband is away from home. There too is Laurie Laurence, the rich and friendly neighbor of the March family who adds color and romance to Jo and Amy. Laurie is as much a disappointment to his grandfather as Jo is to her father. Laurie's grandfather thinks that Laurie is not manly enough to want to go into business and succeed in it, and Jo is not feminine enough to be a sweet, obedient and subservient as her sisters. Amos Bronson Alcott, the father, is a straitlaced chaplain with Victorian values, which he wants to see in all his daughters.
Alcott first wrote sensational short stories from the 1840s to the 1860s, published anonymously through a pseudonym in New England periodicals. The publishers were in agreement that the characters are colorful and well-conceived and the plots, tightly woven and complex. In most of her anonymous stories was a mysterious and vindictive woman who seeks to manipulate and to destroy. Alcott also includes ghosts, opium eaters and mercenaries in her series. She took advantage of writing these very popular works as means of steady income for her family. Then she wrote the series on "Little Women," which was most successful in illustrating the life-sized struggles between adolescence and maturity among the sisters. It was the novel's faithful and lifelike depiction of the March family in a realistic way and Alcott's representation of New England manners and beliefs with accuracy that brought it fame and victory. Critics ascribed its success to the organization of the novel, wherein each chapter had an entire episode with a moral commentary, as one whole treatise on adolescent psychology. These critics praised Alcott's characterization and viewed…[continue]
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