Little Women

Little Women

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Themes and Colors
The Role of Women Theme Icon
Christianity, Morality, and Goodness Theme Icon
Work and Social Class Theme Icon
Genuineness, Simplicity, and Natural Beauty Theme Icon
Love Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Little Women, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The Role of Women Theme Icon

In Searchlights on Health: Light on Dark Corners (1895), a popular Gilded Age guide to health and sexuality, the authors caution male suitors to consider what they love in their brides-to-be: “Do you love her because she is a thoroughly womanly woman; for her tender sympathetic nature; for the jewels of her life, which are absolute purity of mind and heart; for the sweet sincerity of her disposition; for her loving, charitable thought; for her strength of character? because she is pitiful to the sinful, tender to the sorrowful, capable, self-reliant, modest, true-hearted? in brief, because she is the embodiment of all womanly virtues?” In describing what men should look for in a bride, the authors of Searchlights tidily sum up the ideals of femininity that were prevalent when Little Women was published. On top of this assumption that women were to embody these feminine virtues was the notion that women were naturally meant to belong in the home (this was often referred to as the “Cult of Domesticity”). Women in the late nineteenth century, and in particular feminists like Louisa May Alcott, questioned these popular notions regarding how women were supposed to behave and what role they were meant to occupy in society.

The notion of what truly constitutes feminine behavior (and, by extension, feminine virtue) is addressed in Little Women primarily through the defiant and tomboyish antics of Jo. Not content to be strapped into a corset and full of writerly ambitions, Jo parades around the March household in a pair of dashing leather boots, penning romances and poems by the dozen. The fact that Jo is ultimately a sympathetic and triumphant character (and not, say, a cautionary tale of what might go wrong if young ladies don’t act in feminine ways) underscores Little Women’s quietly revolutionary idea that there are many ways to be female, and that no one way of being female is more valuable than any other.

There’s also the question of how important men are in the lives of women. Part 1 of Little Women finds the March family fatherless and left to their own devices while Mr. March is off at war. Although the March girls find a kind of surrogate father in the form of their wealthy neighbor, Mr. Laurence, the book seems to point out that women are able to get along with a greater degree of independence than the gender norms of the time might have people believe. The question of whether women belong solely in the home is also called into question, particularly through the many moneymaking exploits of the March girls.

This isn’t to say that the Marches are outright gender revolutionaries – Mrs. March is eager to see each of her daughters married well (though she does mention that it would be equally acceptable if they remained single), and the March sisters (perhaps with the exception of gender-bending Jo) nonetheless strive to embody feminine ideals of beauty and virtue. This is just to say that the book toys with gender norms of the 19th century, and strives to emphasize that women are human beings complete with thoughts, desires, creative genius, vices, and virtues, and that they are capable of accomplishing and embodying more than the patriarchal gender roles of the 19th century allow.

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The Role of Women Quotes in Little Women

Below you will find the important quotes in Little Women related to the theme of The Role of Women.
Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

“I don’t believe fine young ladies enjoy themselves a bit more than we do, in spite of our burned hair, old gowns, one glove apiece and tight slippers that sprain our ankles when we are silly enough to wear them.”

Related Characters: Josephine "Jo" March (speaker)
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, the March girls attend a party held by a wealthy neighbor. While the Marches are well-respected in town, they are not wealthy and the party invitation induces status anxiety in the girls, as they do not have clothes that will be as fashionable as others at the party. This quote encapsulates the lesson of the chapter; the girls spend lots of time fussing about their appearances and worrying what others will think of them, but these concerns only bring unhappiness and misfortune (sprained ankles, damaged clothes). What they ultimately find joy in is a true human connection they establish with Laurie, whose kindness is unrelated to shallow concerns like social status. From the anxieties and misfortunes of the party, the girls learn that their vanity comes at a cost, and from Laurie's new friendship they learn that joy comes from unexpected sources. This quote is Jo conceding that all their fuss was unnecessary--their own humble lives can be just as pleasurable as (or even better than) the lives of richer women.


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Part 1, Chapter 9 Quotes

“I don’t like fuss and feathers.”

Related Characters: Theodore "Laurie" Laurence (speaker), Margaret "Meg" March
Related Symbols: Birds
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote of Laurie's is a rebuttal to Meg's central character flaw, her vanity. Meg is always envious of the nice things that others have, and she is protective of her own appearance to a fault. In this scene, she has fallen prey to this impulse, allowing her wealthy friends to dress her in a way that strokes her vanity but is contrary to her values. When Laurie sees her, he recognizes this and tells her so. What Laurie loves about the March girls is their character: their kindness, generosity, and intelligence. Furthermore, Laurie (who comes from a wealthy family) appreciates that the girls are not preoccupied with the shallow concerns of the wealthy (like fashion), but are instead deeply interested in spiritual progress and friendship. Laurie loves that they are down-to-earth, and to see Meg dressed up like a rich woman disappoints him. This quote is not intended to be condescending or judgmental on Laurie's part, but rather it is a well-intentioned criticism from a good friend, and Meg takes it as such. (Although as readers we should note that Laurie, as a man, feels entitled to offer his opinion on how he "likes" women to be.) Because of Laurie, Meg realizes that she has betrayed her values and she is embarrassed.

Part 1, Chapter 11 Quotes

“Work is wholesome, and there is plenty for everyone. It keeps us from ennui and mischief, is good for health and spirits, and gives us a sense of power and independence better than money or fashion.”

Related Characters: Margaret "Marmee" March (speaker)
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, the March girls do an experiment to see if they enjoy putting aside all work for a week. While they begin the week optimistic that without work and chores they will enjoy themselves more, their contentment quickly unravels and becomes boredom, laziness, and petty fighting. It's important to note here that the book is set in 1860, and the March girls work hard--they have much more responsibility than a typical American teenager today. Even so, the conclusion they come to (summed up in this quote by Mrs. March) is that hard and consistent work is essential to happiness and virtue. This revelation is an important one to these girls, who are each occasionally prone to status anxiety and envy of the rich and idle. By not working for a week, the girls begin to see a virtue in their humble background. Not only does work keep them wholesomely occupied, but working is actually a source of power for them. Alcott frames work and responsibility not just as burdens imposed on the poor, but also as potential privileges that reap personal and spiritual rewards.

Part 1, Chapter 14 Quotes

Jo’s breath gave out here, and wrapping her head in the paper, she bedewed her little story with a few natural tears, for to be independent and earn the praise of those she loved were the dearest wishes of her heart, and this seemed to be the first step toward that happy end.

Related Characters: Josephine "Jo" March (speaker)
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:

Jo is the character in Little Women who most boldly defies gender norms. Jo dresses like a tomboy, brushes aside romantic love, and harbors ambitions of becoming a writer. In this chapter, Jo is taking important steps to making this dream a reality. Alcott is, in some senses, very traditional; her values are explicitly Christian, and she frames her novel around The Pilgrim's Progress. However, in this chapter, Alcott demonstrates that her conception of Christian values is not at odds with feminism. Jo's family supports her ambitions and encourages them instead of trying to sway her towards more traditionally feminine pursuits. This trust and encouragement is rewarded, since Jo's success does not distort her values. Jo is pleased by her success in a way that is not egotistical; her family's opinion still means the most to her, and she feels empowered that her writing can help her gain financial independence, not fame. This quote shows the benefits of women stepping outside of their traditional spheres and pursuing the work that is personally meaningful to them.

Part 1, Chapter 15 Quotes

“My dear, where did you get it? Twenty-five dollars! Jo, I hope you haven’t done anything rash?”
“No, it’s mine honestly. I didn’t beg, borrow, or steal it. I earned it, and I don’t think you’ll blame me, for I only sold what was my own.”
As she spoke, Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short.

Related Characters: Josephine "Jo" March (speaker), Margaret "Marmee" March (speaker)
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:
This passage occurs after the Marches have received a telegram that Mr. March is gravely ill. As everyone anxiously contemplates how they can help, Jo slips out without telling anyone and sells her hair, which is described as being her greatest beauty. This is one of Jo's most complex moments. Her willingness to make this sacrifice for her father shows the abundance of her love and her relative comfort with defying gender norms. For Jo to cut off her hair in 1860 would make her almost completely alone among women; the gesture is brave and defiant, and its severity cannot be understated. However, she also weeps after cutting her hair, which shows that even for Jo, whose commitment to defying gender norms is fundamental to her character, losing her hair leaves her vulnerable and uncertain. Alcott is here subtly showing the extent to which women were and are valued based on their appearances rather than their character. This is a moment of great triumph for Jo, though, since she has made a meaningful sacrifice for her family and is standing up for her values in the face of hardship.
Part 1, Chapter 20 Quotes

“I’m not ambitious for a splendid fortune, or fashionable position, or a great name for my girls. If rank and money come with love and virtue, also, I should accept them gratefully, and enjoy your good fortune, but I know, by experience, how much genuine happiness can be had in a plain little house, where the daily bread is earned, and some privations give sweetness to the few pleasures.”

Related Characters: Margaret "Marmee" March (speaker)
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

When Jo asks Marmee whether she would rather her daughters marry rich men than humble men like Mr. Brooke, Marmee gives an answer that reflects the values and morals of the book overall. Marmee extolls the virtues of simple and genuine pleasures, reminding Jo that joy is not meted out along class lines, but rather it comes to those who are virtuous and who seek and give genuine love. Marmee says nothing sweeping and dogmatic about the rich; she is careful not to suggest that a life of modest means implies virtue in itself, reminding Jo that she would be happy for any of her daughters if they married rich, as long as it were for the right reasons. Marmee does suggest, however, that any considerations of money should be off the table when planning for the future because love and virtue are the most important things in life and they cannot be bought.

Part 1, Chapter 22 Quotes

“I remember a time when this hand was white and smooth, and your first care was to keep it so. It was very pretty then, but to me it is much prettier now, for in these seeming blemishes I read a little history. A burnt offering has been made to vanity, this hardened palm has earned something better than blisters, and I’m sure the sewing done by these pricked fingers will last a long time, so much good will went into the stitches.”

Related Characters: Robert March (speaker), Margaret "Meg" March
Page Number: 227
Explanation and Analysis:

As many incidents in this book have illuminated, Meg's greatest vice is her vanity, and she has struggled against it frequently in her attempts to live a virtuous life. Meg is particularly vain about her pretty white hands, but the hardships she has faced since Mr. March went off to war have left her hands scarred. In this passage, Mr. March has just returned home and he praises Meg's hands, for their blemishes reveal the sacrifices she has made for her family and her progress in overcoming vanity in favor of more important concerns. This passage is another nod to the importance of work in the novel. Alcott sees work as the path to a good life, and idleness as courting vice. This quote is also important in that Mr. March, instead of encouraging Meg to protect her appearance (which some would have said was a woman's greatest asset), encourages Meg to work hard and help others, implicitly prioritizing her character over her appearance. This is another potentially feminist moment in the book. 

Part 2, Chapter 25 Quotes

Meg looked very like a rose herself, for all that was best and sweetest in heart and soul seemed to bloom into her face that day, making it fair and tender, with a charm more beautiful than beauty.

Related Characters: Margaret "Meg" March
Related Symbols: Flowers
Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis:

At Meg's wedding, she is dressed simply and adorned with flowers. In this passage, Alcott compares Meg's beauty to a rose in that it is simple and natural, and Alcott suggests that this beauty is rooted less in her appearance than in the pure happiness and virtuous intentions with which Meg is entering her marriage. To be this happy with her marriage is a triumph for Meg, who has previously been tempted by wealth and vanity. Her lovely and simple appearance contrasts with, for instance, the night that her rich friends dressed her garishly for the dance, and the comparison shows the tremendous progress Meg has made in overcoming her vanity. In fact, Alcott seems to suggest that it is only in overcoming vanity and finding things more precious and important to value that Meg has become this beautiful. This is an auspicious beginning to Meg's married life, and the whole scene of their wedding suggests the virtues of simplicity, nature, and genuine emotion.

Neither silk, lace, nor orange flowers would she have. “I don’t want a fashionable wedding, but only those about me whom I love, and to them I wish to look and be my familiar self.”

Related Characters: Margaret "Meg" March (speaker)
Related Symbols: Flowers
Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis:

As a further credit to Meg and her simple wedding, Alcott makes it clear that the simplicity of the wedding was Meg's choice, and not just a reflection of the means available to her and John. Meg (who was once taken in by vanity and envy of her wealthy friends' beautiful clothes) understands now that for her wedding day she should just be herself. After all, the only people whom she wants to impress are those who know her and love her best, and those are the very people who would be least taken in by fancy things, as Meg's family only cares about her character. This passage is an indication that Meg has made meaningful progress in her quest for a more virtuous life, and it shows the confidence that she has in herself and her marriage, since she is willing to rely on genuine sentiment to make the wedding beautiful, rather than striving to make it fashionable. 

It wasn’t at all the thing, I’m afraid, but the minute she was fairly married, Meg cried,” The first kiss for Marmee!” and turning, gave it with her heart on her lips.

Related Characters: Margaret "Meg" March (speaker), Margaret "Marmee" March
Page Number: 258
Explanation and Analysis:

In a last testament to Meg's willingness to prioritize genuine sentiment over fashion and tradition, Meg kisses her mother at the wedding before she even kisses her new husband. This shows the depth of Meg's love for her family, and the extent to which Meg is acting on genuine impulse throughout the chapter. It is Jo, in particular, who has fretted over a perceived conflict between familial and romantic love, but something that each of the girls must learn throughout the book is that the two are not at odds, and the sentiments, complexities, and rewards of familial and romantic love are quite similar. This moment shows clearly that romantic and familial love are not in conflict, since Meg is perfectly comfortable breaking with tradition and expressing her love for her mother first. This moment also alludes to the importance of the bonds between women. Meg's marriage is virtuous and based on real love, but it can never replace or diminish the importance of Meg's mother and sisters to her life. 

Part 2, Chapter 26 Quotes

“My lady,” as [Amy’s] friends called her, sincerely desired to be a genuine lady, and was so at heart, but had yet to learn that money cannot buy refinement of nature, that rank does not always confer nobility, and that true breeding makes itself felt in spite of external drawbacks.

Related Characters: Amy Curtis March
Page Number: 264
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the book, Amy's main vices are conceitedness and pretension. Amy always wants to be seen as wealthier and more cultured and worldly than she actually is. This manifests from the purely shallow (Amy using a clothespin to make her nose look more "Grecian") to the more earnest (Amy trying to cultivate friendships with aristocratic women, the primary conflict of this chapter). In this passage, Amy is hoping to throw a lunch party for her well-bred new friends, and she wants to serve delicacies that are beyond her means. The narrator tells us that Amy does not yet understand that appearing refined is different from having truly good breeding, which, we can presume, has to do more with kindness, humility, and self-esteem than with knowing the right references or having the right clothes (although it does put an uncomfortable emphasis on the "nobility" of one's heritage). This quote suggests that Amy already has all the qualities of true refinement, but she is too caught up on the external markers of refinement to be content with herself. 

Part 2, Chapter 27 Quotes

Wealth is certainly a most desirable thing, but poverty has its sunny side, and one of the sweet uses of adversity is the genuine satisfaction which comes from hearty work of head or hand, and to the inspiration of necessity, we owe half the wise, beautiful, and useful blessings of the world. Jo enjoyed a taste of this satisfaction, and ceased to envy richer girls, taking great comfort in the knowledge that she could supply her own wants, and need ask no one for a penny.

Related Characters: Josephine "Jo" March
Page Number: 276
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jo has just won a handsome sum of money as a prize for one of her stories. She is ambivalent, though, about her success--while she likes feeling validated as a writer, the winning story was more pulp than literary and her father tells her not to be seduced by the money at the expense of aiming for writing better (but less marketable) stories. After using her money to send Beth and Marmee on a vacation, the narrator reflects on the role of money in Jo's life. For Jo, it is the act of writing itself that brings the biggest reward. Beyond that, Jo appreciates that writing for money can bring her some measure of independence, but she realizes that these two blessings are worth more than the advantages of having wealth. This is a radical statement coming from a young woman. Jo is satisfied with her writing career as an end in itself, and she likes the independence that money brings her, but she does not strive for anything more extravagant. Essentially, this passage is Alcott's thesis regarding poverty--one is that is inspirational, if not always realistic.

Part 2, Chapter 29 Quotes

“Women should learn to be agreeable, particularly poor ones, for they have no other way of repaying the kindnesses they receive. If you’d remember that, and practice it, you’d be better liked than I am, because there is more of you.”

Related Characters: Amy Curtis March (speaker), Josephine "Jo" March
Page Number: 304
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes after Jo and Amy pay a series of calls to acquaintances, and Jo embarrasses Amy by, among other behaviors, snubbing a man she finds distasteful. Jo argues that by snubbing him she might cause him to examine his behavior, but Amy, who is much more enamored with social graces, disagrees.

The quote here is Amy explaining to Jo that women, particularly poor ones, must be agreeable because it's the only way to repay kindness. This passage shows how deeply patriarchal Victorian society was, as Amy sees herself as having little value to acquaintances besides her ability to charm them. Jo, on the other hand, who refuses to be deferential and who is financially supporting herself, has a much more radical attitude. While Amy does not believe that it is her place as a poor woman to tell men that she disapproves of them, Jo thinks of letting her opinion be known as a way to influence people towards better behavior, and she thinks it inauthentic to be agreeable to someone just because he is a man and has higher social status. While Jo clearly comes out of this seeming more moral, the seriousness with which she takes Amy's argument shows how deeply ingrained these values were.

Part 2, Chapter 35 Quotes

“I can’t love anyone else, and I’ll never forget you, Jo, never! Never!” with a stamp to emphasize his passionate words.
“What shall I do with him?” sighed Jo, finding that emotions were more unmanageable than she expected. “You haven’t heard what I wanted to tell you. Sit down and listen, for indeed I want to do right and make you happy,” she said, hoping to soothe him with a little reason, which proved that she knew nothing about love.

Related Characters: Josephine "Jo" March (speaker), Theodore "Laurie" Laurence (speaker)
Page Number: 371
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Laurie has finally proposed to Jo, and she says no. It's difficult for Jo to break Laurie's heart because she loves him as a friend, but she knows she is not in love with him and wants to do the right thing by not giving him hope. While Laurie and Jo are both good people who genuinely love one another, Alcott suggests that they would not complement each other as husband and wife because of their similarities, particularly their brash temperaments. Jo needs to surround herself with moderate people like Beth who check her worst impulses, and she seems to realize this while she is turning Laurie down. Jo has always spoken scathingly of romantic love, but in this chapter we get the sense that her attitude might be slowly changing. She doesn't protest much when Laurie accuses her of loving Professor Bhaer, which, for Jo, seems suspicious. However, we do know that she can't be in love with him yet because her handling of Laurie's emotions, as this quote states, proves that she doesn't quite know how to empathize with someone in love. This is something Jo needs to learn, but we get the sense that maybe she is about to.

Part 2, Chapter 46 Quotes

“Oh yes!” said Jo, and he was quite satisfied, for she folded both hands over his arm, and looked up at him with an expression that plainly showed how happy she would be to walk through life beside him, even though she had no better shelter than the old umbrella, if he carried it.

Related Characters: Josephine "Jo" March , Professor Friedrich "Fritz" Bhaer
Related Symbols: Umbrellas
Page Number: 482
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Jo has finally allowed herself to be open to romantic love. She realizes that Professor Bhaer is someone she genuinely loves and with whom she is compatible, and she wants someone to go through life with just as her mother has with Mr. March. After hunting down the professor and confessing that she is heartbroken that he is planning to take a job far away, Jo makes Professor Bhaer realize that his feelings for her are requited and he proposes. This is another example of the March girls striving to find husbands who are kind and virtuous and who complement their personalities, rather than trying to marry for status or wealth. Professor Bhaer has only a shabby umbrella with him, but Jo recognizes that the care with which he holds that umbrella over her head is all she needs in a marriage. It's also significant that the March girls have had so much agency in choosing their husbands. Jo and Amy both turn down proposals from wealthy men in order to be with better and poorer men, which is not a freedom that every Victorian family would have permitted their daughters. 

“Ah! Thou gifest me such hope and courage, and I haf nothing to gif back but a full heart and these empty hands,” cried the Professor, quite overcome.
Jo never, never would learn to be proper, for when he said that as they stood upon the steps, she just put both hands into his, whispering tenderly, “Not empty now,” and stooping down, kissed her Friedrich under the umbrella.

Related Characters: Josephine "Jo" March (speaker), Professor Friedrich "Fritz" Bhaer (speaker)
Related Symbols: Umbrellas
Page Number: 488
Explanation and Analysis:

Once Jo lets Professor Bhaer know that she loves him, the professor is overcome with joy. He had worried that he did not have enough to offer her because he didn't have much money, but Jo has never been someone particularly impressed with status. This exchange, in a sense, turns Victorian expectations for women on its head; Bhaer laments that all he has to give are "these empty hands" and Jo responds by putting her hands in his and telling him they are "not empty now." Instead of the man needing to offer material security to his bride-to-be, Jo is confident in her own ability to support herself and her ability to give love equal to his. Putting her hands in his symbolizes her assertion that she can equally contribute to the relationship and, while she appreciates the love and protection that Bhaer provides (as symbolized by the umbrella), she is choosing this marriage because it enriches her life, not because she needs it. 

Part 2, Chapter 47 Quotes

Touched to the heart, Mrs. March could only stretch out her arms, as if to gather children and grandchildren to herself, and say, with face and voice full of motherly love, gratitude, and humility…
“Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!”

Related Characters: Margaret "Marmee" March (speaker), Josephine "Jo" March , Margaret "Meg" March, Amy Curtis March
Page Number: 499
Explanation and Analysis:

In this closing passage to the novel, the March women have successfully devoted themselves to Christian values and hard work, and have thus established the full and happy lives that Mrs. March always imagined for them. Throughout the book, each of the women has struggled to overcome their personal flaws, maintain moral values, and support one another as they grew up. Now, this has all come to fruition with each of the girls having made happy and thriving families of their own. It's significant that each of the women has learned, with much difficulty, to never prioritize money in their lives. While none of them but Amy has much money, their joy is something that can't be bought, and Mrs. March couldn't "wish [them] a greater happiness than this." Alcott is driving home the point here that love is the greatest gift of all, and we should never let superficial concerns cloud our ability to give and receive genuine love, whether that is familial or romantic. This passage also emphasizes the importance of family. Despite everything that has happened to the Marches, their family is still the central force in their lives and it brings them great joy.