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.
Work and Social Class Theme Icon

Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, was preoccupied with what constituted women’s work, and how the Industrial Revolution spurred changes in a woman’s power to earn a living – so much so that, following the success of Little Women, she would go on to publish a semi-autobiographical novel called Work: A Story of Experience.

Work is central to the lives of the members of the March family, and it’s part of the social experiment at the heart of Little Women. Are women happiest when they work where they’ve always traditionally worked, in the home? Are women who are forced (or who select) to find work outside of the home less happy than women whose husbands serve as the breadwinners? These questions and more are addressed through the various work experiences of the March sisters (Meg is a governess, Jo tends to crotchety Aunt March, etc.). The book pushes forward the idea that a woman’s usefulness extends beyond the realm of hearth and home – and this is most evident when Jo goes on to create a name for herself as an author.

Social class is also at stake in Little Women. Prior to Mr. March’s departure, the March family is plunged into poverty due to shadowy circumstances. Throughout Little Women, the notion that poverty is valuable (and that material wealth, on the other hand, often leads to moral decay) is returned to again and again. “Wealth is certainly a most desirable thing,” Alcott writes, “but poverty has its sunny side, and one of the sweet uses of adversity is the genuine satisfaction which comes from the hearty work of head or hand…” The notion (right or wrong) that the lower classes possess a kind of nobility and virtue that the upper classes lack is levied again and again in Little Women.

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Work and Social Class Quotes in Little Women

Below you will find the important quotes in Little Women related to the theme of Work and Social Class.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

“Our burdens are here, our road is before us…Now, my little pilgrims, suppose you begin again, not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get before Father comes home.”

Related Characters: Margaret "Marmee" March (speaker), Josephine "Jo" March , Margaret "Meg" March, Elizabeth "Beth" March, Amy Curtis March , Robert March
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote sets the moral tone of the book in that it establishes that the primary conflicts of the novel will be internal: the girls battling their own worst instincts to try to live good and righteous lives. Here, Mrs. March references The Pilgrim's Progress, an allegorical novel about Christian life that the girls read and act out as children. Mrs. March suggests that this novel could represent not just a theatrical opportunity, but a road map for their spiritual lives. Indeed, Little Women itself is mapped onto The Pilgrim's Progress, with its plot arc and moral center heavily invested in constant self improvement, overcoming personal obstacles, and Christian values. 

This quote comes directly after the opening struggle of the book, in which the March girls must decide whether to buy themselves Christmas presents, since they have chosen to forego family presents this year. The March girls first fantasize about buying things they really want, but with each other's help, they conclude that the best way to spend the money would be to buy their mother presents. In a sense, Little Women is an accumulation of choices like this one. This quote of Mrs. March's indicates that this struggle is emblematic of the struggles of the entire book.


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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.

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 24 Quotes

“Meg and John begin humbly, but I have a feeling that there will be quite as much happiness in the little house as in the big one. It’s a great mistake for young girls like Meg to leave themselves nothing to do but dress, give orders, and gossip.”

Related Characters: Margaret "Marmee" March (speaker), Margaret "Meg" March, John Brooke
Page Number: 248
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Marmee is once again describing the virtue to be found in humility and simplicity. Mr. Brooke has bought a small house for him and Meg to live in once they are married, and, while Meg wonders about the more glamorous married lives of her wealthy friends, Marmee insists that there will be as much happiness for Meg living simply as for her more extravagant friends. While the notion that happiness is not distributed based on social class has been thoroughly explored in the novel, Marmee goes even further here to suggest that there could be something actually morally superior to living humbly, because the imperative to work keeps one from falling into vice and idleness. As the March girls learned during their week of not working, sometimes it is lack of work in itself that sows the most unhappiness and infects relationships (in that case, sisterly ones, but it's applicable to marriage, too) with pettiness. So, Marmee is implying that Meg's marriage might be happier than her friends' marriages not in spite of their modest means, but, perhaps, because of it. 

Part 2, Chapter 25 Quotes

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. 

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 28 Quotes

…Meg learned to love her husband better for his poverty, because it seemed to have made a man of him, given him the strength and courage to fight his own way, and taught him a tender patience with which to bear and comfort the natural longings and failures of those he loved.

Related Characters: Margaret "Meg" March, John Brooke
Page Number: 291
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes near the end of a chapter about the struggles of Meg's married life, one of which was the resurgence of Meg's vanity and her extravagant purchase of a fancy dress. While Meg has always been vulnerable to envying the rich, she has become better and better at overcoming this inclination, and in this situation, the love of her husband helps her understand that she was wrong. Meg realizes here that her husband's poverty has actually made him a better, more empathetic person because it made him tougher and taught him to be patient and kind with the struggles of others. (Of course, this is not always the case in the real world.) Meg links John's ability to forgive her to the virtues he has cultivated through a modest and humble life, and this helps her understand that she strives to be more like him. This is another testament to what Alcott sees as the benefits of working, as it is through work that people learn strength and empathy.

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 34 Quotes

[Jo] began to see that character is a better possession than money, rank, intellect, or beauty, and to feel that if greatness is what a wise man has defined it to be, “truth, reverence, and goodwill,” then her friend Friedrich Bhaer was not only good, but great.

Related Characters: Josephine "Jo" March , Professor Friedrich "Fritz" Bhaer
Page Number: 361
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the book, Jo is pursuing her writing career in New York and is starting to become slightly "corrupted" by the types of stories she is writing and the people she's around. She sees Professor Bhaer as unique because of his kindness and goodwill and his imperviousness to bad morals in their circles, and she's drawn to this in him. This quote comes after Professor Bhaer defends the existence of God to intellectuals who are doubtful. Jo is deeply moved by this, because Jo's own faith is something that she has felt has not been shared by others in New York. This is another instance of Alcott showing that money and status do not correlate with being a good person, and that it is often those of humble background who are most noble of character. (Of course, Alcott also sees goodness as inextricably tied to Christian belief.) Jo isn't impressed by literary luminaries or society people, but by Professor Bhaer, who is unassuming but also fiercely good and willing to stand up for his beliefs. 

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.