Little Women


Louisa May Alcott

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Little Women: Foreshadowing 3 key examples

Definition of Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the story. Foreshadowing can be achieved directly or indirectly, by making... read full definition
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the story. Foreshadowing can be achieved... read full definition
Foreshadowing is a literary device in which authors hint at plot developments that don't actually occur until later in the... read full definition
Part 1, Chapter 1: Playing Pilgrims
Explanation and Analysis—Christmas:

The conversation about Christmas and poverty in Chapter 1 foreshadows difficult times ahead for the March family. These first few lines reveal the girls' financial concerns:

'Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug. ‘It’s so dreadful to be poor!’ sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress. 

It's significant that these are the very first lines of the book. Alcott paints a picture of despair that must be overcome, not by financial gain, but by kindness, love, and family. What the girls lack in money they must make up for in spirit. 

In the short term, this instance of foreshadowing seems straightforward. The Marches do indeed face difficult times. For instance, their father falls ill, and Jo sells her hair to pay for his treatment. This sacrifice marks Jo's maturation and the pride she takes in refusing Aunt March's financial aid. 

But if readers consider the story's whole scope, this moment of dread and hopelessness also precedes great joy for the girls. Amy marries Laurie, Meg marries John Brooke, and Jo inherits Plumfield (which she transforms into a school with her husband Mr. Bhaer). So these first few lines could also be considered an ironic bit of foreshadowing, because after many tribulations, just as many joys await.

Part 1, Chapter 13: Castles in the Air
Explanation and Analysis—Beth's Death:

In Chapter 13, when the girls discuss their future plans, Beth makes a vague and troubling wish that foreshadows her death:

It seems so long to wait, so hard to do. I want to fly away at once, as those swallows fly, and go in at that splendid gate. 

And Jo replies:

"You'll get there, Beth, sooner or later, no fear of that," said Jo. "I'm the one that will have to fight and work, and climb and wait, and maybe never get in after all."

This profound statement by the second-youngest March sister appears in a conversation about future dreams. Jo and Meg are talking about what jobs they'd like to do and which countries they'd like to live in when they're older. But Beth peacefully disagrees, saying it's too difficult to get there. She seems to prefer to take the path of life that leads to the highest honor: admission to heaven. She yearns instead for a "lovelier country" whose "splendid gate" is a subtle allusion to the gates of heaven. 

Jo has no idea what is to befall her sister in the next few years. If she had known Beth was actually going to die, she might not have been so encouraging of her trip to heaven; nor would Jo make light of her own admission. In retrospect, this lighthearted scene foreshadows the darkest tragedy of the story. 

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Part 2, Chapter 43: Surprises
Explanation and Analysis—Jo and Mr. Bhaer:

Alcott uses foreshadowing to hint at the girls' impending marriages. Take, for instance, Jo and Mr. Bhaer. In Chapter 43, Jo compliments his singing and promises to join him in a duet. Her words foreshadow their marriage as well as the success of their union:

And Mr. Bhaer cleared his throat with a gratified "Hem!" as he stepped into the corner where Jo stood, saying... "You will sing with me? We go excellently well together." A pleasing fiction, by the way, for Jo had no more idea of music than a grasshopper. 

Jo and Bhaer "go well together" in both music and life. Although Jo does not conform exactly to the feminine ideal, or know much about music, she finds her own sort of success in both the duet and the relationship. In the following passage, Jo lapses into an appreciation of Mr. Bhaer's talent:

Mr. Bhaer sang like a true German, heartily and well, and Jo soon subsided into a subdued hum, that she might listen to the mellow voice that seemed to sing for her alone.

Here, Jo seems passive. However, her quiet appreciation signifies an active recognition of compatible values. Jo appreciates Bhaer's talent as a musician just as she respects him as a person; both his talent and good qualities make him an attractive candidate for marriage. Her compliance here foreshadows her future amenability to marriage.

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