Concord, Massachusetts, just a few days before Christmas in the year 1860. The four March girls – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy - are sitting in their sparsely furnished living room. The March family is poor, and Mrs. March (their mother) has suggested that the family go without presents, given that it would be wrong to “spend money for pleasure” when men (including their father, who volunteered to serve as a chaplain) are fighting in the Civil War. However the girls each have a dollar, and they discuss what they would like to do with their money.
Louisa May Alcott modeled the March family after her own life. The Marches’ lack of money closely resembles the poverty the Alcott family endured when Louisa herself was a child. Mrs. March’s suggestion that the family go without presents suggests that the family should embrace simplicity in lieu of material wealth. This renunciation of material wealth can be seen as a Christian act.
At first, the girls decide to buy presents for themselves, given how tirelessly they’ve been working. Sixteen-year-old Meg has been working hard as a governess for the King family, fifteen-year-old Jo serves as sour Aunt March’s companion, thirteen-year-old Beth does a good deal of housework, and twelve-year-old Amy goes to school with tiresome girls who tease her for being poor.
The first of many moral struggles is presented here in this scene. The girls have worked hard, yes, but does that mean they’re allowed to indulge themselves? The girls each have to come to grips with their own (very human) feelings of selfishness.
While they talk, Amy scolds Jo for using slang, citing that it’s boyish behavior. Jo scoffs at Amy, putting her hands in her pockets and whistling a tune. Meg scolds them both for quarreling. She tells Jo that she should “remember that [she’s] a young lady.” Jo rebels. “I’m not!” she replies. “I hate to think I’ve got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China Aster! …I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy.”
Amy will establish herself as one who wishes to rub shoulders with the upper classes – hence her worry about Jo’s socially casual behavior. Jo’s behavior also flouts the accepted gender norms of the late 19th century. Jo’s wish to be a boy is an expression of her desire to enjoy all the freedoms men in the 19th century enjoyed. In her view, growing up means that she will have to relinquish this dream.
The March girls are described. Meg is beautiful in the Victorian fashion: plump, pale, and blessed with lovely hair and hands. Jo is tall, thin, and tan, with her only beauty being her thick mane of brown hair. Beth is small, delicate, shy, and rosy – her serene nature has earned her the nickname “Little Miss Tranquility.” Amy is “a regular snow maiden,” given her curly blonde hair, pale skin, and blue eyes.
Gilded Age beauty ideals are on full display in this passage. Ideal feminine beauty was seen as simple, unfussy, yet decidedly “feminine” – which is to say, plumpness, softness, and paleness. Plain according to 19th century standards, Jo would probably be considered attractive nowadays, given that she is tall, slim, and tan.
The girls prepare for their mother’s return after a long day of work. Beth puts Mrs. March’s slippers by the fire to warm up, and the girls note how worn they are. The girls decide to buy their mother a new pair for Christmas, and squabble over who will have the right to do it. They then agree to each use their money to buy Mrs. March Christmas presents.
The girls’ love for their mother steers them back on course, morally speaking. Their selfishness is forgotten in their desire to please their mother, and they remember the Christian ideas of selflessness and generosity .
Mrs. March – “a tall, motherly lady with a ‘can I help you’ look about her” - comes home as the March girls are practicing their Christmas play, which Jo has written herself. Mrs. March reveals that she’s received a letter from Mr. March, and she reads it to the girls after supper. In the letter, Mr. March bids the girls to be good and to “conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.”
Mrs. March embodies the 19th century’s feminine ideal of motherhood, exemplified by her extreme selflessness and helpfulness (which nowadays might be described as codependence). Jo’s decidedly unfeminine literary talents are introduced here. Mr. March, acting as the family’s moral compass, reminds the girls to live by Christian values.
Mrs. March reminds her daughters of the times they used to act out scenes from Pilgrim’s Progress when they were children. She then tells them that what they learned from that game is applicable to their own life journeys: “We are never too old for this, my dear, because it is a play we are playing all the time…” She then tells them that they should look under their pillows on Christmas morning in order to find their guidebooks for this journey. Just before going to bed, the whole family gathers together by the tuneless old piano to sing together.
Pilgrim’s Progress is introduced in this scene, and the notion that the girls are on a spiritual quest to perfect themselves in the face of worldly difficulties will reverberate throughout the remainder of Part 1. The March family’s idyllic familial love is exemplified here. The piano is falling apart, but the Marches don’t need a fancy piano to enjoy their time together.