Little Women: Summary, Characters & Author

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  • 0:02 Background & Plot Summary
  • 4:11 The March Girls
  • 5:49 Other Major Characters
  • 7:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Francesca Marinaro

Francesca M. Marinaro has a PhD in English from the University of Florida and has been teaching English composition and Literature since 2007.

Louisa May Alcott's ''Little Women'' is one of the most famous classic novels of American children's fiction. This lesson will introduce you to the story and its characters, and it will briefly look at the book's popularity and theme.

Background and Plot Summary

When nineteenth century American writer Louisa May Alcott first wrote Little Women as a way to earn money, she never imagined it would be such a tremendous commercial success. But, the novel is a well-loved classic of children's literature, with relatable, memorable characters and the warm, homey feeling of being drawn into the world of a nineteenth century American home. While Alcott was reluctant to even write the story, it earned her fame and fortune and encouraged readers to embrace her later work as well. She originally published the book in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, when, after reading volume one, readers demanded to know more about the characters. Volume two, Good Wives, was combined with the first volume in 1880, and published as Little Women.

Little Women is a coming of age story that begins in Civil War America. It follows the lives and growth from girlhood to womanhood of the four March girls: Meg, 17; Josephine (or Jo), 15; Beth, 14; and Amy, 12. Their father, a minister, is serving in the war, and the girls and their mother must keep the house running and work hard in their father's absence. When we first meet the girls, it's just before Christmas, and they are sad because their poverty and the current hard times won't really make things feel much like Christmas—especially since they can't afford presents. Realizing how fortunate they are to have their mother and each other, they resolve to work harder to be more selfless and good, as their father would want.

They begin by bringing their breakfast to a needy family nearby, the Hummels. Their wealthy neighbor, Old Mr. Laurence, who they all fear because he looks like a grim man, sends them flowers and ice-cream as a reward for their kindness. This opens the door for a friendship between the girls and his grandson, Theodore (or Laurie). When Jo and Meg attend a dance, Jo, something of a tomboy, hides from the dancing and discovers Laurie doing the same. The two begin chatting, and when Meg sprains her ankle, Laurie drives the girls home in his carriage. For the girls, who've never had a brother, this friendship is refreshing. They visit Mr. Laurence's home and enjoy its rich interior. Jo loves the library, for she is an aspiring writer; Meg loves walking in the conservatory among all of the flowers; Beth, a musician, plays the grand piano; and Amy likes to practice her drawing by copying the artwork.

When Mrs. March receives a telegram that her husband is ill, Mr. Laurence sends Mr. Brooke (Laurie's tutor) to accompany her to her husband, leaving the girls at home. During her mother's absence, Beth contracts scarlet fever from caring for the Hummels' baby and becomes dangerously ill. While the fever breaks, her health never fully recovers. While Mrs. March is caring for her husband, Mr. Brooke confesses to them his love for Meg. They eventually agree to marry, though they plan to wait until Meg is older, and Mr. Brooke can save money for a home.

Three years later, Meg and Mr. Brooke marry, and Jo works on a novel that is rejected with the explanation that it needs revision. The girls' Aunt Carol plans a trip to Europe, and Amy accompanies her so that she can have an opportunity to study art. Meanwhile, Jo moves to New York and becomes a governess. There she meets Professor Bhaer, who is charming and intelligent but very poor, and obviously is taken with Jo. When she returns home for the summer, Laurie proposes, but she rejects him, saying she can only love him as a brother. Crushed, Laurie decides to accompany his grandfather to Europe.

While Laurie is in Europe, Beth dies peacefully, and he is able to comfort Amy, who he has come across in his travels. Laurie and Amy return home from Europe married, to everyone's delight. Professor Bhaer and Jo also marry, and Jo inherits a huge home, Plumfield, from her Great Aunt March (the elderly aunt of her father who she cared for as a paid companion). She and Professor Bhaer move there and establish a school for boys, and the family continues to flourish, growing with husbands and children.

Now let's take a closer look at some of the characters.

The March Girls

The March family consists of four sisters:

Meg, the oldest, remembers a time when the family had more money and longs for luxury, but she works hard as a governess and takes pleasure in the domestic tasks of running a household. Despite her vanity, she enjoys pleasing others and making home comfortable.

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