(Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy)
Two-volume Roberts Brothers printing, from the early 1870s
|Author||Louisa May Alcott|
Coming of Age
1868 (1st part)|
1869 (2nd part)
|Followed by||Little Men, Jo's Boys|
Little Women (or Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy) is a novel by American author Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888). The book was written and set in the Alcott family home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts. It was published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. The novel follows the lives of four sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March—and is loosely based on the author's childhood experiences with her three sisters. The first volume was an immediate commercial and critical success, prompting the composition of the book's second volume titled Good Wives, which was successful as well. The publication of the book in the form of a single volume first occurred in 1880. Alcott followed Little Women with two sequels, also featuring the March sisters, Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886). Little Women has been adapted as a play, a musical, an opera, a film, and animation.
Plot introduction[edit | edit source]
Alcott's original work explores the overcoming of character flaws. Many of the chapter titles in this first part are allusions to the allegorical concepts and places in Pilgrim's Progress. When young, the girls played Pilgrim's Progress by taking an imaginary journey through their home. As young women, they agree to continue the figurative journey, using the "guidebooks" — copies of the New Testament, described as "that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived"; they receive on Christmas morning. Each of the March girls must struggle to overcome a character flaw: Meg, vanity; Jo, a hot temper; Beth, shyness; and Amy, selfishness.
In the course of the novel, the girls become friends with their next-door neighbor, the teenage boy Laurie. The book depicts the light hearted, often humorous activities of the sisters and their friend, such as creating a newspaper and picnicking, and the various "scrapes" that Jo and Laurie get into. Jo consistently struggles with the boundaries 19th century society placed on females, including not being able to fight in a war, not being able to attend college, and being pressured by her Aunt March to find a suitable husband to take care of her.
Characters[edit | edit source]
Josephine "Jo" March: The protagonist of the novel, Jo is an autobiographical depiction of Louisa May Alcott herself. A tomboy, Jo is the second daughter, aged fifteen at the beginning of the story. She is outspoken and has a passion for writing. Her nature often gets her into trouble, while her heart often pushes her into acts of kindness. She is close to her younger sister, Beth, a quiet and compassionate, character who offsets Jo's more outgoing nature. At the beginning of the book, Jo is employed as a companion by her Aunt March, a job she dislikes. When Beth comes down with scarlet fever, Amy replaces Jo as Aunt March's companion. Jo cuts off her long, chestnut brown hair—"her one beauty", as Amy calls it — and sells it to a wig shop to earn travel money for her mother to visit their father, a Civil War chaplain who is dangerously ill. Jo receives a marriage proposal from her childhood friend and neighbor Laurie, but she refuses him. Later, Jo moves to New York, where she meets Professor Friedrich "Fritz" Bhaer, whom she later marries. Regarding Jo's marriage, Alcott later wrote, "Jo should have remained a literary spinster, but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn't dare refuse and out of perversity went and made a funny match for her". In the 1994 film directed by the Australian film director Gillian Armstrong, Jo was portrayed by Winona Ryder.
Margaret "Meg" March: At sixteen, she is the oldest sister. She is considered the beauty of the March household and she is well-mannered. Meg runs the household when her mother is absent. Meg also guards Amy from Jo when the two quarrel, just as Jo protects Beth. Meg is employed as a governess for the Kings, a wealthy local family. Because of the genteel social standing of her family, Meg is allowed into society. However, after a few disappointing experiences (first, the Kings' eldest son is disinherited for bad behavior, and later she visits her friend Annie Moffat and discovers that her family believes Mrs. March is plotting to match her with Laurie only to gain his family's wealth), Meg learns that true worth does not lie with money. She falls in love with Mr. John Brooke, Laurie's tutor, whom she marries. Meg bears twin children, Margaret "Daisy" and John Laurence "Demi" (short for Demi-John). In the 1994 film, Meg was portrayed by Trini Alvarado.
Elizabeth "Beth" March: Thirteen years old when the novel opens, Beth is a quiet, kind young woman, and a pianist. She enjoys her dolls and cats. Docile and shy, she prefers to be homeschooled and avoids most public situations. At the beginning of the book, Alcott describes her as a sweet girl with a round young face and brown hair. She has a close relationship with Jo, despite their different personalities. Beth enjoys charity work, and helps her mother nurture poor families at the beginning of the novel. Later, when her mother is in Washington caring for their father, Beth comes down with scarlet fever, caught while looking after a family with sick children. Although Jo and Meg do their best to nurse her, Beth becomes so dangerously ill that they send for their mother to return home. However, before Mrs. March arrives, Beth's fever breaks. Beth recovers but she is left permanently weakened by the illness. In the second part of the book, as her sisters begin to leave the nest, Beth wonders what will become of her, as all she wants is to remain at home with her parents. When Beth contracts tuberculosis, the family nurses her. In her final illness, she overcomes her quietness when she discusses the spiritual significance of her death to Jo. Some critics have suggested that Beth's death signals Alcott's denial of the ability of the traditional, sentimental heroine to survive in an increasingly industrial world. In the 1994 film, Beth was portrayed by Claire Danes and in the 1978 television movie by Eve Plumb.
Amy Curtis March: The youngest sister—age twelve when the story begins—Amy is interested in art. She is described by the author as a 'regular snow-maiden' with curly golden hair and blue eyes, 'pale and slender' and 'always carrying herself' like a very proper young lady.  She is dissatisfied with the shape of her nose which she attempts to fix with a clothespin. She is "cool, reserved and worldly" which sometimes causes her trouble. Often "petted" because she is the youngest, she can behave in a vain and spoiled way, and throws tantrums when she is unhappy. Her relationship with Jo is sometimes strained; the literary Jo particularly dislikes when Amy uses big words, mispronouncing them or using them incorrectly. Their most significant argument occurs when Jo will not allow Amy to accompany Jo and Laurie to the theater. In revenge, Amy finds Jo's unfinished novel and throws it all in the fireplace grate, burning years of work. When Jo discovers this, she boxes Amy's ears and tells her, "I'll never forgive you! Never!" Amy's attempt to apologize to Jo are unsuccessful. When Laurie and Jo go skating, Amy tags along after them, but she arrives at the lake too late to hear Laurie's warning about rotten ice. Under Jo's horrified stare, Amy falls through the ice, and is rescued by Laurie's prompt intervention. Realizing she might have lost her sister, Jo's anger dissolves and the two become more close. When Beth is ill with scarlet fever, Amy is sent to stay with Aunt March as a safety precaution. Aunt March grows fond of her, as Amy's natural grace and docility are more to her taste. Amy is invited to accompany Uncle and Aunt Carrol and cousin Flo's as a companion on a European trip. Although she enjoys travelling, after seeing the works of artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael, Amy gives up her art, because she believes herself to be lacking in talent. In Europe, Amy meets up with Laurie, and shortly after Beth dies, they marry. Later, Amy gives birth to daughter Elizabeth (Bess). Amy was portrayed by Kirsten Dunst as a young girl and Samantha Mathis as an adult.
Margaret "Marmee" March: The girls' mother and head of household while her husband is away at war. She engages in charitable works and attempts to guide her girls' morals and to shape their characters, usually through experiments. She confesses to Jo (after the argument with Amy) that her temper is as volatile as Jo's own, but that she has learned to control it. In the 1994 film, Marmee was portrayed by Susan Sarandon.
Robin "Father" March: Formerly wealthy, it is implied that he helped friends who could not repay a debt, resulting in the family's poverty. A scholar and a minister, he serves as a chaplain for the Union Army.
Hannah Mullet: The March family maid.
Aunt Josephine March: Mr. March's aunt, a rich widow. Somewhat temperamental and prone to being judgmental, she disapproves of the family's poverty, their charitable work, and their general disregard for the more superficial aspects of society's ways. Her vociferous disapproval of Meg's impending engagement to the impoverished Mr. Brooke becomes the proverbial 'last straw', convincing Meg to affiance herself with the young man.
Uncle and Aunt Carrol: Sister and brother-in-law of Mr. March.
Theodore "Laurie" Laurence: A rich young man who is a neighbor to the March family. Laurie lives with his overprotective grandfather, Mr. Laurence. Laurie's father eloped with an Italian pianist and was disowned. Both died young, and as an orphan, Laurie was sent to live with his grandfather. Laurie is preparing to enter at Harvard and is being tutored by Mr. John Brooke. He is described as attractive and charming, with black eyes, brown skin, curly black hair, and small hands and feet. In the second book, Laurie falls in love with Jo and offers to marry her. She refuses, and flees to New York City. Laurie will eventually marry Amy March.
Mr. James Laurence: A wealthy neighbor to the Marches and Laurie's grandfather. Lonely in his mansion, and often at odds with his high-spirited grandson, he finds comfort in becoming a benefactor to the Marches. He protects the March sisters while their parents are away. He was a friend to Mrs March's father, and admires their charitable works. He develops a special, tender friendship with Beth, who reminds him of his dead granddaughter, and he gives Beth his daughter's piano.
John Brooke: During his employment with the Laurences as a tutor to Laurie, he falls in love with Meg. When Laurie leaves for college, Brooks continues his employment with Mr. Laurence as an assistant. He accompanies Mrs. March to Washington D.C. when her husband is ill. When Aunt March overhears Meg rejecting John's declaration of love, she threatens Meg with disinheritance on the basis that Brooke is only interested in Meg's future prospects. Eventually Meg admits her feelings to Brooke, they defy Aunt March (who ends up accepting the marriage), and they are engaged. Brooke serves in the Union Army for a year and invalided home after being wounded. Brooke marries Meg a few years later when the war has ended and she has turned twenty.
The Hummels: A poor German family consisting of a widowed mother and seven children. Marmee and the girls help them by bringing food, firewood, blankets and other comforts. Three of the children die of scarlet fever and Beth contracts it while caring for them.
The Kings: A wealthy family who employs Meg as a governess.
The Gardiners: Wealthy friends of Meg's. The Gardiners are portrayed as goodhearted but vapid.
Mrs. Kirke: A friend of Mrs March's who runs a boarding house in New York. She employs Jo as governess to her two girls.
Professor Friedrich "Fritz" Bhaer: A poor German immigrant who was a professor in Berlin but now lives in Mrs. Kirke's boarding house and tutors her children. He and Jo become friendly and he critiques Jo's writing, encouraging her to become a serious writer instead of writing "sensation" stories for weekly tabloids. The two eventually marry, raise Fritz's two orphaned nephews, Franz and Emil, and their own sons, Robin and Teddy.
Franz and Emil: Mr. Bhaer's two nephews whom he looks after following the death of his sister.
Tina: The small daughter of Mrs. Kirke's French washerwoman: she is a favorite of Professor Bhaer's.
Miss Norton: A worldly tenant living in Mrs. Kirke's boarding house. She occasionally takes Jo under her wing and entertains her.
Autobiographical context[edit | edit source]
Although plot elements from Little Women are similar to of Louisa May Alcott experiences, some differences exist:
- Unlike Jo, Alcott did not marry. However, there has been speculation that Ralph W. Emerson was the inspiration for Friedrich's character. Alcott was employed as governess to Emerson's children's, and Emerson and Louisa May Alcott's father, Bronson Alcott, were colleagues in the movement known as American transcendentalism.
- Unlike Jo's father, who served as a chaplain in the Union Army, Alcott's father was a pacifist. It was she herself who served as a nurse for wounded soldiers.
Critical response[edit | edit source]
G. K. Chesterton noted that in Little Women, Alcott "anticipated realism by twenty or thirty years," and that Fritz's proposal to Jo, and her acceptance, "is one of the really human things in human literature."
Notable adaptations[edit | edit source]
Play[edit | edit source]
A Little Women play, adapted by Marian De Forest, opened on Broadway at the Playhouse Theatre, on October 14, 1912. The production was directed by Jessie Bonstelle and Bertram Harrison. The cast included Marie Pavey, Alice Brady, Gladys Hulette and Beverly West. It ran for 184 performances and was later revived on December 18, 1916 at the Park Theatre for 24 performances. The company was invited to produce the play in London starring Katharine Cornell. Another revival opened on December 7, 1931 at the Playhouse Theatre in a production directed by William A. Brady, Jr. with Jessie Royce Landis as Jo, Lee Patrick as Meg, Marie Curtis, and Jane Corcoran running for 17 performances.
A three-act, one set adaptation was written by John David Ravold, and is frequently performed. It was originally copyrighted in 1934.
In 1995, an adaptation entitled "Louisa's Little Women" by Beth Lynch and Scott Lynch-Giddings premiered in a production by the Wisdom Bridge Theatre Company at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago. The play covers the events of Part One of Alcott's novel, interspersed with scenes depicting complementary aspects of her own life, including the influence of her father Bronson Alcott and her acquaintance with Henry David Thoreau, Julia Ward Howe, and Frank Leslie.
Literature[edit | edit source]
Film[edit | edit source]
Little Women has seen several cinematic adaptations. One of the first film adaptations was the 1918 Harley Knoles-directed version, starring Dorothy Bernard, Kate Lester and Conrad Nagel. The 1933 version starred Katharine Hepburn as Jo and Spring Byington as Marmee. The film was followed by a 1949 version featuring Elizabeth Taylor as Amy, June Allyson as Jo, Janet Leigh as Meg, Margaret O'Brien as Beth, Mary Astor as Marmee, Peter Lawford as Laurie, and C. Aubrey Smith as the elderly Mr. Lawrence. A 1978 version starred Meredith Baxter as Meg, Susan Dey as Jo, Eve Plumb as Beth, William Shatner as Friedrich Bhaer, Greer Garson as Aunt March, and Robert Young as Grandpa James Lawrence. A 1994 version starred Susan Sarandon as Marmee, Winona Ryder as Jo, Kirsten Dunst as the younger Amy, Samantha Mathis as the older Amy, Christian Bale as Laurie, Claire Danes as Beth and Trini Alvarado as Meg. Other film versions of the novel appeared in 1917, 1918, 1946, 1948, 1950, 1958, 1970, 1979, and 2001.
Opera and musical[edit | edit source]
In 1998 composer Mark Adamo adapted the story as the Little Women (opera). On January 23, 2005, a Broadway musical adaptation of Little Women (musical) opened at the Virginia Theatre in New York City with a book by Allan Knee, music by Jason Howland, and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein. The musical starred Sutton Foster as Jo, and pop singer Maureen McGovern as Marmee. The mixed-reviewed production ran through May 2005, garnering a Tony nomination for Sutton. While it had a short life in New York, it ran for 49 weeks as a national tour. A second national tour was planned for the 2007–2008 season. The musical's UK premiere was performed by "Imagine Productions" at the Lowther Pavilion in December 2006.
Anime[edit | edit source]
Little Women, a popular novel in Japan, has been adapted into at least four anime versions, and referenced in several others. The first anime adaptation of Little Women was an episode of the TV series Manga Sekai Mukashi Banashi ("Manga World's Classic Tales"), aired in October 1977. In 1980, director Yugo Serikawa (Mazinger Z) adapted the novel into a Toei Animation TV special titled Wakakusa Monogatari (The Story of Young Grass). The success of Serikawa's TV special was parlayed into Wakakusa no Yon Shimai ("Four Sisters of Young Grass"), a 26-episode TV series directed by Kazuya Miyazaki for the Kokusai Eigasha studio which aired on Fuji TV in 1981.
The most well-known anime version of the story is Ai no Wakakusa Monogatari (The Story of Love's Young Grass), a 1987 TV series that was part of Nippon Animation and Fuji TV's World Masterpiece Theater, which featured character designed and drawn by the late Yoshifumi Kondo. This series also featured several episodes of original stories from screenwriter Akira Miyazaki, developed by the author in order to acquaint the Japanese viewing audience with the characters of Little Women, as well as the historycal background of the American Civil War. Nippon Animation also adapted the sequel Little Men into a World Masterpiece Theater TV series, Wakakusa Monogatari Nan to Jou Sensei ("The Story of Young Grass: Nan and Teacher Jo"), in 1993.
The 1980 TV special and the 1981 and 1987 TV series were all released, at least in part, in the United States in English-dubbed form during the 1980s (with the Nippon Animation series broadcast by HBO in the late 1980s under the title Tales of Little Women), and both TV series were broadcast widely in Europe and Latin America as well.
References to the story[edit | edit source]
A number of other anime and manga series include references to Little Women, including Graduation M where the main characters (who are male), are forced to play the lead roles in the play "Little Women," for their school ceremony; Glass no Kamen, in which a production of Little Women where protagonist, Maya plays the role of Beth is an important story arc; and Burst Angel, in which three of the main characters are named Jo, Meg (short for Megumi), and Amy.
A nod to the characters is apparent in the English release of the Nintendo 64 game, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. In the Forest Temple, the player must solve four puzzles hosted by ghosts by the names of Amy, Beth, Joelle and Meg to progress through the game. The ghosts appear again briefly in the game's sequel, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, but only in an optional mini game. In this game, the name "Joelle" was corrected to "Jo," since Jo's full name is Josephine and not Joelle.
A Korean artist and writer, Kim Hee Eun, created a manhwa called Dear My Girls. The manhwa had the characters Amy, Beth, Jo, and Meg. The story is based on ideas from Little Women. The manhwa is serialized in a Korean magazine, mink.
See also[edit | edit source]
- The Wayside, where Alcott and her sisters lived many of the scenes that later appeared in Little Women
- Orchard House, where Alcott lived whilst writing Little Women
- Little Men
- Jo's Boys
References[edit | edit source]
- Ruth, Amy (1998). Louisa May Alcott. Kirkus Reviews Copyright (c) VNU Business Media, Inc.. p. 93.
- Shealy, Danniel (1995). The selected letters of Louisa May Alcott. University of Georgia Press. p. 194. ISBN 0-8203-1740-3.
- *Maslin, Janet. “The New York Times Review: Little Women”. Website: New York Times Movies. Retrieved May 2010.
- Louisa May Alcott (1880). "Little women: or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy". John Wilson and Son Cambridge. p. 5. http://books.google.com/books?id=_TDZogFTvDUC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_navlinks_s#v=onepage&q&f=false. Retrieved 2010-05-31.
- G. K. Chesterton, "Louisa Alcott," in A Handful of Authors.
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