"A book for girls being wanted by a certain publisher, she hastily scribbled a little story describing a few scenes and adventures in the lives of herself and sisters - though boys were more in her line - and with very slight hopes of success sent it out to seek its fortune.
Things always went by contraries with Jo. Her first book, labored over for years, and launched full of the high hopes and ambitious dreams of youth, floundered on its voyage, though the wreck continued to float long afterward, to the profit of the publisher at least. The hastily written story, sent away with no thought beyond the few dollars it might bring, sailed with a fair wind and a wise pilot at the helm into public favor, and came home heavily laden with an unexpected cargo of gold and glory."
So Louisa May Alcott vicariously describes the story behind the publication of the book that made her a celebrity overnight with an instant success most authors never dare to dream of. Alcott never intended, however, for Little Women to be her magnum opus; she only needed a little money. Isn't irony wonderful? The novel was published in two volumes in 1868-1869.Little Women is the story of four sisters, modeled after Alcott and her own, whose once-prosperous New England family has fallen into genteel poverty. Now all young teenagers, the book chronicles their various small attempts to cope with their newly reduced status, get along with each other and just generally grow up while their father is away during The American Civil War. The March sisters are:
Jo (a Tomboyish Name for Josephine): Alcott's Author Avatar and, by 19th-century standards, a tomboy — ie, she likes to stand with her hands in her pockets, whistle and exclaim "Christopher Columbus!". Jo generally tends to occupy the opposite end of the Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism from her sisters, being bold, ambitious, blunt, selfish, terribly unladylike, and the unofficial protagonist. Like Alcott, she is a devoted writer.
Beth (short for Elizabeth): Shy, quiet, selfless and kind, practically perfect in every way except for her utter timidity around everyone and everything but her family. Jo's closest confidante along with Meg, as her real-life counterpart Lizzie was to Alcott (the one counterpart, in fact, whose name wasn't changed). Like the real Beth, she becomes ill with scarlet fever and remains fragile and weak long after recovery.
Amy: The blonde, graceful, vain but good-hearted beauty who grows from a Spoiled Brat into a Na´ve Everygirl, and very pointedly Jo's opposite. Her talent - which, she famously laments, isn't exactly genius-level - lies in the visual arts. Ironically, when the real-life May Alcott was later given the opportunity to illustrate her sister's books, the result was panned as woefully amateurish.
Their closest friend is their wealthy old neighbor's newly-arrived grandson: handsome, mischievous, half-Italian Theodore 'Laurie' Laurence. He quickly befriends Jo, and the others soon after. Women in town wonder to which sister their mother is planning to marry him off, but in fact they are all Just Friends, Like Brother And Sisters - which becomes a significant plot point later.Other characters include: their strong-willed mother Margaret, whom they call Marmee (in the 19th-century New England accent, "Marmee" would be pronounced "Mommy"); their father, a gentleman reverend ruined financially through helping a friend (an idealised version of Louisa's father, prominent Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott); their maid and friend, Hannah; Laurie's tutor, John Brooke, who falls in love with Meg; and their nightmare of a meddling relative, Aunt March, for whom Jo and later Amy work as a companion. The book is fraught with Shout Outs and Homages to Pilgrim's Progress and AnviliciousAesops at a time before that was considered cliche.The first edition of Little Women ended with Meg's and John's engagement. With no Fora or wikis to conduct their Ship-to-Ship Combat, the fans were left to bombard Alcott with letters demanding a sequel, mostly to see Jo and Laurie get married, in the earliest case of Shipping as we know it today. Alcott duly wrote the sequel, but with the firm resolve that "I won't marry Jo to Laurie to please anybody."Thus came Part II, occasionally published separately under the title Good Wives in the UK. Meg and John get married and have their twins, Beth dies, Amy goes to Paris, and Jo turns down Laurie and goes to New York to pursue her career. Laurie, faced with the dilemma of killing himself or going to Europe, opts for the latter, where he falls in love with and marries Amy. Manfully supporting her parents while grieving for her dead little sister, life improves for Jo near the end when she marries her beta reader and best friend, a wise German professor, Friedrich Bhaer, and Aunt March dies and leaves Jo her estate, Plumfield.The next sequel, Little Men, takes place at Plumfield, which Jo and Fritz have turned into an orphanage/school for young boys, based not-so-subtly on Bronson Alcott's then-controversial educational theories. We are introduced to Jo's sons, Rob and Teddy, Laurie and Amy's daughter Bess, the Brooke twins Daisy and Demijohn (a clever way of avoiding Margaret and John Jr.), their baby sister Josie and Professor Bhaer's orphaned nephews Franz and Emil. Also on hand are a mixed assortment of other Aesop-appropriate youngsters, the foremost being ex-pickpocket and street violinist Nat, his best friend Dan, and Daisy's tomboyish friend Annie, called 'Nan'.Ten years later in Jo's Boys, Plumfield has grown into a mixed college (a rare phenomenon at the time) and we rejoin these Loads and Loads of Characters as young adults, plagued by an epidemic of romance and broken hearts amidst chasing dreams and choosing careers.The book has been made into 4 films, four anime works (three TV series, including one based on Jo's Boys, and a TV special) and 2 theatrical adaptations. Additionally, there is at least one professional fanfic: Geraldine Brooks' March tells the story of Mr. March, the mostly absent father from Little Women. She won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction.Also, despite sharing the same names for the protagonists, this one has absolutely nothing to do with Bakuretsu Tenshi.
Little Women and its sequels provide examples of:
Ability over Appearance: Noted under Adaptational Attractiveness. Jo in the book is frequently compared to a colt and she describes herself as "ugly and awkward". In the 1994 film she's played by Winona Ryder - very petite and very pretty. But she captures Jo's spunkiness and spirit perfectly.
Accidental Proposal: Tom finds himself accidentally engaged to Dora in Jo's Boys, although he doesn't really mind afterward.
Actually Pretty Funny: In the Fandom Nod chapter of Jo's Boys, Jo's Last Scrape, Ted Bhaer's response to the reporter who showed up at Plumfield's door uninvited:
'If you could tell me Mrs Bhaer's age and birthplace, date of marriage, and number of children, I should be much obliged,' continued the unabashed visitor as he tripped over the door-mat. 'She is about sixty, born in Nova Zembla, married just forty years ago today, and has eleven daughters. Anything else, sir?' And Ted's sober face was such a funny contrast to his ridiculous reply that the reporter owned himself routed, and retired laughing.
Adaptational Attractiveness: Routine; save for Meg and the adult Amy, the book makes no attempt to hide the very ordinary looks of its protagonists, which obviously isn't going to work onscreen.
In the 1994 film, Professor Bhaer, who is described in the novel as overweight and rather grisly, is played by Gabriel Byrne.
Likewise Jo, who in the book is described as "tall and brown, with big hands and feet and a flyway look to her" is played by petite, fair-skinned Winona Ryder. Katharine Hepburn probably comes closest to averting this; while Hepburn was certainly striking, in the film she is all coltish limbs and angular face, definitely not a classic beauty like Allyson or Ryder.
Marmee too, who is described as "greying and not particularly handsome". She's played by Susan Sarandon.
Alpha Bitch: Amy's classmate, April Snow, and, to a lesser degree, her artistic rival, May Chester.
Ambiguously Brown: In Little Men, Dan is described with black eyes, black hair, and, at several points where his skin is mentioned, brown skin. It's unclear as to whether this is racial, tanned, or just dirty, but Jo theorizes in Jo's Boys that Dan has Indian blood in him. Everyone else in the book seems to be Caucasian (several are specifically blond Germans) except for a Black cooknote and, given some hints in the narrative, possibly another Black character in the background, but Dan just seems like the odd boy out.
Author Filibuster: Some of the Author Tract pages mentioned below can get a little boring and preachy. Alcott pleads guilty when she writes about Jo's experience writing a novel that might more accurately "have been called an essay or a sermon, so intensely moral was it."
Author Tract: The entire series has whole pages of Alcott's views on life, from respecting old maids to staying true to your faith.
Backup Twin: They did this in the 1979 film adaptation; Eve Plumb had the role of Beth, and she was so popular they brought her back as an identical cousin.
The old "a week of all play and no work" experiment takes up a chapter of Little Women.
Also the chapter Jo's Last Scrape, in the final sequel. Jo, after twenty years, has finally seen her dream of becoming a famous author come true... only to have to deal with hordes of demanding, pushy fans and reporters.
Better as Friends: Jo feels this way about Laurie. She says that the two of them are Too Much Alike ever to pursue a romantic relationship successfully. Laurie disagrees until he marries Amy (the sister who is most different from Jo), after which he tells Jo he's happy to love her as his sister.
Break the Haughty: Amy's particular besetting sin is vanity, and thus it gets several small tweaks throughout — most notably when she tries to be In with the In Crowd at school by bringing in forbidden pickled limes, is caught and gets humiliated by her Stern Teacher. Meg gets a similar gentle smackdown while trying to play 'fine lady' at the Moffats'.
Brick Joke: Jo's dinner party in Little Women becomes this for herself, Meg, and Laurie in Little Men when she shopped for Daisy's toy kitchen and gives her cookery lessons.
Amy dumps Fred Vaughn, deciding it's wrong to marry someone you don't love for their money, only to turn around and fall in love with her wealthy childhood friend Laurie. This is probably more of an author fumble. It's supposed to be taken for granted that Amy is the perfect girl for Laurie (Jo even says he needs a refined girl in her "Like Brother and Sister" speech), and they actually do fall in love over time. Still, the fact that Amy gets true love AND a rich man doesn't help.
Nat is caught telling a lie, and this is treated as a very serious issue. The problem is, a much older boy was threatening to beat him if he'd ran through the boy's veggie patch - which he'd done because he was being chased by another older boy - so Nat got scared and denied it. And neither of the other boys were punished or even given a talking-to, leaving us with the message that lying to get out of a dangerous situation is not only wrong, but so much worse than threatening and bullying little kids who aren't able to defend themselves.
This was the Victorian Era. Lying was worse than anything but murder, esp if you were a child.
Averted with Aunt March, to the point that it's Lampshaded: "Some old people keep young at heart in spite of wrinkles and grey hair, can sympathize with children's little cares and joys, make them feel at home, and can hide wise lessons under pleasant plays, giving and receiving friendship in the sweetest way. But Aunt March had not this gift."
Creepy Doll: In Little Men, Teddy throws a kid doll on a fire; since it's made of leather, he and the other children are horrified that it squirms as if it's in agony instead of burning immediately.
Dead Guy Junior: Bess, of course, is short for Elizabeth. In the second half of Little Women, she is even identified as "little Beth" and doesn't become Bess until Little Men.
Deadpan Snarker: From a nineteenth-century perspective, Jo and Laurie, the latter especially.
Did Not Get the Girl: Laurie in Little Women, Dan in Jo's Boys. In the latter book, another major subplot features Tommy Bangs pointedly not getting the girl he originally wanted.
Amy burns Jo's manuscript of the book she'd labored over for years in order to make her sister "pay" for the not-exactly-heinous crime of not allowing her to accompany the adults to the theatre.
A week or so later, with none of this resolved, Jo and Laurie go skating. Amy, once again snubbed by Jo, follows them anyway. She skates on a dangerous part of the ice, but she doesn't know this. Jo does, but doesn't warn her. Amy almost drowns as a result, and Jo suffers a serious My God, What Have I Done?.
Distracted from Death: In the 1994 film, Jo gets up from Beth's deathbed when the wind opens some shutters. When she returns to the bedside, Beth has died.
Education Mama: In Little Men, one of the titular Little Men (Billy) has an already old education papa who drove his promising student son to mental handicapping and physical frailty and then dropped him off at boarding school in shame.
This is referenced in an episode of Friends where Joey reads the book, which Rachel has stated is the only book she's read more than once. He believes Jo and Laurie are both girls, and is confused when the others tell him otherwise. He sighs and says, "No wonder Rachel had to read this book so many times!"
Lampshaded as well in the 1994 movie when Jo mentions Laurie to Professor Bhaer... and he thinks she's talking about one of her sisters.
Executive Meddling In-Universe: Jo meets several publishers who won't publish her work unless she piles up the tragedy and gore and cuts the aesops because "Morals don't sell."
Falling Into His Arms: Done for laughs in the in the Winona Ryder film. Meg, Jo, Laurie and John Brooke return from an evening at the theater, and as they exit the carriage, Jo raves about the lead actress being "a wonderful swooner."
Jo: If only I were the swooning type! [dramatically falling from the carriage]
Laurie: [sardonically, watching her fall] If only I were the catching type.
Felony Misdemeanor: To the contemporary audience: Amy's teacher hits her for bringing in pickled limes. This was considered perfectly reasonable at the time, but Marmee doesn't approve of it and pulls her out of school in response.
Fiery Redhead: Jo (chestnut brown, which has red in it, depending on one's interpretation of chestnut). She is also, however, almost always a redhead in The Musical, as that is how she was initially played by Sutton Foster. One of the anime adaptations portray her as a freckled blonde.
Flower Motifs: While Laurie and Amy are taking a walk through a rose garden, Laurie gets pricked by a red rose he tried to pick while thinking of Jo, whom he last saw when she turned down his marriage proposal. Amy then gives him a thorn-free white rose. Laurie instantly thinks of the color symbolism - red roses are for romance, white roses are for funerals, and he wonders if this is either a sign about his changing feelings for the two sisters or an omen of death. He chides himself for being so superstitious and laughs it off, but since eventually he and Amy fall in love and Beth dies, it doesn't sound so funny.
Foreshadowing: When introducing Beth, the narrator makes a remark about how her type of quiet kindness and cheerfulness is never fully appreciated until it is gone forever; the tone is such that there might as well be an arrow pointing to Beth with "DOOMED" written on it in letters of fire.
Four Girl Ensemble: The original!: Meg, the oldest, is the lecturer and mature example-setter who wants a husband and family; Jo is the tomboy who wants a career, fame, and fortune; Beth is the shy, gentle and musical one who wants to stay with her family; Amy is the vain and spoiled but later artistic and flirty young lady who wants to marry someone with money.
Averted with Jo and Meg, who are actually very close despite how different they are. The closest to "fights" that they have consist of Meg telling Jo off for Saying Too Much or things like that. Jo even shows jealousy of Meg's boyfriend and later husband John Brooke, but not out of malice but because she's scared of losing Meg's emotional support.
From the beginning of part two of Little Women: "I can only say with Mrs. March, 'What can you expect when you have four gay girls in the house?'"
The chapter All Alone contains this doozy:
Mothers are the best lovers in the world, but I don't mind whispering to Marmee that I'd like to try all kinds. It's very curious, but the more I try to satisfy myself with all sorts of natural affections, the more I seem to want.
Hot Librarian: Nan in Jo's Boys, who attracts many suitors but is only in love with her studies in medicine.
Ill Girl: In keeping with the tragedy of her real-life counterpart Lizzie, Beth has always been delicate, but after she contracts scarlet fever as a little girl her health continuously decays until her death as a young adult. Truth in Television, as scarlet fever was a much more serious illness then; one of the frequent complications was rheumatic heart disease, ie. serious damage to the major valves—wholly untreatable back then.
Lampshade Hanging: It's Laurie himself who points out the Broken Aesop of Amy marrying him after she decided against marrying Fred Vaughn for his money. Amy responds she would still love him if he was poor and he believes her.
Lethal Chef: Jo in Chapter 11 of Little Women, Experiments. Averted in the next chapter, Camp Laurence, which takes place the following month: when John Brooke asks who can make good coffee, Meg nominates Jo - who had spent the time between the two chapters taking cookery lessons. By Little Men, she is giving Daisy simple cookery lessons.
"I wonder if you will ever grow up, Laurie," said Meg in a matronly tone. "I'm doing my best, ma'am, but can't get much higher, I'm afraid, as six feet is about all men can do in these degenerate days," responded the young gentleman, whose head was about level with the little chandelier.
Love Letter Lunacy: A prank by Laurie. The victims — Meg and John. The one in charge of smoothing things over — Jo.
Love Potion: The sisters perform a play with a villain who purchases a love potion from a witch, along with poison to kill his romantic rival (probably to avoid that "power of true love" loophole). The witch, however, double-crosses him, stops the princess from drinking the potion, and slips the villain his own poison.
Make Up Is Evil: Meg pentinently confesses to having worn makeup among other sins at a party, and her mother says that she was wrong to let Meg stay with these people without knowing them better. However, it's less the makeup itself and more the general vanity and shallowness of the people she's with, and the fact that she was attempting to act like someone she's not.
Malaproper: Amy... oh, Amy. "I know what I mean, and you needn't be 'statirical' about it! It's proper to use good words and improve your 'vocabilary.'"
Only Known by Their Nickname: Three of the four March sisters are routinely identified by shortened forms of their lengthy first names. Although the real names are given in the introductory chapter, they are rarely otherwise used in the novel and readers grow quite used to thinking of them as Meg, Jo, and Beth. (This creates a bit of confusion for some readers when Jo occasionally uses alternative nicknames for her sisters, like "Peggy" for Meg and "Betty" for Beth, both being common, old-fashioned nicknames for "Margaret" and "Elizabeth.")
Also Marmee, whose real name is never actually stated; it's understood that her name is Margaret (and Meg, and later Daisy, are named after her), but no character ever addresses her by her name. In the 1994 film adaptation, her name is changed to 'Abigail', the name of Alcott's real-life mother (albeit Abigail Alcott was most often known as 'Abba').
The same applies to Mr. March: we don't find out his real name until the final chapter introduces Jo's elder son, Rob, who is named after him. Who is himself usually called "Rob," "Robby," or "Robin," while Teddy, like his mother, occasionally mixes it up, calling him "Bob" or "Bobby."
Overprotective Mom: In Jo's Boys, Meg is the overprotective mother who doesn't believe Nat is good enough for her daughter Daisy. She relents later, though.
Parental Marriage Veto: Meg towards Nat the ex-street musician and her precious Daisy for most of Jo's Boys. In Little Women, Aunt March tries to impose one on Meg by virtue of her wealth, and fails.
Penny Among Diamonds: In Jo's Boys, Nat goes to Europe to continue his musical education. Due to his having wealthy and influential friends, everyone thinks that he's wealthy and influential as well... too bad he's actually an orphan who spent a number of years as a street musician, and thus has little idea of how to handle either the money or the attention. Cue the nineteenth century version of a Credit Card Plot.
Pet the Dog: Dan's soft side for baby Teddy and animals.
The Pilgrim's Progress: Central to the novel, as many of the chapter titles suggest ("Vanity Fair," "Jo Meets Apollyon," etc.). The girls act out the story as children and often use Christian's struggles as analogies for their own problems.
Princess for a Day: In "Vanity Fair", Meg attends a high class party... only to be humbled by ladies whispering behind her back about her and her family's poverty, and speculating that her mother intended to marry her to Laurie for his money. That and those dancing slippers really hurt.
Proper Lady: Meg, and Amy in all the books after the first one.
"If Amy was to go to court without any rehearsal, she'd know exactly what to do."
Replacement Goldfish: Beth is this, to an extent, for Laurie's grandfather - as it happens, she has a personality very similar to that of his deceased granddaughter, whom he adored. The animated adaptation takes it a bit too literally and has Beth look exactly like the granddaughter, which freaks them both out.
School Play: A couple in Little Men, Several (mostly written by Jo and Laurie) in the chapter "Class Day" in Jo's Boys.
Settle for Sibling: Laurie's marriage to Amy, in a way. Though he actually became interested in Amy after Jo turned him down twice and likes Amy for herself, never trying to shape her into a Jo replacement.
Shipper on Deck: Jo is a Meg/Laurie shipper in Part I and a Beth/Laurie ditto in Part II.
Ship Sinking: "I won't marry Jo to Laurie to please anybody!"
Title Drop: In the first chapter, Mr. March's letter ends with his hopes that the improvements the girls will make to their characters by the time he sees them again will make him "fonder and prouder than ever of my little women."
Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Beth is "a dear, and nothing more" and "the pet of the family," virtuous and selfless. She's the only one who doesn't have extravagant ambitions in the chapter "Castles in the Air." In the end, of course, she dies.
Underdressed for the Occasion: Meg doesn't have a silk ball dress to wear when visiting Sallie Moffat, so she wears an old tarlatan instead. She actually makes a better impression in her simple and worn out clothing than she does when her friends dress her in borrowed splendor.
Vitriolic Best Buds: Jo and Laurie. This is exactly why she turns him down when he proposes to her.
Unusual Euphemism: In Little Men, Dan tries to get Nat and Tommy to swear. Tommy's idea of a good round oath? "Thunder-turtles!"
Jo's favorite exclamation of "Christopher Columbus!" also counts as this, since it's generally understood to be her version of swearing. In Little Men they actually name the dog Christopher Columbus so that she has an excuse to say it.
In the musical, Aunt March interrupts Bhaer's marriage proposal and hesays it.
Little Women itself plays with the trope, as Laurie ultimately marries a girl he's known since childhood (Amy) but not the one he's harbored romantic feelings for since then (Jo). So Laurie was both unluckyand victorious.