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Free Study Guide: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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LITTLE WOMEN: FREE BOOK NOTES / STUDY GUIDE

CONFLICT

The primary conflict throughout the novel is the four March girls’ struggle with poverty in an area when so many of their friends seem to be very well off. Jo and Meg especially remember when they were able to associate with the richest people of society and were able to have nice things for themselves. Less pervasive but equally important conflicts involve issues of maturity and acceptance of the changes that occur between the teenage and adult years.



SHORT SUMMARY (Synopsis)

Little Women opens on the lives of the four March girls just as the two youngest are entering adolescence. Meg and Jo are teenagers. The story follows the girls through about 15 years of their lives and is written in a very pronounced omniscient voice. Each girl has an imaginary "castle" for which she hopes, but each ends with a very different "future" than she would have imagined for herself. Meg, the one who most dearly misses the wealth of the old days before her father had lost his fortune, marries Mr. Brooke, the tutor of Laurie Laurence, and lives in a very modest house. Even then, however, she has to learn to cope with the fact that she is not rich and cannot engage in activities that her rich friend Sally Moffat is able to enjoy. In the end, however, she finds out that for all her money, Sally becomes a very lonely lady with a husband who lives in his own world and thinks only of himself. Jo has a talent for writing which she develops in spurts, writing first innocent romances for a local paper, a novel that receives mixed reviews and finally "sensation" stories for a tabloid in NY. Only after her sister Beth dies does Jo find the mixture of pathos and heartfelt sincerity that enables her to write stories that have the publisher begging for more of the same. Beth, the third child, is the only one without ambitions, whose only desire is to live at home with her parents and practice her music. She is a model of selflessness and gentleness, almost too good to be real. She complains the least about the things they can’t have and always has just the right kind word for any situation. Her primary fault is that she is so extremely shy that she is unable to attend a public school and therefore gets her schooling at home. Amy is the youngest and the one who intends to marry for money. She wants to move about in high society and have wealthy friends, expensive jewels and rich clothes. However, when she actually gets the opportunity to fulfill her dreams, she turns it away, turning instead to Laurie, their childhood friend. The irony is that in giving up her dreams of marrying wealth, she actually gets it anyway as Laurie’s grandfather Mr. Laurence is very wealthy and will leave his entire estate to Laurie. In the end all of the girls learn that no amount of wealth can bring more happiness than that of a close and loving family.


THEMES

Poverty versus wealth
Family love
Sibling rivalry
Female Independence

Detailed Analysis of the Themes is included in the Overall Analysis section.


MOOD


Louisa May Alcott - Little Women Free Study Guide / Notes / Summary
Louisa May Alcott

The mood of most of the novel is very introspective. The style is formal and borders on didactic in many chapters, especially those chapters where some tragedy or misfortune has occurred.


LITERARY/HISTORICAL INFORMATION

Louisa May Alcott was the second daughter born to Abigail and Bronson Alcott. Her life was one of extremes, going from a well-do-to Bostonian lifestyle to the abject poverty .Her father responded to the despair of debt by indulging in transcendental philosophy and forcing a "natural" way of living onto his wife and children. Abigail, however, was a forceful woman and eventually stood up to her husband, taking her family’s well being into her own hands. Thus both mother and the two oldest girls took on work to keep the family going. Louisa engaged in sewing and teaching for many years, but she had become writing in earnest while living in their primitive home in fruitwood and gradually earned more money from her written work.

Louisa’s writing was always done for the purpose of making money. She wrote what she referred to as "lurid"stories as well as horror stories under several pseudonyms and was moderately successful. Little Women was written at the request of her editor who wanted her to write a "story for girls." Alcott wrote the novel quickly, writing a chapter a day and basing the story on the real lives and events of herself and her sisters. Although both she and her editor considered the story "flat," the response of the public was overwhelmingly positive. It was the first novel of its kind, being straightforward and true to life rather then existing solely to expound religious didacticism or male views on how girls ought to behave. The book brought Alcott fame and wealth almost overnight, but ultimately did not ease the pressures of her private life. After a life of continuously fluctuating finances, she never felt secure in her wealth. Furthermore, she took on the burdens of her mother’s illness and the care of the family, struggling with a sense of loss over each death or marriage. She died in her mid 50's after struggling with years of illness resulting from mercury poison-a "cure" from pneumonia which she contracted during her years of nursing civil war soldiers.


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