Free Study Guide: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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Major Characters

Marmee (Mrs. March)

Mrs. March is a flat character in the story although she is a major one. She is the only character who never seems to make a mistake, who seems to have learned everything life has to offer and lives only to pass her wisdom on to her children. Nevertheless, she is not a nagging or preaching Mom. She seldom offers advice until the girls ask, and she generally finds lessons in their own experiences. She doesn’t "work" outside the home but spends a great deal of time visiting all of the sick and needy in the community. She is a presence and a voice more than a person as there is not even a clear description of her appearance in the book. She is diminished as an individual but exerts a clear influence over her daughters as they seek to live up to her expectations. Few growing children in real life appreciate their mothers to the extent that the March sisters do.


Laurie is the brother the girls never had. He is a fun-loving outgoing boy who has had every opportunity except those that come from having a large close family. He lives next door with his grandfather in the Laurence mansion and receives a private education. Since he has all the riches the girls think they want, he provides an excellent foil for them in terms of values. He takes his position for granted, but doesn’t flaunt it in the way that some of his wealthy friends do. Until his trip to Europe where he is indulging in self-pity over the rejection by Jo, he doesn’t put on airs, but fits as nicely into the March household as if he had been born there. Laurie doesn’t change much in the course of the story, other than to grow from a crazy teen into an equally spirited young man. He does learn that even he cannot always have everything he wants. It is worth noting that he does not try to win Jo’s hand-or Amy’s with a figurative flash of his money, but with real achievement. For Jo, he takes college seriously and graduates with honors even though he thought his only interests were in music. Because he genuinely loves the family, he is quick to do whatever he can for them, even to sending the telegram on his own when Beth is sick.

Although the philosophy expressed by the narrator puts the burden of submissiveness on women, Laurie freely admits that Amy is the one who runs things in their relationship. Nor does he object. He has submitted to the influence of the girls from the time he met them, even going so far as to promise Meg on her wedding day that he would not succumb to the dangers of alcohol and indulgent living.


Beth is almost a minor character, except that she is so important to her own family and to the Laurences. Her family’s adoration of her contributes to her development more than anything she does on her own. Also, for a short time she fills a gap in the life of Mr. Laurence who lost a granddaughter much like her. She is quiet, devoted to her parents, committed to household chores and performing kindnesses to others, and is incredibly shy, a flaw that Laurie and Mr. Laurence help her to overcome. Her primary purpose is to bring out the best in other characters. Thus she finds the gentleness in Mr. Laurence and has a calming influence on her sisters, especially Jo.


Amy begins the story as a self-centered child who thinks primarily of the benefit to herself even when she does something good for other people. She is a little rebellious and doesn’t take her education too seriously-hence her problems with grammar and spelling- but she is very bright and shows an ability to do whatever she sets her mind to. As she matures, she learns to think of other people first, something her father notices immediately when he returns from the hospital in Washington. Her self-centeredness transforms into an innate knowledge of a behavior that will impress the right people and acquire the things she desires without much effort on her part. In spite of their financial situation, Amy learns early to conduct herself with class. She never has the tomboy wildness of Jo, but neither is she a snob. She wants friends among the wealthy, so she emulates the expected behaviors but does it in a way that gains many friends. She does learn the hardway that friendship with the wealthy is sometimes a one way street, and the girls that seem to be her pals in the art school ignore her invitation to pursue a longer lasting friendship outside of school.

Like Meg, she wants the comforts and the lifestyle that money can buy. She could have the lifestyle of the elite by marrying Fred Vaughn, and at one point she intends to do that. The irony is that in turning Fred away and marrying for love, she ends up with just as much money and the opportunity to enjoy spending it with a man who loves her.


As the oldest of the girls, Meg is mature and mother-like from the beginning of the story. Their poverty state is difficult for her to endure because she is old enough to remember when they had all the money they needed and were able to enjoy some of the luxuries of the monied classes. She complains wistfully on occasion, but never within her mother’s hearing. While she is nearly always ladylike and dependable, she is capable of forgetting responsibilities as she does when her mother goes to Washington and Beth becomes sick. She is also a bit too critical of herself; although she indulges in a little wild partying during her stay at the Moffats, she certainly doesn’t behave any worse than any of the other girls. It seems worse because the shallow flirtation and silliness is not really a part of her character and is therefore not expected from her by either the reader or the other characters.

Meg’s romance with Brooke provides the motivation for her to relinquish any dreams of marrying wealth. As a child of a wealthy father, she would have been the one who had the most, but in marrying Brooke she ends up with the least for she lives in a tiny, modest house and her husband works as a bookkeeper. Nevertheless, once the children arrive and she no longer has time for daily excursions with Sally, her wishes for a richer life style seem to be replaced by the happiness she finds in her husband and children.

Meg does not have quite the dominant spirit of Jo and Amy. As a wife to John Brooke, she accepts guilt easily and apologizes willingly for minor offenses that are not hers alone. She is easily manipulated by others, but this seems like a harmless fault when Jo manages to get her own way as in the episode of admitting Laurie into their little newspaper club. However, the weakness leads her to act foolish at the Moffat party and undermines her authority with her little son Demi. Her husband is a stronger willed individual and is able to take charge when given the opportunity. In Meg’s case, the strength of her husband could be seen as support rather than domination.


Jo is the focal character of the novel and is the character in whom LMA visualized herself. She is frank and down to earth, but has a quick temper and acts impulsively. She is also quick to apologize and the first to make peace in the event of any rivalry. Her emotions are intense and honest, although in her own mind one emotion she is not interested in is romantic love. She is an easy friend because she is undemanding and quick to give of herself. However, her blunt nature also causes her trouble because she doesn’t always stop to think that it might not be wise to express her opinions or feelings in every situation.

Jo feels the impact of events and situations so keenly that she sometimes feels as if she has the greatest burden of the entire family. Her first love is for her family and her initial goal is to keep her sisters, parents and closest friends near at hand for her entire life. She eventually realizes that her dream is impossible and unfair to her sisters. However, even though her sisters marry and live in other houses, Jo remains an active and daily part of their lives.

When the story begins, Jo is lying on the floor of the living room in their home. This is her typical tomboy position. She is so boyish that her father has sometimes called her "son Jo." She matures significantly during the first year of the story; her father notices that she has begun to act like a young lady, no longer uses slang or lies about on the floor. However, she will always be comfortable sitting on the ground or surrounded by young boys; she is herself and doesn’t care what other people think of it.

Jo’s castle is one of fantasy. She wants a stable of Arabian steeds and a magic pen that will enable her to write things that will make her rich and famous so she can always take care of Marmee and her sisters. Her dream may be sheer fantasy, but it is typical of Jo. Like LMA, Jo’s primary motivation for writing was to make money. When other activities and interests are available, her writing often gets set aside. In the story, she occasionally writes for therapeutic reasons especially when urged by another such as Marmee. However, even if she writes for money, she will not marry for money although throughout section I of the novel she clearly would like her sisters to marry well. Jo herself will do whatever brings her the most happiness; age and circumstance do not matter. It is no surprise, therefore, when she marries a man who is nearly old enough to be her father.

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: Free BookNotes Summary

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