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"Little Women" is the most famous work by writer Louisa May Alcott. The semi-autobiographical novel tells the coming-of-age story of the March sisters-Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy-as they struggle with poverty, illness, and family drama in Civil War-era America. The novel was part of a series about the March family but is the first and by far the most popular of the trilogy.
Jo March, the quirky writer amongst the March sisters, is based heavily on Alcott herself-although Jo eventually marries and Alcott never did. Alcott (1832-1888) was a feminist and abolitionist, the daughter of transcendentalists Bronson Alcott and Abigail May. The Alcott family lived alongside other famous New England authors, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau.
"Little Women" has strong, independent-minded female characters and explores complex subjects beyond the pursuit of marriage which was unusual for the time in which it was published. It's still widely read and studied in literature classes as an example of female-centric narrative storytelling.
Here are some study questions and ideas to help you better understand "Little Women."
Understanding Jo March as the Protagonist of "Little Women"
If there's a star of this novel, it's definitely Josephine "Jo" March. She's a feisty, sometimes flawed central character, but we root for her even when we don't agree with her actions.
- What is Alcott trying to say about female identity through Jo?
- Is Jo a consistent character? Why or why not? Give examples to support your answer.
- Which relationship is the most important of the novel: Jo and Amy, Jo and Laurie, or Jo and Bhaer? Explain your answer.
Central Characters of "Little Women"
The March sisters are the focus of the novel, but several supporting characters are key to the plot development including Marmee, Laurie, and Professor Bhaer. Some things to consider:
- Are Amy, Meg, and Beth fully developed characters? Is Marmee? Explain your answer.
- How important are the lengthy absences of Father March? How different would "Little Women" be if he had been home more?
- Besides Jo, which of the "sister" characters could be the central character in her own novel? What would the title of that novel be?
- Do you think Laurie should have ended up with Jo in the end? Why or why not?
- Were you satisfied that Jo married Professor Bhaer? Why or why not?
Themes and Conflicts in "Little Women"
- What are some themes and symbols in the story? How do they relate to the plot and characters?
- Does "Little Women" end the way you expected? Is there an alternate ending you would have considered better?
- Is this a work of feminist literature? Explain your answer by comparing it to another feminist text.
- How essential is the setting to the story? Could the story have taken place anywhere else?
- Would the story work as well in a modern-day setting? Why or why not?