Little Women
Louisa May Alcott
Contributed by Sherie Debus
Preface-Chapter 5
Summary

Summary — Preface

The preface of Little Women is an excerpt from John Bunyan’s 17th century allegorical novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress. It is a symbolic novel about living a Christian life. The excerpt is about the novel’s female character Mercy and not its main male character, Christian. It is an indication that Alcott’s novel will be a guide for young girls.

Summary — Chapter 1: Playing Pilgrims

One December evening, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are sitting at home, lamenting their poor financial condition. The March family used to be wealthy earlier but Mr. March somehow lost his fortune. The four sisters are upset as they do not expect Christmas presents this year. Meg admits that irrespective their financial state she wants to have Christmas gift. Similarly, Jo wants a copy of Undine and Sintram, a book of two German tales. Beth wants new music, while Amy seeks drawing pencils as her gift. Meg works as a nanny and Jo works as a companion to Aunt March but both of them are unhappy with their jobs and salary. Beth is fed up of doing household chores while Amy is not satisfied with her nose. In order to brighten their Christmas, the March girls resolve that they will each buy themselves a present. Soon, they change their minds and decide to buy presents for their mother, Marmee. They discuss Jo’s play ‘The Witch’s Curse’ which they will perform on the Christmas Day. Even as they are talking about it, Marmee returns home with a letter from Mr. March, who is serving as a Union chaplain in the Civil War. The letter urges the little girls to be good; it makes them feel ashamed of their whining about family's poverty. They decide to bear the burden of their family cheerfully. Meg’s burden is her vanity, Jo is temperamental, Beth’s bane is her housework and Amy is selfish to a large extent. In order to lighten the family atmosphere, Marmee suggests the sisters pretend playing pilgrims — a game from their childhood in which they act out scenes from a didactic novel The Pilgrim’s Progress. In this game, each girl shoulders a burden and tries to make her way to the Celestial City. Bunyan’s novel and the game are both allegories of living a Christian life; the physical burdens symbolise real-life burdens and the Celestial City stands for heaven. The sisters agree to play their childhood game again, but this time, by practicing Christian values in their real lives. They all sing before going to sleep happily.

Summary — Chapter 2: A Merry Christmas

On Christmas morning, the girls are pleasantly surprised to see books under their pillows. Jo and Meg rush downstairs to see the mother, but the family servant, Hannah, informs them that Marmee has gone to help poor neighbors. When Marmee comes back home, she urges the children to give their delicious Christmas breakfast to the starving Hummel family. The girls happily do so and enjoy the good work they have done. In the evening, they enact their play, in which Jo plays the male roles. After the play is over, the girls come downstairs to see a feast laid out on the table with fresh flowers and ice cream. Their neighbor, Mr. Laurence, had come to know of the family’s charitable work in the morning and arranged a feast as a reward for their generosity. Jo shows her eagerness to meet Mr. Laurence’s grandson.

Summary — Chapter 3: The Laurence Boy

Jo is reading in the attic with her pet rat, Scrabble, and eating apples when Meg comes to meet her. She excitedly informs her that the two sisters have been invited to a New Year’s Eve party at the home of Meg’s friend, Sallie Gardiner. Meg is very excited but is confused about her dress for the party. Jo, on the other hand, is not very keen but agrees to accompany her. As the girls are getting ready or the party, Jo burns Meg’s hair while trying to curl them. Meg is adamant to wear shoes that are too tight for her. Jo must wear a dress that is burned on the back and must hold her gloves balled up in her hand to hide the lemonade stains on the dress. Meg is very particular about social etiquette and has drawn a code for her blundering sister. Meg tells Jo that she will raise her eyebrows at the party if she does anything improper; she will nod if Jo is acting ladylike.

At the party, Jo cuts a lonely figure as she does not know anyone. Also, she is scared that somebody may ask her for dance. So, she quietly slips behind a curtain where she meets her neighbor, Laurie, who soon introduces himself pleasingly. The duo chats and is very comfortable with each other. They dance together but away from the eyes of everyone else as Jo has to hide her dress. At the party, Meg sprains her ankle and Laurie drops the siblings to their home in his carriage. Meg and Jo excitedly tell their younger sisters all about the party.

Summary — Chapter 4: Burdens

With the festivities over, the girls find it difficult to continue with their jobs. Meg, a babysitter, does not want to look after the King’ children and Jo is in no mood to look after Aunt March as she makes Jo read boring books aloud. Jo likes Aunt March even though she is very strict; both the women have common traits -- both are stubborn and determined. Jo likes the book collection Uncle March left behind and feels that it makes up for having to read boring books to Aunt March. Beth, the most introvert of March sisters, stays at home and does housework dutifully. She takes great care of her doll collection, most of which is damaged in some way. Little Amy goes to school and is not happy with her looks, particularly her flat nose.

The March daughters love each other very much and are great friends. But Amy is special to Meg and Beth commands a soft corner in Jo's heart. When the sisters are done with their work, they narrate stories from the day to each other. Mother Marmee lectures the girls for being grateful for one’s blessings. Jo quotes Aunt Chloe, a character from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, who instructs her listeners to be grateful for their blessings.

Summary — Chapter 5: Being Neighborly

One winter afternoon, Jo is shoveling a path in the snow when she sees Laurie in a window. She throws a snowball at the window to get his attention. Laurie comes out to tell Jo that he has been ill. Feeling sorry for him, Jo says that she will give him company if her mother gives her the permission to do so. Marmee allows her to go and Jo comes to the Laurie’s house with food, kittens, and trinkets to comfort him. They chat with each other and laugh all afternoon. Laurie says he is lonely and wants to be friends with her family. He shows Jo his grandfather’s library and she is might impressed with it. When Laurie goes to see the doctor, Jo stays in the room.

In the meantime, Mr. Laurence comes in, and Jo, taking him to be Laurie, speaks low of his grandfather's painting. Mr. Laurence enjoys Jo’s candor and soon they become fast friends. He invites Jo for a cup of tea and realises that Laurie needs Jo's companionship. After tea, Laurie plays the piano for Jo but Mr. Laurence does not like it as he does not want Laurie to pursue music. Jo comes back home and tells her family about the enjoyable day she had spent at the gorgeous house of Laurie.

Analysis

Little Women opens with each of the March daughters making a statement that bring out their personality traits. With these varied statements, Alcott makes the framework for an exploration of the girls' personalities as they grow up. Jo is the first one, showing that she is the most extroverts of the four. Meg’s tendency to be materialistic is revealed in her lamentation for being poor. She yearns for luxury even though she is highly virtuous. Amy also hates her poverty and wants to own all the lovely things in the world. Beth, the least selfish of all the sisters, performs the role of conscience-keeper of the family. She is content that at least the girls have each other and their parents, revealing that she is happy to count on her blessings. As the story picks up in Chapter 1 we learn more about the girls’ nature and their quirks. Jo, a tomboy, “grabs the heels of her boots in a gentlemanly manner” and teases Amy, she dreads the thought of growing up and behaving properly. She longs to fight in the Civil War. Meg, on the other hand, is motherly, and placates the sisters when hey fight or complain. Beth often plays the role of peacemaker in the sisters' fight. Amy is beautiful, debonair and well-mannered, although she is bit vain.

Alcott is particular in developing the character of the girls as different individuals. It is for this reason she shows the girls facing problems due to their individual personality traits. The author makes sure that the trouble one sister faces would not have the same effect on another. Critics note that Alcott has given four different personality traits to the sister so that reader may identify with at least one sister and gain wisdom from that sister’s mistake. Thus, Alcott’s novel can act as a guide for her readers, just as The Pilgrim’s Progress is a guide for the March girls.

The novel opens with the four girls, their mother, and an absent father. From the beginning, Alcott discusses the March girls’ disdain of their poor family condition. The Christmas celebrations all around and the absence of their father make the condition worse for the poor girls as they anticipate a tough time. The girls’ desire for presents is not just materialistic; there is also an indirect hint of female's unfulfilled desire. The March sisters want more from their limited existence that the 19th century society offers to young women. They are not satisfied to do the mundane household chores. Mr. March’s letter urges the sisters to bear their burdens calmly and become more humble, good and dutiful. Even though the events occur in a domestic sphere, Alcott does not consider this project petty.

By making her characters imitate The Pilgrim’s Progress, Alcott lifts women’s everyday lives and suggests that the struggles of ordinary women are as important as the struggles of adventuring men. Jo's character is imbued with adventurous streak and an independent mind. She breaks away from the role of a typical adult female and tries to eke out a space for herself as a different kind of woman. She writes scripts for her own plays and earmarks new roles for herself. She performs the role of a hero in the plays where traditionally male characters do so. Such activities set her apart from other women, but sometimes, there is a sense of isolation in her also. Jo writes in the attic, away from the rest of the family, as if she is cutting off from the society. Jo must be spiritually alone in her quest to flout the society’s rules for women that is why she is symbolised by her physical isolation in the attic. Jo wears a burned dress to the New Year’s Eve party, symbolising a traditional femininity marred by the burns. Her objections to the traditional femininity point to her restlessness and her urge to resist social conventions. When Jo meets Laurie at the Gardiners’ party, she finds a friend in him who is similar to her in his nonconformity to gender roles. Jo does not like her name, Josephine, as she thinks it to be too feminine and “sentimental". Laurie too dislikes his name, Theodore, because his friends tease him by calling him “Dora". Both Jo and Laurie take on androgynous nicknames that are not male or female specific. Jo shows her reluctance for stereotypically feminine activities and goes in favor of stereotypically masculine activities.

Laurie loves music, an activity considered as feminine in the 19th century. He also shows his disdain for business, the masculine activity his grandfather wishes him to pursue. Both Jo and Laurie are seen resisting the gender stereotypes of their time and the expectations of their families. Their divergences from other people in the society and their similarities to one another seem to be bringing them closer.

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