Reality or Fiction. The four sisters in Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women"

Were American women in 19th century fully able to pursue their personal dreams?

Pre-University Paper, 2022

14 Pages, Grade: 1



Table of Context

1. Introduction

2. Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March - four sisters, four different dreams
2.1 Meg - the traditional feminine
2.2 Beth - a musician to remember
2.3 Amy - a glamorous artist
2.4 Jo - the tomboy

3. A view into history: Women's positions in 19th century America
3.1 The American woman as wife, educating mother and single woman
3.2 Women's work and their economic and domestic duties

4. The former American women in comparison with the March sisters

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

“I've got the key to my castle in the air, but whether I can unlock the door remains to be seen” (Alcott, 2014: 225) is one common quote about the pursued self-realization of a young fictional woman named Jo March. The American society was firstly able to read that specific quote in 1868 when Louisa May Alcott released her two volume coming-of-age novel Little Women. Her book follows the adventurous lives of four American sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March from childhood to womanhood. During the Civil War, all four girls are growing up in an unspecified northern American village under the main influence of their supportive mother “Marmee”, housemaid Hannah and conservative, wealthy Aunt March. Especially the first two mentioned ensure that the girls get to know the importance of household chores and that domestic work is an essential part of their female existence. Nevertheless, despite their daily duties, each sister has her own vision of her future, be it leading an independent life or a life of love and security. Additionally, regardless of living conditions, societal expectations or the degree of difficulty in achieving the dream in question, every sister is able and free to pursue her individual way of life.

If one now assumes that Louisa May Alcott's story provides an insight into the lives of various women and their individual future goals in 19th century America, one also raises a number of questions about the historical validity of the aforementioned theme: "Are the possibilities and paths of female self-realization in Alcott's novel really a reflection of earlier conditions or merely fictional? " and "If women in 19thcentury America were indeed able to realize their life dreams, did this really apply to all women, regardless of their social class or ethnicity?"

In order to be able to answer these questions, a comparison between Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy's lifestyles and those of actual women in 19th century America is necessary. To this end, the second chapter of my paper will present the sisters' individual aims and their final lives at the end of the book. This is followed by an exposition of the historical positions of America's women in 19th century in the third chapter. Subsequently, I will compare both aspects with each other in the fourth chapter and will make a final assessment on the formulated questions about whether Alcott's illustration is a fiction or corresponds to reality in the paper's conclusion.

2. Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March - four sisters, four different dreams

2.1 Meg - the traditional feminine

As the eldest sister of the four, Meg is the only one who was used to grow up in the initially wealthy household after the sisters' father has lost most of his family's fortune. Now that the Marches partly live in poverty, Meg mourns the life of former times and consequently develops a special fondness for luxurious things and noble dresses (cf. Alcott, 2014: 3). Instead of wanting to continue her wage work as a teacher for some children, the young woman dreams of becoming wealthy once more, owning a big mansion whose owner she wants to be. Although Meg does not mention that she additionally would like to marry a handsome man one day, it is her sister Jo who senses that desire since Meg is a big romantic (cf. Alcott, 2014: 224). To reach her aim, Meg joins several balls of her high society friends. Through her participation, the girl even manages to partly compensate her aversion to poverty, although a bit of envy of her rich friends still remains in the end (cf. Alcott, 2014: 133). Spending many hours dressing up fancy with her friends and even drinking champagne at one point, Meg eventually realizes that she has acquired a facade of character and does no longer present her actual self (cf. Alcott, 2014: 148 f.). For that reason, the girl decides to quit joining her beloved events when she hears someone claiming that she looked like a doll in the dress she was wearing. After that rather unpleasant encounter with the world of the rich, Meg matures and starts to comprehend that health and especially unconditional love is rather to be cherished in life than materialism (cf. Alcott, 2014: 150). With these qualities in mind, the sister slowly but surely starts to fall in love with Laurie's tutor John Brooke. However, John is by no means rich, but very poor which is condemned by wealthy Aunt March (cf. Alcott, 2014: 360 ff.). For that reason, she confronts her niece with Meg's teenage dream of noble marriage. Meg, however, turns her aunt down because she knows that marriage without true love will result in an unfortunate future (cf. Alcott, 2014: 363). After Brooke proposes to her and with the final agreement of her parents, who first believed that their daughter was still too young to get married, the girl consensually marries her love (cf. Alcott, 2014: 395). Finally, the birth of her twins Daisy and Demi makes Meg's happiness complete and therefore turns her into a predominantly poor, but self-chosen housewife and mother (cf. Alcott, 2014: 448 ff.). On that account, her dream has come true in the opposite way because instead of living in a wealthy mansion with many luxurious things, she owns a cottage with her husband and children in the end, which she appreciates more than any luxury (cf. Alcott, 2014: 447 f.).

2.2 Beth - a musician to remember

Beth March is a girl of shy nature. Known as the “angel of the house” (Alcott, 2014: 376), the sister often helps their housemaid Hannah with the chores. She therefore makes sure that her family and beloved dolls feel comfortable at home. Accordingly, Beth's introversion leads her to dream less big than her sisters, so her only desire is indeed to stay at home with mother and father to help taking care of the family (cf. Alcott, 2014: 58; 225). Even though Beth's dream seems pretty casual, she has one big passion and that is playing the piano (cf. Alcott, 2014: 16). When the girls make friends with Theodore Laurence, all of them, except of scared Beth, unfold their individual in the great house. Since Beth rather wants to stay with her mother, Laurie's grandfather encourages the sister to come over more often to make use of their piano (cf. Alcott, 2014: 91 f.). Subsequently, Beth is able to take the courage to practice at the Laurence's home and really starts to enjoy her daily activity (cf. Alcott, 2014: 94). As a result, the girl soon thanks Mr. Laurence for the opportunity she has been given by sewing him slippers. Shortly after, the old man rewards Beth's effort by giving her the piano for which the sister is so thankful that she immediately runs over to her neighbor and thanks him in person. Up to this point, Beth has been able to drop her shyness, leaving her sisters in amazement (cf. Alcott, 2014: 98). She continues practicing the piano at home and follows her daily chores, which, unfortunately, will soon have a difficult impact on her health. Beth starts to feel sick after she has taken care of the Hummel's baby. The doctor later diagnoses scarlet fever, from which Beth's body refuses to recover (cf. Alcott, 2014: 287). Knowing that the girl is going to die in the near future, the family tries to take care of her as best as they can, first and foremost Beth's sister Jo, who accompanies her mentally until her final death in spring (cf. Alcott, 2014: 659 ff.). Whether Beth would have succeeded in completely overcoming her introversion and becoming a well-respected pianist, or whether she would have held on to her actual dream of caring for her family, is just to be speculated. However, based on her environment's liberal attitude, the girl certainly would have received a lot of support from her household, Laurie and old Mr. Laurence in order to develop her character and to live a self­fulfilled life.

2.3 Amy - a glamorous artist

Amy March represents the stereotype figure of the spoiled youngest child. Always complaining about the look of her snubby nose, she grows up developing a rather vain, but still warmhearted character (cf. Alcott, 2014: 116 f.). As the girls talk with Laurie about their personal “castles in the air” (Alcott, 2014: 223), Amy shares her future destiny of becoming a paid artist for fine arts in Rome. In fact, Amy enjoys painting, drawing and sculpting wherever there is an opportunity to do so, for example at school, within the family, or at fairs. Moreover, Amy's vain attitude and desire in social advancement fancy self-satisfied Aunt March which is why the old lady starts to prefer having her youngest niece at home instead of stubborn Jo (cf. Alcott, 2014: 376). For her behavior, Aunt March consequently rewards Amy with drawing lessons of the best teachers in the area that soon provoke Amy's seriousness in becoming a real artist and even making her own money with her destiny (cf. Alcott, 2014: 376; 248). By experimenting with pen-and-ink drawing, poker or nature sketching, coals and oil paint, the young woman advances her skills and levels of success, leaving certain people in significant jealousy (cf. Alcott, 2014: 472 f.). Due to the fact that Amy spends a lot of time in aristocratic circles during her art classes, she becomes quite ladylike, which impresses Aunt Carrol (cf. Alcott, 2014: 485). To this end, the woman takes Amy on her trip to Europe where the sister wants to fulfill her dream of making career as a genius artist in Rome. However, Amy has to admit to herself that, while she's talented, she does not have that special extra inspiration which would mark her as a true artist (cf. Alcott, 2014: 642). Instead, she contents herself with fashioning her life artistically and focusing on her societal status by looking out for well-mannered young men. The theme of marriage soon starts to belong to Amy's priorities as she claims that she would probably marry Fred, a man she once met in Germany (cf. Alcott, 2014: 504). Since at least one of the sisters was supposed to marry rich, it is Amy who is willing to fulfill her aunt's expectation, even if she would not feel true love for Fred (cf. Alcott, 2014: 504; 643). However, Amy does not accept Fred's proposal after all, because she realizes that somewhere love plays a greater role for her than money (cf. Alcott, 2014: 672). On that account, Amy later accepts the proposal of her wealthy friend Laurie whom she has fallen in love with in France (cf. Alcott, 2014: 680 ff.). By the end of the book, both are even parents to a daughter. So although Amy has paused her artistic ambitions for the moment, she lives a rich and content life, cherished by the love and experiences she was able to make through her longed-for European trip. Therefore, up to the end of Little Women, almost all of Amy's wishes in life have come true.

2.4 Jo - the tomboy

Jo March is not only the second oldest sister, but the most outstanding of the four. Firstly refusing to apply to the conservative female expectations of America's society in 19th century, Jo portrays the figure of a classical tomboy, believing that she embodies the man of the family while the girls' father serves in the Civil War (cf. Alcott, 2014: 4; 7). Although Jo is disappointed in the fact that she is no boy (cf. Alcott, 2014: 4), the young woman has a determined mouth, especially when it comes to family affairs, her vain Aunt March, who she has to take care of for money, or her personal way of life. Jo's pursued path therefore envisions a great writing career, and of course she does everything she can to realize her lifelong dream of one day becoming an independent and respected writer who is able to provide a financial foundation for her family (cf. Alcott, 2014: 424). In later parts of the book, Jo is indeed capable of proofing herself in writing competitions and on the American market through the publication of the novel she has worked on day and night (cf. Alcott, 2014: 417). As her pieces turn out to be successful, Jo really makes money with several of her written pieces. However, instead of spending it herself, she voluntarily donates it to her family as an act of charity (cf. Alcott, 2014: 421 f.; 427). The young writer is very content with her earnings, but what she absolutely hates is the idea of romance. When her sister Meg gets to marry John Brooke for example, she gets furious about the fact that she will lose her sister to the expected aspect of wedding (cf. Alcott, 2014: 318 f.). Fortunately, as soon as she gets used to the new circumstance, Jo is able to welcome John as a new member of her family. However, Marmee as well as Jo herself sometime realize that the girl finds a secret admirer in her best friend Theodore Lawrence. Due to mere friendly love from Jo's side and sheer overwhelm, the girl decides to go to New York where she wants to work in a boarding house as a governess for the owner's children (cf. Alcott, 2014: 520 f.). But not only Jo herself refuses to get into a relationship with her best friend, even author Louisa May Alcott did not want to let her two characters fall in love with each other as society was pleased enough with clichés in her opinion (cf. Cheever, 2010: 157). However, despite her stubborn intention, Alcott had to give in due to young girls' high expectations and wishes of Jo getting married (cf. Cheever, 2010: 157). As a consequence, the novelist created a character named Friedrich Bhaer, who portrays a German professor teaching at the same boarding house Jo left for in New York. First of all, both carry a friendly relationship, but soon, Jo has to leave again in order to celebrate Laurie's graduation. Nonetheless, at home, as time goes on, Jo starts to miss the professor and thinks about him more and more often, especially after she has turned down Laurie's proposal (cf. Alcott, 2014: 694). Suddenly, Jo's dislike turns into a desire (cf. Alcott, 2014: 692). Towards the end of the book, Jo and Friedrich Bhaer confess their love to each other and after the young lady inherits the house of Aunt March, they turn it into a school for little boys. Despite of the fact that she has put her focus on a different vocation than becoming a major author, just like her sister Amy, Jo has not quit her writing activity, but paused it until she discovers a new curiosity in writing another novel (cf. Alcott, 2014: 774). Although she came to this decision, at the end of the book, Jo lives in complete contentment.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Reality or Fiction. The four sisters in Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women"
Were American women in 19th century fully able to pursue their personal dreams?
Catalog Number
American women in 19th century, Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, Facharbeit
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2022, Reality or Fiction. The four sisters in Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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