Louisa May Alcott

Little Women

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  • Features 47 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
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Little Women Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 78-page guide for “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 47 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Sacrifice: Choosing the Spiritual Over the Worldly for the Greater Good and Womanhood.

Plot Summary

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, originally published in 1868, is set in New England and inspired by her own family and life events.

The novel begins with John Bunyan’s Christian allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which influences the March girls—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—throughout their journey. They reference it heavily in the first part of the book, and it sets the stage until the end, as they grow into the women they are meant to become.

Mr. March’s absence takes a heavy toll on the family, who are left to take care of each other while he serves as a chaplain for the Union Army. On Christmas, Marmee gives each of her daughters, most of whom are in their teens, a guidebook that assists them in overcoming their follies and staying true to their values—such as faithfully conducting one’s work and showing compassion to others—which the girls take to heart. On Christmas morning, they sacrifice their breakfast and time to take care of the Hummels, who have nothing.

Upon hearing the stories of their good deeds, Mr. Laurence, their wealthy neighbor, gifts them delicacies, and Jo decides to become acquainted with his grandson, Laurie, who lives alone with his grandfather. Almost the same in age, the two become close, and the relationship between the two families blossoms through the years, despite their socioeconomic differences, as the children share their joys and pains.

As the story unfolds, each of the girls is challenged by their internal struggles and hold onto their faith and their mother, whom they call Marmee, as their moral compasses. Meg is lead into false fantasy by her desire to live the decadent life. Jo takes control of her temper after she almost kills Amy in a rage when she fails to forgive Jo for burning her beloved manuscript; Jo goes on to save Amy from drowning in an icy lake. Beth feels that her dislike for housework is her problem, but it is her shyness that has hold of her. She sets aside this shyness, and in the end, she in the graces of Mr. Laurence, who gives her a piano. Amy herself must deal with breaking the rules when she is caught with a bag of pickled limes at school and is humiliated and punished. Later, when she is sent to Aunt March, in order to prevent catching Beth’s scarlet fever, she learns that there is more to life than vanities and riches, and starts to pray for her selfless and loving sister.

Before Beth falls sick, Marmee receives an urgent telegram to join her ailing husband. With Laurie’s tutor, John Brooke, as her escort, she goes to Washington, DC to take care of him. While there, John asks for Meg’s hand in marriage. The Marches respect him, but they wait for their daughter’s decision. As Meg is young. With Marmee gone, the girls and Hannah, their servant, try to keep Beth’s condition a secret; when it worsens, Laurie sends for Mrs. March without their knowledge. Right before Mrs. March’s arrival, Jo succeeds in nursing Beth back to health and life, and the girls are relieved that their prayers have been answered.

By Christmas, they find themselves more blessed than they could have imagined. Mr. March returns and their family is reunited. Marmee discusses John’s proposal with Meg, who appears casual about the relationship. When John runs into Meg, he tries to talk to her about his feelings, which she dismisses. Aunt March tells her not to marry John because he is poor and has no connections. This accusation riles Meg up, and she decides to be with John because his poverty has made him a man of value. John overhears Meg confirm her love for him. Although most of the family is excited at the prospect of a wedding, this decision upsets Jo, who cannot bear her family going their separate ways. As she attempts to come to acceptance, Part 1 of the novel ends.

When Part 2 begins, three years have passed. John returns from the army, Mr. March acclimates to life, and Mrs. March remains preoccupied with the girls, as they prepare for adulthood and Meg’s wedding.

With Meg and John moving into their new home, the other girls follow their interests, with Jo pursuing her literary ambitions, Amy experimenting with art, and Beth keeping the household running. Eventually, Jo experiences a taste of success when she gets paid for her sensation stories. She decides to continue on this path, in order to ensure her financial freedom. In the meantime, Amy perfects herself at being a lady, which impresses Aunt March, who vouches for her, providing her with a coveted trip to Europe.

As Laurie shows feelings for Jo, she decides to leave, thinking that Beth likes him. To allow space and rid her of her own restlessness, she goes to New York, to be a governess for Mrs. Kirke; while there, she meets Professor Friedrich Bhaer, a German professor. His influence grows on Jo and she ceases to write sensation stories. She is attracted to Bhaer’s likable and humble persona. Meanwhile, in Europe, Amy discovers she can never be a genius but chooses to incorporate art into her life while toying with the idea of marrying the rich Fred Vaughn.

When Jo returns from New York, Laurie graduates from college and professes his feelings for her. She declines to be in a relationship with him because they would prove an unsuitable match. Disheartened, Laurie goes to Europe with his grandfather, to mend his broken heart. At the same time, Beth grows sicker, and the family must come to terms with her death. While in Europe, Laurie and Amy bond and discover that they are compatible and capable of loving each other.

Stateside, Beth’s death leaves Jo feeling alone, especially as she realizes everyone will go their own way in life. However, the professor surprises her with a visit and her whole family likes him. Jo and Bhaer finally confess their feelings for each other, and they plan on starting a boarding school for boys at Plumfield, which Jo has inherited from Aunt March.

In the end, the extended family comes together to celebrate Marmee’s birthday, and each of the sisters expresses their contentment as they watch their loved ones and realize they are living their dreams.

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