Coming of Age in Little Women

By Jason Baker

One of the prominent themes in Little Women is the coming of age or maturation of the girls. During the course of the novel we see them grow in many ways -- physically, intellectually, and especially emotionally. One question which readers must ask themselves is whether the views the characters have on the coming of age process are shared by Alcott. If they aren't, what are Alcott's views and how do they differ from those of the women in her story?

It is interesting to examine the last half of Chapter 20, "Confidential." Jo addresses the maturation issue as she speaks with Marmee of the situation between Meg and Mr. Brooke. The possible love between these two represents one of the very important aspects in coming of age for a teenage girl. Jo treats this natural process as if it were some sort of disease, however. Jo cannot understand why Meg would want to stop behaving "like a sensible creature" (p.202), and refers to love as "such nonsense." She is particularly concerned that Marmee will "let Meg marry [Mr. Brooke]" (p. 202). By using the word "let," Jo implies that marriage is not a natural part of growing up. Jo phrases her words in such a way that readers might feel as if Marmee were "letting" Meg engage in some sort of mischief or forbidden action, rather than in marriage.

One possibly wonders where Jo's fear of maturation comes from. One concern is that some sort of danger may befall Meg, and she wishes to keep her "safe in the family" (p. 203). She also worries that Meg doesn't truly know what she is doing and that Meg will "see [Mr. Brooke's feelings] in those handsome eyes that she talks about, and then it will be all up with her" (p. 203). Finally, and maybe most importantly, Jo pouts, "Meg will be absorbed, and no good to me any more" (p. 203). So is this the view that Alcott wishes to express to her readers? It seems unlikely.

As often happens throughout this novel, Marmee's voice is used to express Alcott's principle message. In response to Jo's concerns, Marmee replies, "It is natural and right you should all go to homes of your own, in time" (pp. 203-04). Although it is true that Alcott does not want an immediate maturation of these little women, she does clarify that this process is not a "dreadful state of things" (p. 202), as Jo would describe it, but rather is proper and necessary in due course. Having bluntly expressed a quite authoritative view, Alcott must then convince the reader of which character is to be believed and followed.

Jo suggests that Meg should marry Laurie, who "can be quite grown-up in his manners, if he likes" (p. 204). This small exchange further reinforces Alcott's message by suggesting that Jo's views are not simply illegitimate but rather are immature. Jo, who hasn't come of age, is unable to distinguish what it is to be mature and mistakenly believes that her neighbor has reached this point. Marmee corrects her politely by saying, "I'm afraid Laurie is hardly grown-up enough for Meg, and altogether too much of a weather-cock, just now, for any one to depend on" (p. 204). Ultimately, Jo seems to be convinced by Marmee's persuasive points and realizes that "buds will be roses, and kittens, cats" (p. 205). By bringing both characters' views together, Alcott has strengthened her argument and led readers down the appropriate path.

Thus it seems that Alcott expresses her own views most clearly through Marmee and through the correction of her confused and naive daughters. Marmee's constant guidance during the novel provides readers with a sturdy support on which to lean when making up their minds. Furthermore, this chapter suggests an end to Jo's Peter-Panning ways and a transition into what ultimately results in a coming of age for all four girls.

Louis May Alcott. Little Women. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.

ENLT 214M, 17 September 1997