The Importance of Marriage in Little Women

By H W

[First paragraph, first version]

Due to strong Protestant influences, nineteenth century American life stressed the importance of hard work, social propriety, and religious piety. With these social norms came rigid views of gender roles. Women especially were limited as to what their status was in this society. Louisa May Alcott's novel, Little Women, tries to illustrate a favorable portrait of the upstanding lives four young girls and their mother lead in their allotted roles in this patriarchal culture. The book becomes almost an instructional of how young ladies should act in order to gain respect, find husbands, and then experience happiness. In Little Women one of the March girls, Jo, is the most resistant to the fetters of this social dogma. Instead of relying on a man for her adult life, she desperately wants to be independent. In theory this should be a worthy goal for any person, but as the novel continues she gives up on this dream for the shackles of married life. In Alcott's repressive system Jo eventually realizes her mistake in wanting freedom, and succombs to societal norms by finding a husband. Although Jo begins as a free spirit unwilling to accept the stereotypical role as a female in late nineteenth century America, she ultimately bows to social norms. In doing so Alcott leaves the reader with only one possibility for the life of a young woman: dependence and acquiescence.

[First paragraph, revised]

"I know they will remember all I have said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully, that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women." (p. 12)

Louisa May Alcott in her novel Little Women portrays a family of four girls and their mother who are dealing with all of life's many trials as they grow into womanhood. The lines above are from a letter from their father, Mr. March, who implores his "little women" to do all of the proper things in order to make him proud. Right away we are given the reason for the book's title and basically the major conflict of the novel: for the March girls to better themselves in order to be upright women in society. The book becomes almost an instructional of how young ladies should act in order to gain respect, find husbands, and then experience happiness. All four daughters have very different personalities, and therefore different battles with their own faults. As they mature, however, all of the surviving March girls follow the path of marriage. Alcott seems to be relaying to her audience that marriage is in fact the proper place for a little woman. Even Jo, the most resistant daughter to this restrictive social order, eventually weds despite her early ambitions of total autonomy and independence. Although Alcott hopes to convey a positive perspective on how these girls may become strong, proud women, she provides marriage as the only course a young woman can take in life and be happy. Through her depiction of how the independent, boyish Jo develops into Miss March, and eventually to Mrs. Bhaer, Alcott leaves little room for thoughts of a woman's life being complete without a husband.

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

ENLT 214M, 26 Sept. & 10 October 1997