The American Dream in Little Women
The American dream has long symbolized a change of fortune and the hope that through hard work or luck, even the poorest person can prosper. Immigrants flooding into America in the 19th century came looking for new opportunities that would lift them out of the poverty they had experienced in their home countries; for them, the American dream was inseparably linked with material wealth. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the March family offers a different view of the American dream—a vision of prosperity based not on material gain but on moral and spiritual wealth. At first, the American dream seems to have failed for the March family. Mr. March has lost the family fortune in some unfortunate business investments. The four March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—are caught between worlds; by birth, they are expected to associate with their wealthy neighbors. However, their poverty creates a distinct difference between them and their friends.
Much of Little Women deals with the temptations and frustrations the March sisters feel as a result of their altered situation, and from their trials the sisters learn that “love, protection, peace, and health, the real blessings of life” are “things more precious than any luxuries money could buy.” While each of the family members strives to become a better person and overcome individual faults, their piety and charity does not protect the family from tragedy. Yet a silver lining exists behind every difficulty because bad experiences usually help teach the girls about the important things in life. In order to strengthen her moral argument, Alcott provides some foils to the March family in the form of the Gardiner and Moffat families. Both of these families represent the traditional American dream of social mobility gained through material wealth; however, when compared to the Marches, they are portrayed as lacking the happiness and blessings of the March family. The wealthy Moffats are described as “not particularly cultivated or intelligent people, and that all their gilding could not quite conceal the ordinary material of which they were made.” During a short visit to the Moffat home, Meg overhears some hurtful gossip about her family and gladly leaves the Moffats to return to the quiet sanctuary of her home. While this episode does not completely cure Meg of coveting items such as Sallie Gardiner’s fancy clothing and trinkets, by the end of the novel she realizes that her life with John in the “Dovecote” is far happier than the rich life Sallie and Ned Moffat lead in their mansion. The Marches’ poverty is often presented as having advantages, and the relative independence the girls receive from their situation is one of these advantages. As the family fortune has been lost, Meg and Jo offer to work to help support the family. These two sisters obtain jobs outside of the family, but Jo’s writing soon becomes a welcome source of extra income and allows a few luxuries. Eventually, Jo’s successes inspire her to leave her family and move to New York to pursue literary prospects, an opportunity that would not have been available at home. As time passes, she heeds the advice of Mr. Bhaer and writes a successful novel based on her life experiences.
The opportunity that America symbolizes for so many, as well as the idea that hard work pays off, is illustrated here. Instead of restoring wealth to the March family, Louis May Alcott’s girls learn that true wealth cannot be purchased, but other blessings enhance life. Especially when Beth succumbs to heart damage caused by scarlet fever, the family comes together in the realization that love and family are more important than material objects. By the end of the novel, the surviving March girls are all happily placed with caring husbands, and while Meg and Jo cannot be considered wealthy, they lead rich and fulfilling lives. Through their hard work and devotion to family, the girls do realize their own form of the American dream: a good husband, a close family, and a comfortable, if not extravagant, lifestyle. Cheryl Blake Price Illness in Little Women Before antibiotics and immunization, health and illness were daily concerns for many people. Little Women reflects the preoccupation with wellness that was present in the Victorian age and illuminates the ways in which illness was perceived during this time. The threat of disease hovers over the March family, and the tragic illness and subsequent death of beloved Beth serves many purposes in the novel. It mirrors Louisa May Alcott’s own experience with death, sheds light on Victorian beliefs about health, and imparts a moral lesson on the nature of sacrifice and the importance of Christian faith. Even though Beth’s death is heart-wrenching, Alcott instills the misfortune with hope, providing an optimistic vision of the strength of family bonds. In the Victorian period, death from infectious diseases and other illnesses that are easily treatable today were frequent. Little Women reflects Victorian beliefs about illness and shows how disease was viewed and treated in this time.
These concerns were real for Alcott, who saw injury and disease daily as a Civil War nurse and experienced loss through the sickness and death of her sister Elizabeth. In America, ill health was especially prevalent for immigrants, who often lived in poor conditions and had inadequate nutrition. In the novel, the plight of the immigrant family is represented by the Hummels; it is through tending the sick Hummel children that Beth contracts scarlet fever. However, even prior to her illness, Beth is represented as having a weak constitution, something the Victorians believed made people more susceptible to disease. Beth’s illness is doubly troubling for the March family because Mr. March has also become unwell during his service for the Union Army. Mrs. March is away nursing her husband in Washington, D.C., when Beth gets sick, leaving her caretaking to Jo and the servant Hannah. While Mr. March goes on to recover fully, Beth’s constitution is further weakened by the scarlet fever and the development of rheumatic fever. Jo’s earnings from writing allow Beth and Mrs. March to travel to the seaside; the Victorians commonly believed that ocean air had curative powers. Despite these attempts, Beth never regains her health and comes to the realization that she will die. She retires to a sickroom, and, leaning upon her parents for support and guidance, Beth looks to her Christian faith to die at peace. Naturally, Beth’s death has a profound impact on the family, but in the sadness there comes an emphasis on the joys of life along with the misfortune. Jo, who has always struggled with her temper, finds that nursing Beth provides “lessons in patience [that] were so sweetly taught her that she could not fail to learn them.
” Beth’s own struggles with her impending death also provide lessons in faith. At first overcome with sorrow, Beth becomes serene in her final illness, giving herself over to God. Beth’s illness highlights the important place Christianity holds in the text; much of Little Women is devoted to imparting Christian beliefs and improving moral character. Beth’s passing is hard for the family, but it teaches them life lessons and brings new appreciation for the blessings that they do have. Beth’s reliance on her faith is another important feature in the novel, as it allows her to die peacefully and promises a relief from her worldly suffering; it reaffirms the Christian ideology that is present throughout the text. Beth’s illness, modeled on Alcott’s own sister’s death, also highlights the fragility of life and gives the reader a glimpse of the real dangers illness presented in the Victorian period. The idea that Beth’s death highlights the blessings of life is further reinforced by the final chapter of Little Women. The chapter, entitled “Harvest Time,” signifies the bounty and good fortune of the harvest, but it also inspires images of transition and death. It is here that Alcott reveals that Laurie and Amy’s only daughter, also named Beth, is a frail, sickly child. The similarity in the name “Beth” is not a coincidence; like her aunt, it seems that little Beth’s constitution is under constant threat. However, fear of Beth’s fragility is bringing her parents closer and even causing improvements to their characters.
Amy is “growing sweeter, deeper, and more tender,” and Laurie is “more serious, strong, and firm.” The lesson that both parents learn is that “beauty, youth, good fortune, even love itself, cannot keep care and pain, loss and sorrow, from the most blessed.” Cheryl Blake Price Parenting in Little Women Unsurprisingly, parenting plays a large role in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a book that primarily chronicles the maturation of four sisters from young adolescence to adulthood. Just as Little Women can be seen as a guidebook for young adults (especially girls) on proper moral and social behavior, it can also serve as a primer for raising children. The parents of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy have a very specific task: to mold their girls into industrious, helpful, and cheerful Christian women. Through personal example, daily lessons, and Christian teachings, Marmee and Father succeed in this goal, but not without some difficulties. Despite the hard work that parenting entails, it is presented as the epitome of a woman’s— and, to a large part, a man’s—life. The second part of the book continues to follow the lives of the girls once they marry and begin to have children of their own, which affords the novel another opportunity to model appropriate child-rearing practices and to present parenting as a joyful, necessary, and fulfilling experience. At the novel’s opening, the March family is, in effect, a one-parent household, as Mr. March is away from home fighting in the Civil War. With her eldest daughters growing rapidly, Marmee must balance preparing her girls for adulthood with household duties, charitable work, and money matters. However, she does have some help from her two oldest daughters, Meg and Jo, who each “adopt” one of the younger siblings to watch over and care for. Although the novel certainly promotes the traditional nuclear family, it also shows that caring, successful families can come in other forms as well. Mr. March’s absence in the early part of the novel proves this, as does the example of the neighboring Lawrence family. The elderly Mr. Lawrence has lived through the loss of his wife, son, daughterin- law, and granddaughter, and he is left only with his grandson, Laurie. While the Lawrence household appears to be more disharmonious than the Marches’ at times, it shows that a nontraditional family can also flourish if proper parenting exists in the home.
The biggest key to the Marches’ child-rearing success is that they parent through example and gentle guidance. Marmee’s management of Jo’s temper is a good example of this parenting style. Jo’s temper is infamous in the house, and she often has a hard time controlling it. When Jo’s anger leads Amy to have a life-threatening accident, Marmee steps in and confides to Jo that she has a similar anger problem. Showing Jo how she has overcome her temper, Mrs. March prompts Jo to conquer her own faults. Through parenting by example, little punishment is called for; remonstrance, if given, is usually a gentle shaming rather than harsh words or criticism. For the Marches, corporal punishment is out of the question. When Amy receives “several tingling blows” on her palm as punishment for breaking a school rule, Mrs. March states, “I don’t approve of corporal punishment, especially for girls.” The novel makes clear that children are to be raised with love and kindness, not harsh words or spankings. Rather than be sent back to a school that endorses corporal punishment, Amy is immediately withdrawn and is home-instructed by her mother and older sisters. Much of the girls’ education has been received at home, with Mr. March initially overseeing instruction and the girls carrying on their learning once he leaves to serve in the Union Army. Yet there is another sort of education that Mr. and Mrs. March are responsible for, and that is the religious education of their children. As the family patriarch and as a minister, Mr. March takes the condition of his daughters’ souls seriously and is primarily responsible for ensuring that his daughters become Christian women. This becomes most apparent during Beth’s last illness, in which her “Father and Mother guided her tenderly through the valley of shadow, and gave her up to God.” Faced with a family crisis, Mr. March looks to his faith to keep the family strong and together. Although Beth’s death casts a shadow over the family, the novel is firm in the idea that life goes on. The surviving girls go on to marry and have families of their own, and Meg, Jo, and Amy soon discover the challenges new parents face.
Yet Marmee and Father remain important figures in their daughters’ lives, helping to shape the new mothers into successful parents. Particularly in the chapters dealing with Meg and the twins, the novel shows the girls adopting the techniques of their parents to become loving, responsible mothers. Family takes central importance in Little Women, and by detailing the parenting styles of Mr. and Mrs. March, the novel illustrates both the importance of parenting and how to parent well. Cheryl Blake Pric