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Little Women is a novel by American author Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888), which was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. Alcott wrote the books rapidly over several months at the request of her publisher. The novel follows the lives of four sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March—detailing their passage from childhood to womanhood, and is loosely based on the author and her three sisters.:202
Little Women was an immediate commercial and critical success, and readers demanded to know more about the characters. Alcott quickly completed a second volume (entitled Good Wives in the United Kingdom, although this name originated from the publisher and not from Alcott). It was also successful. The two volumes were issued in 1880 in a single work entitled Little Women.
Alcott wrote two sequels to her popular work, both of which also featured the March sisters: Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886). Although Little Women was a novel for girls, it differed notably from the current writings for children, especially girls. The novel addressed three major themes: “domesticity, work, and true love, all of them interdependent and each necessary to the achievement of its heroine’s individual identity.”:200
Little Women “has been read as a romance or as a quest, or both. It has been read as a family drama that validates virtue over wealth”, but also “as a means of escaping that life by women who knew its gender constraints only too well”.:34 According to Sarah Elbert, Alcott created a new form of literature, one that took elements from Romantic children’s fiction and combined it with others from sentimental novels, resulting in a totally new format. Elbert argued that within Little Women can be found the first vision of the “All-American girl” and that her multiple aspects are embodied in the differing March sisters.:199
The book has been adapted for film twice as silent films, and four times with sound, in 1933, 1949, 1978 and 1994. Four television series were made, including two in Britain in the 1950s and two anime series in Japan in the 1980s. A musical version opened on Broadway in 2005. An American opera version in 1998 has been performed internationally and filmed for broadcast on US television in 2001.
Four sisters live with their mother, facing Christmas without their father as the American Civil War is underway. The family is settled in a new neighborhood, living in genteel poverty after the father lost their money. Meg and Jo March, the elder sisters, both work outside the home for money to support the family. Meg teaches four children in a nearby family, while Jo aids her grand-aunt March, a wealthy widow whose strength is failing. Beth helps with housework, and Amy attends school. Meg is the beautiful sister; Jo is the tomboy; Beth is the musician; and Amy is the charming artist with blond curls. Jo is impulsive and quick to anger. One of her challenges in growing up is to control acting out of anger, a challenge that also faced her mother, Marmee. Marmee advises Jo on speaking with forethought. The boy Laurie’s grandfather, Mr. Laurence, is charmed by Beth, and gives her the piano used by Laurie’s late sister.
Beth contracts scarlet fever after tending to a family where three children died of it. Her poor condition forces her sisters and the Laurences to call Marmee back from Washington, where she has gone to tend her husband, who contracted pneumonia. Beth recovers, but never fully. Jo tends Beth in her illness. Amy, not yet exposed to scarlet fever, is sent to live with Aunt March, replacing Jo after Beth recovers. Jo has success earning money with her writing. Meg spends two weeks with friends, where there are parties for the girls to dance with boys and improve social skills. Laurie is invited to one of the dances, as her friends incorrectly think Meg is in love with him. Meg is more interested in the young tutor for Laurie, John Brooke. Brooke traveled to Washington to help Mr. March, staying there when Marmee comes back to tend Beth. While with both March parents, Brooke confesses his love for Meg. The parents agree, but suggest they are both too young to marry, as Meg is just seventeen. They agree to wait. In the interim, Brooke serves a year in the war, is wounded, returns home and finds work so he can get a house for their upcoming marriage. Laurie’s need for a tutor ends, as he goes off to college. The war ends.
Meg and John marry and learn how to live together, and soon have twins. Meg is a devoted mother that first year, and John begins to feel left out. Marmee advises Meg on how to balance caring for her children and being with her husband. Meg accepts help in watching them from the March family cook, and sees that John is a good father, rejuvenating their marriage. Laurie graduates from college, putting in effort to do well in his last year, at Jo’s prompting. Jo decides she needs a break, and spends six months with a friend of her mother in New York City, serving as governess for her two children. The family runs a boarding house, with new people for Jo, the writer, to consider. She takes German lessons with Professor Bhaer, who lives in the house. He has come to America from Berlin to care for the orphaned sons of his sister. For extra money, Jo writes stories without a moral, which disappoints Bhaer. Amy goes on a European tour with her aunt, uncle and cousin. Jo returns home, where Laurie proposes marriage to her, and she turns him down. He is heartbroken; both he and his grandfather go to Europe. Beth’s health has seriously deteriorated, as Jo sees on her return. She devotes herself to the care of her sister, until Beth dies. In Europe, Laurie encounters Amy, who is growing up. On news of Beth’s death, the two meet for consolation, and their romance grows strong, as Amy learns how to manage him. They marry in Europe, as Amy’s aunt will not allow Amy to return with Laurie and his grandfather and no other chaperone. The day they return home, Professor Bhaer shows up at the March home. He spends two weeks there, on the last day proposing marriage to Jo. Their marriage is deferred as Bhaer teaches at a college in the west. Aunt March dies, leaving her large home, Plumfield, to Jo. She and Bhaer marry, turning the house into a school for boys. They have two sons of their own, and Amy and Laurie have a daughter. In the fall at apple-picking time, Marmee’s 60th birthday is celebrated at Jo’s place, with her three daughters, their husbands, her husband, and her five grandchildren.
Margaret “Meg” March
Meg, the eldest sister, is sixteen when the story starts. She is referred to as a beauty, and manages the household when her mother is absent. Meg fulfills expectations for women of the time; from the start, she is already a nearly perfect “little woman”. As such, Meg is based in the domestic household; she does not have significant employment or activities outside of it. Prior to her marriage to John Brooke, while still living at home, she often lectures her younger sisters to ensure they grow to embody the title of “little women”.
Meg is employed as a governess for the Kings, a wealthy local family. Because of their father’s family’s social standing, Meg makes her debut in to high society, but is lectured by her friend and neighbor, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, for behaving like a snob. Meg marries John Brooke, the tutor of Laurie. They have twins, Margaret “Daisy” Brooke and John “Demi” Brooke. The sequel, Little Men, mentions a baby daughter, Josephine “Josy” Brooke, who is fourteen at the beginning of the final book.
Critics have portrayed Meg as lacking in independence, reliant entirely on her husband, and “isolated in her little cottage with two small children”.:204 From this perspective, Meg is seen as the compliant daughter who does not “attain Alcott’s ideal womanhood” of equality. According to critic Sarah Elbert, “democratic domesticity requires maturity, strength, and above all a secure identity that Meg lacks”.:204 Others believe that Alcott does not intend to belittle Meg for her ordinary life, and portrays her in loving details, suffused in a sentimental light.
Josephine “Jo” March
The principal character, Jo, 15 years old at the beginning of the book, is a strong and willful young woman, struggling to subdue her strong personality. Her lack of success in this renders her more realistic and contributes to the charm she has for readers.
The second-oldest of four sisters, Josephine March is the boyish one; her father has referred to her as his “son Jo”, and her best friend and neighbor, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, sometimes calls her “my dear fellow”, and she alone calls him Teddy. Jo has a “hot” temper that often leads her into trouble. With the help of her own misguided sense of humor, her sister Beth, and her mother, she works on controlling it.
Jo loves literature, both reading and writing. She composes plays for her sisters to perform and writes short stories. She initially rejects the idea of marriage and romance, feeling that it would break up her family and separate her from the sisters whom she adores. While pursuing a literary career in New York City, she meets Friederich Bhaer, a German professor. On her return home, Jo rejects Laurie’s marriage proposal.
After Beth dies, Professor Bhaer woos Jo at her home, when “They decide to share life’s burdens just as they shared the load of bundles on their shopping expedition”.:210 She is 25 years old when she accepts his proposal. The marriage is deferred until her unexpected inheritance of her Aunt March’s home a year later. “The crucial first point is that the choice is hers, its quirkiness another sign of her much-prized individuality.”:21 They have two sons, Robin “Rob” Bhaer and Teddy Bhaer. Jo also writes the first part of Little Women during the second portion of the novel. According to Elbert, “her narration signals a successfully completed adolescence”.:199
Elizabeth “Beth” March
Beth, thirteen when the story starts, is described as kind, gentle, sweet, shy, quiet and musical. She is the shyest March sister.:53 Infused with quiet wisdom, she is the peacemaker of the family and gently scolds her sisters when they argue. As her sisters grow up, they begin to leave home, but Beth has no desire to leave her house or family. She is especially close to Jo: when Beth develops scarlet fever after visiting the Hummels, Jo does most of the nursing and rarely leaves her side. Beth recovers from the acute disease but her health is permanently weakened.
As she grows, Beth begins to realize that her time with her loved ones is coming to an end. Finally, the family accepts that Beth will not live much longer. They make a special room for her, filled with all the things she loves best: her kittens, piano, Father’s books, Amy’s sketches, and her beloved dolls. She is never idle; she knits and sews things for the children who pass by on their way to and from school. But eventually she puts down her sewing needle, saying it grew “heavy.” Beth’s final sickness has a strong effect on her sisters, especially Jo, who resolves to live her life with more consideration and care for everyone. The main loss during Little Women is the death of beloved Beth. Her “self-sacrifice” is ultimately the greatest in the novel. She gives up her life knowing that it has had only private, domestic meaning.”:206–207
Amy Curtis March
Amy is the youngest sister and baby of the family, aged twelve when the story begins. Interested in art, she is described as a “regular snow-maiden” with curly golden hair and blue eyes, “pale and slender” and “always carrying herself” like a proper young lady. She is the artist of the family. Often “petted” because she is the youngest, Amy can behave in a vain and self-centered way.:5 She has the middle name Curtis, and is called by her full name, Amy.
She is chosen by her aunt and uncle to travel in Europe with them, where she grows and makes a decision about the level of her artistic talent and how to direct her adult life. She encounters “Laurie” Laurence and his grandfather during the extended visit. Amy is the least inclined of the sisters to sacrifice and self-denial. She behaves well in good society, at ease with herself. Critic Martha Saxton observes the author was never fully at ease with Amy’s moral development and her success in life seemed relatively accidental.:5 Due to her selfishness and attachment to material things, Amy has been described as the least likable of the four sisters, but she is also the only one who strives to excel at art purely for self-expression, in contrast to Jo, who sometimes writes for financial gain.
Professor Friedrich Bhaer—A middle aged, “philosophically inclined”, and penniless German immigrant in New York City who was a noted professor in Berlin, who is also called Fritz. He lives in Mrs. Kirke’s boarding house and works as a language master.:61 He and Jo become friends, and he critiques her writing. He encourages her to become a serious writer instead of writing “sensation” stories for weekly tabloids. “Bhaer has all the qualities Bronson Alcott lacked: warmth, intimacy, and a tender capacity for expressing his affection—the feminine attributes Alcott admired and hoped men could acquire in a rational, feminist world.”:210 They eventually marry, raise his two orphaned nephews, Franz and Emil, and their own sons, Rob and Teddy.
Many of the novel’s readers objected to Jo marrying Bhaer. They wanted a more successful man for her.
Rob and Teddy Bhaer—Jo and Fritz’s sons.
John Brooke—During his employment with the Laurences as a tutor to Laurie, he falls in love with Meg. He accompanies Mrs. March to Washington D.C. when her husband is ill with pneumonia. When Laurie leaves for college, Brooke continues his employment with Mr. Laurence as a bookkeeper. When Aunt March overhears Meg rejecting John’s declaration of love, she threatens Meg with disinheritance because she suspects that Brooke is only interested in Meg’s future prospects. Eventually Meg admits her feelings to Brooke, they defy Aunt March (who ends up accepting the marriage), and they are engaged. Brooke serves in the Union Army for a year and is invalided home after being wounded. Brooke marries Meg a few years later when the war has ended and she has turned twenty. Brooke was modeled after John Bridge Pratt, her sister Anna’s husband.
Margaret (Daisy) and John Laurence (Demijohn or Demi) Brooke—Meg’s twin son and daughter.
Uncle and Aunt Carrol—Sister and brother-in-law of Mr. March. They take Amy to Europe with them, where Uncle Carrol frequently tries to be like an English gentleman.
Flo Carrol—Amy’s cousin, daughter of Aunt and Uncle Carrol, and companion in Europe.
May and Mrs. Chester—A well-to-do family with whom the Marches are acquainted. May Chester is a girl about Amy’s age, who is rich and jealous of Amy’s popularity and talent.
Miss Crocker—An old and poor spinster who likes to gossip and who has few friends.
Mr. Dashwood—Publisher and editor of the Weekly Volcano.
Mr. Davis—The schoolteacher at Amy’s school. He punishes Amy for bringing pickled limes to school by striking her palm and making her stand on a platform in front of the class. She is withdrawn from the school by her mother.
Estelle “Esther” Valnor—A French woman employed as a servant for Aunt March who befriends Amy.
The Gardiners—Wealthy friends of Meg’s. Sallie Gardiner is a rich friend of Meg’s who later marries Ned Moffat.
The Hummels—A poor German family consisting of a widowed mother and six children. Marmee and the girls help them by bringing food, firewood, blankets and other comforts. They help with minor repairs to their small dwelling. Three of the children die of scarlet fever and Beth contracts the disease while caring for them.
The Kings—A wealthy family with four children for whom Meg works as a governess.
The Kirkes—Mrs. Kirke is a friend of Mrs. March’s who runs a boarding house in New York. She employs Jo as governess to her two daughters, Kitty and Minnie.
The Lambs—A well-off family with whom the Marches are acquainted.
James Laurence—Laurie’s grandfather and a wealthy neighbor of the Marches. Lonely in his mansion, and often at odds with his high-spirited grandson, he finds comfort in becoming a benefactor to the Marches. He protects the March sisters while their parents are away. He was a friend to Mrs. March’s father, and admires their charitable works. He develops a special, tender friendship with Beth, who reminds him of his late granddaughter. He gives Beth the girl’s piano.
Theodore “Laurie” Laurence—He is a rich young man, older than Jo but younger than Meg. Laurie is the “boy next door” to the March family, and has an overprotective paternal grandfather, Mr. Laurence. After eloping with an Italian pianist, Laurie’s father was disowned by his parents. Both he and Laurie’s mother died young, and the boy Laurie was taken in by his grandfather. Preparing to enter Harvard, Laurie is being tutored by John Brooke. He is described as attractive and charming, with black eyes, brown skin, and curly black hair. He later falls in love with Amy and they marry; they have one child, a little girl named after Beth: Elizabeth “Bess” Laurence. Sometimes Jo calls Laurie “Teddy”. Though Alcott did not make Laurie as multidimensional as the female characters, she partly based him on Ladislas Wisniewski, a young Polish émigré she had befriended, and Alf Whitman, a friend from Lawrence, Kansas.:202:241:287 According to Jan Susina, the portrayal of Laurie is as “the fortunate outsider”, observing Mrs. March and the March sisters. He agrees with Alcott that Laurie is not strongly developed as a character.
Aunt Josephine March—Mr. March’s aunt, a rich widow. Somewhat temperamental and prone to being judgmental, she disapproves of the family’s poverty, their charitable work, and their general disregard for the more superficial aspects of society’s ways. Her vociferous disapproval of Meg’s impending engagement to the impoverished Mr. Brooke becomes the proverbial “last straw” that actually causes Meg to accept his proposal. She appears to be strict and cold, but deep down, she’s really quite soft-hearted. She dies near the end of the book, and Jo and Frederich Bhaer turn her estate into a school for boys.
Margaret “Marmee” March—The girls’ mother and head of household while her husband is away. She engages in charitable works and lovingly guides her girls’ morals and their characters. She once confesses to Jo that her temper is as volatile as Jo’s, but that she has learned to control it.:130 Somewhat modeled after the Author’s own mother, she is the focus around which the girls’ lives unfold as they grow.:2
Robert “Father” March—Formerly wealthy, the father is portrayed as having helped friends who could not repay a debt, resulting in his family’s genteel poverty. A scholar and a minister, he serves as a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War and is wounded in December 1862. After the war he becomes minister to a small congregation.
Annie Moffat—A fashionable and wealthy friend of Meg and Sallie Gardiner.
Ned Moffat—Annie Moffat’s brother, who marries Sallie Gardiner.
Hannah Mullet—The March family maid and cook, their only servant. She is of Irish descent and very dear to the Family. She is treated more like a member of the family than a servant.
Miss Norton—A friendly, well-to-do tenant living in Mrs. Kirke’s boarding house. She occasionally invites Jo to accompany her to lectures and concerts.
Susie Perkins—A girl at Amy’s school.
The Scotts—Friends of Meg and John Brooke. John knows Mr. Scott from work.
Tina—The young daughter of an employee of Mrs. Kirke. Tina loves Mr. Bhaer and treats him like a father.
The Vaughans—English friends of Laurie’s who come to visit him. Kate is the oldest of the Vaughn siblings—very prim and proper, Grace is the youngest. Fred and Frank are twins; Frank is the younger twin.
Fred Vaughan—A Harvard friend of Laurie’s who, in Europe, courts Amy. Rivalry with the much richer Fred for Amy’s love inspires the dissipated Laurie to pull himself together and become more worthy of her. Amy will eventually reject Fred, knowing she does not love him and deciding not to marry out of ambition.
Frank Vaughan—Fred’s twin brother, mentioned a few times in the novel. When Fred and Amy are both travelling in Europe, Fred leaves because he heard his twin is ill.