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Louisa May Alcott: The Legacy Essay, Research Paper

Louisa May Alcott was an exceptional novelist in a time when few female authors were recognized. She lived in the midst of the turmoil caused by the American Civil War. As a nurse in that war, she saw horrors that no one should have to experience. Later, she would draw on these experiences to write Hospital Sketches (1863).

Bronson Alcott, Alcott’s father, was a pioneer of the transcendentalist movement, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. He founded several schools that all eventually closed because of the controversy of his radical views on education. It was in this environment that Alcott grew into a woman. Consequently, she shared some of her father’s beliefs. She was a fervent supporter of women’s’ rights and the abolition of slavery. Bronson was the ultimate tool in shaping the woman and writer she became.

Alcott’s most famous novel, Little Women, is the simple story of a New England family. It is not action packed, like Alcott’s earlier novels; it only shows the lives led by gentle, good-hearted people. Alcott wrote Little Women “as a private attempt to rework and understand her childhood” (Wright 33-4). She drew on her knowledge of life to create the homey environment embodied in the book. Louisa May Alcott used her own life as the basis of her much-acclaimed novel, Little Women.

Louisa May, the second daughter of Amos Bronson and Abba May Alcott, was born November 29, 1832 in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Alcott was not at all like her older sister Anna. “Louisa?proved bold, adventurous, and stubborn from the start” (Burke 2). She, like her mother, had a fiery temper. At the time of her birth, the Alcotts were living in Germantown while Bronson headed a school for Quaker families. Shortly thereafter, in 1834, they moved Boston when the most prominent backer of the Quaker school suddenly died.

Alcott’s closest sister, Beth, was born in 1835 while the family was living in Boston. Five years later, they again moved, this time to Concord. That same year, the last Alcott was born: Abba May, better known as May. In 1843, the Alcotts, along with other transcendentalists moved to the Fruitlands. This was an experimental communal farmstead. There, young Alcott flourished under the teaching of Thoreau. The experiment, however, failed and the Alcotts returned to Concord.

Hillside, as they called their new home, is where Alcott spent her happiest years. Her mother made it more special to her by setting one room aside for Alcott to use as a writing room. Hillside was the model of the March’s Orchard House in Little Women. The Alcott sisters would perform plays, written by Alcott, for their friends and family in the Hillside barn (Burke 44).

When Abba’s inheritance, on which they had been living, ran out, they had to return to Boston. Because of the family’s financial hardship, all four girls worked to support the family. In one instance, the Alcotts were so desperate for money that Alcott cut and sold her beautiful hair (Benet 87).

Despite these troubles, Louisa was always an imaginative, independent child. Once, in Boston, Alcott decided to take a walk?alone. “For young Louisa, Boston was a tantalizing world to be explored; every byway seemed to beckon her. One day the temptation proved irresistible for the adventurous six-year-old. Louisa walked and walked, mesmerized by the life of the city. By afternoon, she had reached the wharf, where men carried crates of oranges, rum, and exotic spices. Absorbed in the sights, she had become completely lost. Resting in a doorway, she fell asleep against a large, shaggy Newfoundland dog. When she woke to hear the town crier calling: ‘Lost! One little girl with curly brown hair, a white frock, and green shoes’, Louisa sang out ‘Here I am!’ and rode home on his shoulder” (Burke 27-8). Alcott constantly looked for new and exciting things throughout her life.

During her teens and early twenties, Alcott wrote and published “sensational” stories. She gave her profits from these stories to her family. In 1855, Flower Fables, her first book was published. The profits from the sale of this book, she also gave to her family.

Also in 1855, the Alcotts moved to New Hampshire to ease the financial strain of living in the city. Alcott spent the summer there, but returned to Boston on her own several months later. She began to split her time between the two places. In 1858, Alcott’s favorite sister, Beth, died after a prolonged illness following a bout with scarlet fever. She was torn apart. Two years later, another storm hit Alcott’s world. Her older sister Anna married. Louisa declared that she would “never forgive” Anna’s husband for taking her sister from her (Wright 32).

Louisa was instantly intrigued when the Civil War broke out. She enlisted as a nurse in 1862. While she was serving, she contracted typhoid fever. Her treatments for this affliction caused her beautiful hair to fall out. She also suffered from delirium and hallucinations. The effects of these treatments stayed with her for the remainder of her life. Soon after leaving her station as a nurse, she published her first novel, Moods.

In 1865, one of Alcott’s dreams came true. She traveled to Europe as an escort to a young invalid. It was not, however, all she had expected. Her charge constantly complained and the traveling stress reactivated her illness.

When Alcott returned home, Thomas Nies, a publisher, recommended that she write a book for girls (Benet 88). Resulting from his advice, Little Women came out in 1868. Instantly, it was a success with girls across the nation. Fans demanded a sequel, so Alcott quickly wrote and published Little Men. She gave the profits to Anna, whose husband had died in 1870.

Alcott’s beloved Abba died in 1877 after an extended illness. She cared for her until the end although she was also suffering from illness. One year later, Alcott’s youngest sister, May, married and moved to Paris. Shortly after moving there, May died in childbirth. Alcott took in the child; a little girl named Louisa, called Lulu. She cared for the girl for the next four years.

Tragedy again struck when Bronson had a stroke. Alcott had to give Lulu to Anna so she could care for Bronson. He died in March 1888, vibrant until the end. Alcott died two days later, on March 6. She rests on Authors’ Hill in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts, near the grave of her revered teacher, Thoreau.

“Alcott’s literary work is a chronicle of growth and decline, and her books may be grouped into three more or less chronologically sequential genres. Her initial works, written between the late 1840’s and the late 1860’s are sensational dramas and stories in which she explored her ‘demonic’ side: the damned femme fatale was her leading character. In the second group of stories, which includes the three sagas of the March family?she attempted to cross-fertilize the sensational and juvenile genres: her dominant character was the young man or woman trying to reach a genuinely functioning maturity. In the third group of tales, which proliferated in the decade between 1875 and her death, she gave herself largely to out-and-out juvenile material: her heroine or hero, is the spirited child who discovers docility rather than development” (Douglas 32).

Alcott’s purpose for writing was always monetary. “Louisa Alcott’s extraordinary upbringing, while detrimental to the achievement of personal happiness, gave her the impetus to become, in her own words, ‘rich and famous’” (Wright 30). With the publishing of Little Women, her wish came true, “She had made her family independent and comfortable and paid off all the old debts” (Benet 89).

Little Women begins with introductions to the four main characters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March. Their father is away serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. Christmas is a few days away and it promises to be bleak. On Christmas morning, they awake to discover journals from their mother and a wonderful breakfast. Soon after they wake up, they hear of a poor family, the Hummels, and decide to take their breakfast to them. In the afternoon, the girls act out a play written by Jo for Marmee, as they called their mother. Old Mr. Laurence, their wealthy next door neighbor, has heard of their kindness to the poor family and sends the Marches dinner and flowers.

On New Year’s, the two oldest girls, Jo and Meg, go to a party at the Gardiners’ home. Jo, not being fond of such events, hides in a small room off the ballroom. She discovers she has a comrade who is also escaping from the party, Theodore Laurence, better known as Laurie. He is the grandson of Old Mr. Laurence, and he has come to live with his grandfather. Jo and Laurie immediately discover that they are ’soulmates’.

In the next chapter, Alcott explains why the Marches are poor. At one time, they had been one of the wealthiest families in Concord. Then, Mr. March lost all of his money and property while helping an old friend. Therefore, Meg and Jo have to work to help support the family. Meg is a governess for rich, spoiled children, and Jo reads to and cares for old Aunt March. At the same time, Beth, the shy one, takes care of the home while little Amy goes to school. Meg and Amy are confidantes as are Jo and Beth.

A few weeks later, Laurie falls ill. Jo heads next door to cheer him. The two end up spending hours talking and sharing their dreams. Jo tells Laurie all about her beloved family. She wishes him to be their “brother”.

Jo and Laurie’s friendship paves the walk between the March and Laurence household. Soon, the girls are spending much of their time at the grand mansion, amazed at all the luxuries. Beth, however, is too shy to join the merriment. Mr. Laurence, knowing her love of music, offers to allow her to play his piano undisturbed whenever she pleases. Gentle Beth is so overjoyed at the news that she makes him a pair of slippers; this is her simple way of showing gratitude. Mr. Laurence is so touched at the gesture that he gives her the piano his dear granddaughter once played. After this exchange of love, the two become like grandfather and granddaughter.

Laurie invites Meg and Jo to attend a play with him. Amy, with her love of finery, is extremely jealous. While they are at the theatre, she burns a manuscript that Jo had been writing. When Jo discovers this, she is so angry that she declares that she will never speak to Amy again. A few days later, Jo and Laurie go ice-skating. A remorseful Amy follows, shouting at them to wait, but Jo ignores her. Jo and Laurie hear a loud crash behind them and discover that Amy has fallen into the pond. Laurie rescues her and carries her back to the house. Jo is regretful of the way she treated Amy and they both apologize. Marmee and Jo discuss Jo’s temper and ways to repress it. Jo vows to control it from then on.

Soon after this incident, Meg goes to visit the wealthy Moffat family for two weeks. Meg is ashamed of her family’s poverty and allows the other girls to dress her up for a party. She enjoys all the compliments and playing “rich”, but is embarrassed when Laurie comes to the party and sees the way she is acting. Meg returns home and confesses to Marmee her behavior. Marmee tells Meg to be true to herself and not be ashamed of who she is.

Several weeks later, Laurie and Jo run into one another in town. They each have a secret to tell the other. Jo confides in Laurie that she has sent two stories to a newspaper. Laurie then informs Jo that his tutor, Mr. John Brooke, found one of Meg’s gloves and kept it. Jo becomes extremely upset at the idea of Meg having an admirer.

A telegram arrives at the March home notifying them that Mr. March is close to death. Marmee sets off for Washington, D.C. at once with Mr. Brooke as her escort. Jo, in the spirit of the moment, cuts and sells her gorgeous hair so that she can help with the expense of the trip.

While Marmee is caring for Mr. March, Beth goes to help the destitute Hummel family. Beth cares for the sick baby, so the mother can rest. The baby dies of scarlet fever in her arms. Beth goes home to Orchard House and calls for the doctor. He confines her to bed and sends Amy to stay with Aunt March, since she had never been exposed to the disease before this time. Meg and Jo, who have both had the fever, stay and care for sweet Beth.

Beth grows steadily worse. The girls become so alarmed that they send for Marmee in the event that Beth should leave them. As soon as Marmee arrives home, Beth’s fever breaks. Marmee rarely leaves the sickroom when she arrives.

Later, as Beth is resting, Marmee speaks to Jo about Mr. Brooke. While they were together in Washington, he revealed that he loves and wants to marry Meg. Jo is quite upset at the prospect of losing her older sister.

A year has passed since the opening of the novel. I t is Christmas again, but Mr. March is home for the holidays this year. Beth, still weak, plays and sings Christmas carols for everyone. Mr. Brooke arrives and proposes to Meg. She refuses him, and he leaves, brokenhearted and dejected. A few days later, Aunt March tells Meg that it is just as well that she didn’t marry Mr. Brooke, because if she had, she wouldn’t receive any of her inheritance. Meg is so enraged at the comment that she decides to marry him, after all. So closes the first part of the novel.

The novel reopens three years later, as the March family is awaiting Meg’s wedding. Beth is still in poor health, Amy has turned into a beautiful young lady, and impetuous Jo is pursuing her writing career while Laurie is away at college. Laurie comes home for the wedding and tells Jo that she will be the next to marry. She is indignant and says that she will never marry.

Meg’s wedding takes place with no difficulty. It is a simple, beautiful ceremony, just as she had dreamed. Mr. March acted as the minister. Even complaining Aunt March is happy with the outcome.

While the newlyweds are on their honeymoon, Jo sends a manuscript to a publisher and receives one hundred dollars for it. She sends Marmee and Beth to the beach in hopes that she will fully recover. With this success under her belt, she decides to write a book.

Meg soon discovers that married life is not easy. The Brookes are poor and Meg is quite distressed at this. She and John work through their problems, because they are soon to have even more. Meg has twins-Daisy and Demi. They are the delight of the entire family.

Amy heads to Europe to study art with Aunt Carrol. In her letters home, she reveals that she has met someone. His name is Fred Vaughn and he is a wealthy friend of Laurie’s. She declares that although she does not love him, she will marry him if he asks. Amy wants to “make a good match” for the family’s sake.

Jo resolves to go to New York to seek a writing career. She also goes because she thinks Laurie has fallen in love with her and she does not want to encourage him in that pursuit. When she leaves, he tells her that he will not easily forget her. In New York, she works as a governess in a boarding house. One of the residents, Professor Friedrich Bhaer, teaches her German and introduces her to Shakespeare’s writing. They form a fond relationship with one another.

Jo has several of her sensational stories published in New York. As she and Professor Bhaer continue their friendship, she discovers his disapproval of such stories. She vows never to write them again, only stories that are wholesome and real. Jo returns to Concord to spend the summer with her family.

When she arrives home, she finds that Laurie still has feelings for her. He proposes to her and she, of course, refuses. Laurie is completely crushed. He and Mr. Laurence go to Europe so he can mend his broken heart.

Jo and Beth go to the beach in hopes that Beth will regain her vitality. Beth confesses a “secret” to Jo. She knows that she is going to die soon. She says that she was never meant to live long. Beth asks Jo to tell their parents, but Jo knows that they will soon figure it out on their own.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Amy and Laurie meet in Nice for Christmas. They attend a party together and end up spending the whole night together. When they part the following day, they realize that they are seeing one another in a different way. A few months later, they meet again. Amy tells Laurie that he is lazy and wasting his time. She recommends that he go to London and work for his grandfather. She realizes that she was rather harsh in her judgment when she discovers that the reason for his apathy was a broken heart, caused by Jo. Her admonition sparks Laurie and he recognizes that he needs to get on with his life. He heeds her advice and heads to London.

Back in Concord, Marmee prepares a special room for Beth. Jo and Marmee never leave Beth’s side. As Jo cares for her, she writes a poem for Beth. Beth soon discovers it and realizes that her life was worthwhile. She is a good sister, a good daughter, and a good friend. With this revelation, Beth is content to move to the next life. She dies in her Marmee’s arms.

Amy hears of Beth’s passing while in Europe. She desperately wants to come home, but the family urges her to stay and finish her studying; she can do nothing for Beth now. Laurie also finds out about Beth and rushes to be with Amy. In this time of grief and mourning, Amy and Laurie fall in love.

Jo feels alone and empty. She has lost her best friend. Marmee tells her to write out her feelings. Jo listens to her and begins writing again. Her emptiness also makes her acknowledge that she misses Professor Bhaer.

Amy and Laurie come home with a surprise. They could not wait to get home, so they married while they were still in Europe. Another surprise arrives in the form of Professor Bhaer. Jo is taking a long walk and runs into him. He has been offered a job teaching in the West. Jo is visibly startled by this news. As the day progresses, they reveal their true feelings for one another. They decide to marry, in spite of the age difference. Jo feels that she has finally found true happiness.

Soon after, Aunt March dies and leaves her estate to Jo. She and Friedrich decide to turn it into a boy’s school and home. The novel closes as the March, Laurence, Brooke, and Bhaer families gather for a harvest with all the little ones running around (Alcott 1-643).

Alcott’s life related, in many ways, to her novel. Jo is Alcott’s image of herself at that age. “In the character of Jo March-impetuous, sharp-tongued, imaginative, and compassionate-Alcott would draw on her own adolescence to create a complex, unforgettable heroine” (Burke 14). Both Jo and Alcott were second daughters of impoverished New England families. Like Alcott, Jo aspires to be a writer. They both wrote and published sensational stories in effort to support their families. Jo is Louisa May Alcott.

Jo’s character is not the only element of Little Women that is reminiscent of Alcott’s own life. The Alcott sisters like the March sisters were extremely close. They loved spending time with one another; they were their own best friends. Both sets of siblings staged plays for their friends and families. They plays were, naturally, written by Jo and Alcott.

Alcott even incorporated the personalities of her sisters into her novel. Jo and Amy were not as close to one another as they were to Beth and Meg, respectively. Similarly, Alcott and May’s personalities never meshed well. Nonetheless they did love one another deeply; Jo expressed this underlying love when she took in Lulu. Alcott’s sisters were her life.

Two events that she later merged into her novel strongly affected Alcott’s life. In 1858, her favorite sister, Elizabeth died, just as Beth died in Little Women. A year later, Alcott’s older sister Anna married. Just as Jo was distressed by Meg’s marriage, so was Alcott.

The very method in which the Alcott’s home ran, she included in her novel. Throughout most of Little Women, Mr. March is absent from the home. In Alcott’s own life, her father was also gone much of the time. In both households, the mother was in control. Abba was the model for Marmee. Alcott once declared, “All true, only not half good enough” (Burke 97). The March family was an idealized interpretation of the Alcotts.

Differences, few as they are, do exist between the two families. Alcott never left home and started her own family. Jo, on the other hand, married and had children. Another discrepancy is that Alcott fulfilled her wish of traveling abroad whereas Jo never did. The Alcotts were constantly moving from one home to another. The Marches, however, remained in their beloved home.

Little Women is the story of a generous family living in poverty in Concord, Massachusetts. Not only was it a story, but it was also Alcott’s way of sharing her life and experiences with others. It is a novel of such familiarity and intimacy that the only way she could have written it is to have lived it. Of course, she did romanticize her life into what she wanted it to be; but the basic story line is her autobiography.

Alcott expressed herself and her family as the March family. She was Jo, the fiery, independent one. She incorporated her significant life events into the novel, such as the death of her sister and her friendship with Laurie (based on her friendship with Ladislas Winiewski). Almost every aspect of the novel is somehow linked to Alcott’s own life experience. Little Women is the idealized autobiography of both Louisa May Alcott and the entire Alcott family.

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. New York: Grosset&Dunlap, 1990.

Benet, Laura. “Louisa May Alcott”. Famous New England Authors. New

York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1970. 84-91.

Burke, Kathleen. Louisa May Alcott. New York: Chelsea House, 1988.

Chesterton, G.K. “Louisa Alcott”. A Handful of Authors: Essays on

Books and Writers. Ed. Dorothy Collins. New York: Sheed &

Ward, 1953. 163-167.

Douglas, Ann. “Louisa May Alcott”. American Writers: A Collection of

Literary Biographies. Ed. Leonard Unger. New York: Scribner’s,

1979. 1:29-52.

Elbert, Sarah. A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott and “Little Women”.

Temple University Press, 1984.

Meigs, Cornelia. Invincible Louisa. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company,


Wright, Reg. “Louisa May Alcott”. Great Writers of the English

Language: Women Writers. New York: Cavendish, 1989. 8: 29-52.

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