Fiction Classic

Little Women – Summary

Louisa May Alcott
Rating: 8.2

“The American female myth. ”
—Madelon Bedell

Little Women is a classic historical novel by American author Louisa May Alcott which was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. Generations of readers young and old, male and female, have fallen in love with the March sisters of Louisa May Alcott’s most popular and enduring romance novel.

Holiday Adventures

“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

On a snowy December evening, the March sisters – pretty Meg, boyish Jo, gentle Beth, and prim Amy – sit together and bemoan their family’s poverty. Meg, who works as a governess, and Jo, who acts as a companion to their Aunt March, complain about the difficulties of their jobs, while Beth frets about housework and Amy worries about school. But after their mother, Marmee, returns home with a letter from their father – who is serving as a chaplain in the Civil War – the girls resolve to stop complaining.

“I’d rather take coffee than compliments just now.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

On Christmas morning, Marmee asks the girls if they would be willing to give their breakfast to the all-but-starving Hummel family. They agree and find joy in being unselfish. That night, the girls perform a play Jo wrote and enjoy treats sent by their wealthy neighbor, Mr. Laurence. After Christmas, Jo and Meg receive an invitation to a New Year’s Eve party. During the party, Jo hides in a curtained area where she meets Mr. Lawrence’s nephew, Laurie. The two bond quickly. When Meg sprains her ankle, Laurie offers his carriage to take them home.

“I want to do something splendid…that won’t be forgotten after I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

After the holidays, Meg and Jo reluctantly return to work. Beth helps Hannah, the maid, keep house and practices playing the piano, and popular, artistic Amy goes back to school. Each night the family members share stories about their day and Marmee reminds the girls to count their blessings.

“I like good strong words that mean something…”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

The Laurences

“I’ve got the key to my castle in the air, but whether I can unlock the door remains to be seen.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Jo learns that Laurie has been ill and decides to go cheer him up. Mr. Laurence overhears Jo critiquing the way his portrait was painted. He finds her frankness charming and invites her to tea. Afterward, Laurie plays the piano, which upsets Mr. Laurence, who doesn’t want him pursuing a career as a professional musician.

“Love Jo all your days, if you choose, but don’t let it spoil you, for it’s wicked to throw away so many good gifts because you can’t have the one you want.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

All girls except Beth, who is shy, begin spending time at the Laurence house. Mr. Laurence comes to the Marches’ home and talks about his piano. He invites Beth to use it. Intrigued, she finally gets up the courage to play the instrument. To show her gratitude, Beth makes Mr. Laurence a pair of slippers. He, in turn, sends her his deceased granddaughter’s piano. Beth goes to thank him in person for this tremendous gift. Thereafter, the two are as close as family members.

“Love is a great beautifier.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Trials

“Watch and pray, dear, never get tired of trying, and never think it is impossible to conquer your fault.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Amy’s school friends have been treating her to pickled limes, but when she tries to return the favor, a rival tattles on her. The teacher makes Amy throw her limes away and strikes her hand. While agreeing that Amy deserved discipline, Marmee disapproves of physical punishment, so she decides to take Amy out of school for now.

“…for love casts out fear, and gratitude can conquer pride.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Laurie invites Meg and Jo to the theater. When Jo says Amy can’t come with them, Amy burns the manuscript of the novel Jo has been writing, the only copy. When Laurie and Jo go ice-skating, Amy follows them and falls through a patch of thin ice. Laurie rescues Amy. Later Jo talks to Marmee about her temper and how upset she was that Amy destroyed the only copy of her writing. Marmee explains that she, too, struggles with getting angry, but that she works to control it, and hopes Jo will learn to do likewise. Jo and Amy reconcile.

“Make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

When Meg goes to stay with her wealthy friend, Annie Moffat, she feels embarrassed by her simple attire. She’s also upset by gossip that her mother plans for her to marry Laurie. Meg allows the Moffats to dress her up for their next party, but she becomes uncomfortable when she sees Laurie, who criticizes her for being pretentious. Back at home, Meg asks Marmee about the gossip. Marmee assures Meg she wants her girls to marry for love, not money.

“Be worthy love, and love will come.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Work and Play

“You don’t need scores of suitors. You need only one… if he’s the right one.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

The girls form a literary club and create a newsletter featuring stories, poems, advertisements and essays. Jo suggests Laurie as a new club member. Meg and Amy express doubts, but Beth persuades them. Laurie, who was hiding in the closet during the entire conversation, emerges, and they all share a laugh.

“Some people seemed to get all sunshine, and some all shadow…”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Meg and Jo’s employers go on vacation, and all the girls decide to spend their summer solely on leisure activities. After a week, Marmee decides she and Hannah will also take a day off. The girls try to take over running the household, but chaos ensues. Ultimately, they realize Marmee has taught them a valuable lesson about the need to balance work and play.

“Be comforted, dear soul! There is always light behind the clouds.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Laurie invites the March girls to a picnic with Sallie Gardiner, Ned Moffat, Laurie’s tutor John Brooke, and Laurie’s British friends Fred, Kate, Frank and Grace Vaughn. During the picnic, Fred cheats at a game. Jo is upset, but keeps her temper. Kate discovers that Meg is a governess and snubs her. Mr. Brooke defends Meg, and the two begin chatting.

“Young ladies in America love independence as much as their ancestors did, and are admired and respected for supporting themselves.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Laurie and the March girls discuss their future hopes and dreams. Jo wants to be a writer, Laurie, a musician, Amy, an artist, Meg, a wealthy wife, and Beth wants to stay home. Jo encourages Laurie to defy his grandfather and pursue his love of music, but Meg disagrees.

“Conceit spoils the finest genius.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Jo covertly offers two of her stories to a local newspaper. She confides in Laurie, who shares a secret of his own: His tutor John is carrying one of Meg’s gloves around with him. Jo worries that getting married would separate Meg from her family. Later, Jo discovers that the newspaper has published her story.

“I think she is growing up, and so begins to dream dreams, and have hopes and fears and fidgets, without knowing why or being able to explain them.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Sickness and Sacrifice

Marmee gets a telegram informing her that Mr. March is ill in Washington DC. John offers himself to Marmee as a traveling companion. Jo cuts off her beautiful hair and sells it for $25 to pay for Marmee’s trip. Marmee and John leave for Washington. He sends daily updates about Mr. March’s health. Hannah, Laurie, Mr. Laurence and the four girls write letters to Marmee about what’s happening back home, each in their own distinct style.

Though the girls all promised to check on the impoverished Hummels, in the end, only Beth visits the family. One day, she tells Jo their baby has died of scarlet fever, and that she is worried she may have contracted the disease. Dr. Bangs confirms that Beth is ill. Amy, who hasn’t had the disease before, is sent to Aunt March’s house. Soon, Beth becomes very ill. Jo cries as she talks to Laurie about Beth possibly dying. Laurie confesses that he secretly sent a telegram to Marmee, and that she’ll be home soon. That night Jo and Meg think Beth is dying, but Hannah tells them the fever has broken. Marmee returns.

“There are many Beths…living for others so cheerfully that no one sees the sacrifices till the little cricket on the hearth stops chirping.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

During Beth’s illness, Amy is unhappy living with Aunt March. Laurie visits her daily, however, and Aunt March’s maid, Esther, lets Amy explore Aunt March’s finery. Esther creates a private space for Amy to pray for Beth. Amy decides to make a will, and asks Laurie and Esther to serve as her witnesses.

Love

“I wish I had no heart, it aches so…”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Marmee visits Amy at Aunt March’s home. Amy shows her the makeshift chapel and a turquoise ring Aunt March gave her, which Amy tells her mother she wants to wear as a reminder not to act selfishly. Marmee approves. Back at home, Jo and Marmee discuss John Brooke and Meg. Jo says she had hoped Meg would marry a well-off man like Laurie, but Marmee reminds her marriage should be based on reasons that matter more than money. A few days later, Meg receives a love letter, purportedly from John. She replies and receives a confusing response. She is certain Laurie wrote the letter; eventually, Laurie confesses that he did and asks forgiveness.

“Jo had learned that hearts, like flowers, cannot be rudely handled, but must open naturally…”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

The Laurences and John surprise the March women by bringing Mr. March home in time for Christmas. The Marches have a joyful reunion, and Mr. March praises his daughters for how they’ve matured over the past year.

“Girls are so queer you never know what they mean. They say no when they mean yes, and drive a man out of his wits just for the fun of it.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

John asks Meg for permission to court her. In a misguided attempt at coquetry, Meg rejects him. Suddenly, Aunt March arrives, and, seeing John, warns Meg against marrying a poor man. Meg defends John. Aunt March leaves and Mr. Brooke comes back, confessing that he overheard Meg’s words. He again asks Meg if she will marry him, and this time she agrees.

“A quick temper, sharp tongue, and restless spirit were always getting her into scrapes, and her life was a series of ups and downs, which were both comic and pathetic.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Three years pass and the Civil War ends. John comes home after being wounded in battle and takes a bookkeeping job. Laurie goes to college, and Amy comes into Jo’s former position with Aunt March, since Jo is being paid, regularly, for her stories. The day of Meg and John’s wedding arrives. The small wedding occurs with little fanfare but much joy. After cake and dancing, the newlyweds leave the Marches’ house and walk to their new home.

“I have nothing to give but my heart so full and these empty hands.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

New Challenges

“Wouldn’t it be fun if all the castles in the air which we make could come true and we could live in them?”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Amy, who has continued to work hard at her art, asks Marmee if she can host a party for the girls in her drawing class. Marmee advises her to plan something simple, but Amy insists on preparing an elaborate affair. On the day of the party, only one girl shows up. Amy later admits her plan was foolish.

“It takes people a long time to learn the difference between talent and genius, especially ambitious young men and women.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

One day at a lecture, Jo sees an ad offering a $100 prize for the best sensationalistic story. Jo writes such a story, wins the prize, and uses the money to send Marmee and Beth, who continues to be ill, to the seaside. Jo then finishes her novel, which earns her $300 and receives mixes reviews.

“Take some books and read; that’s an immense help; and books are always good company if you have the right sort.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Meg tries to be a perfect homemaker, even though the effort is often exhausting. One day, after her failed attempt at jam-making, John unexpectedly brings a friend home for dinner. Meg and John fight, but later admit their respective wrongs and make up. Another moment of trouble arises when Meg overspends while shopping for fabric. Meg asks Sallie Moffat to buy the fabric, and uses the money to buy John a coat. In time, Meg gives birth to twins: John and Margaret, nicknamed Demi and Daisy.

“Don’t neglect husband for children, don’t shut him out of the nursery…His place is there as well as yours, and the children need him.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Amy recruits Jo for a day of visits to their neighbors. After three calls, all unsuccessful by Amy’s standards, Amy explains to Jo why she thinks poor girls must ingratiate themselves into society. Jo says she hopes she can help change these old-fashioned views. During their visit with Aunt March, Amy is charming, but Jo is brusque. Aunt Carrol, who is also visiting, notes the differences in the sisters’ attitudes. Later, Aunt Carrol invites Amy to come with her to Europe. Amy is overjoyed. Jo is devastated when she realizes her poor behavior at Aunt March’s shaped Aunt Carrol’s choice.

“Life and love are very precious when both are in full bloom.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Away from Home

“I could have been a great many things.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Amy sends her family letters from Europe. During her travels, Amy reconnects with Fred Vaughn. She decides that if Fred proposes, she will accept because of his wealth.

“The humblest tasks get beautified if loving hands do them.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Back at the March home, Marmee notices that Beth seems depressed. Jo thinks Beth is in love with Laurie, but he appears more interested in Jo herself. Jo asks Marmee if she can go to New York to work as a governess. This will allow her to broaden her horizons and distance herself from Laurie’s affections. Marmee agrees to Jo’s plan, noting that she doesn’t see Jo and Laurie as a good match – they are too alike.

“If I didn’t care about doing right and didn’t feel uncomfortable doing wrong, I should get on capitally.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

In New York, Jo writes letters home describing her boarding house and the children under her care. She also writes about her fellow boarder: a German professor named Friedrich Bhaer. Though the professor isn’t young, rich, or attractive, he is kind, unselfish, and intelligent. Though she knows her parents would disapprove, Jo begins writing sensationalistic stories for a newspaper. One evening she attends an event with Mr. Bhaer and listens in admiration as he defends religion to a group of philosophers. Later, she takes his critique of the immorality of sensationalism to heart and stops writing such stories. Before she leaves New York, Jo invites Mr. Bhaer to come to visit her family.

“…marriage, they say, halves one’s rights and doubles one’s duties.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Endings and Beginnings

“Love covers a multitude of sins…”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

After his graduation, Laurie proposes to Jo. She rejects him, telling him she’ll always be his sister, but she can never love him romantically. Laurie mopes around his house until Mr. Laurence proposes a trip to Europe. In France, Laurie sees that Amy has become a lovely young woman. Amy begins, likewise, to see Laurie as more than just an old family friend. During an outing one day, Laurie teases Amy about Fred.

Reluctant to respond romantically to Laurie because she believes he and Jo are involved, Amy lectures Laurie about his laziness. After she discerns that Jo has rejected Laurie’s proposal, Amy becomes more sympathetic but reiterates that he must stop dwelling on his disappointment and become productive again. The next day, Amy receives a note from Laurie saying that he’s taking her advice.

“…she’ll go and fall in love, and there’s an end of peace and fun, and cozy times together.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Meg is so busy mothering that she starts ignoring her husband. Marmee tells Meg to let John help her care for the children and to make an effort to be a wife to him. Meg decides to let John handle Demi when he misbehaves, and John does an admirable job. After that night, John and Meg share childcare responsibilities more evenly, and they make more time for one another.

“When we make little sacrifices we like to have them appreciated, at least…”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Jo discovers that Beth has become increasingly frail. During a trip to the seaside, Beth tells Jo she feels she won’t live much longer. As Beth’s health continues to decline, her family does all they can to make her happy and comfortable. Beth finds a poem Jo wrote that makes Beth feel her life has been meaningful. After asking Jo to take care of their parents, Beth dies peacefully.

“My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you…marry rich men merely because they are rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Back in Europe, Laurie tries to compose music but fails. Wealthy Fred Vaughn proposes to Amy. She rejects him, realizing she doesn’t want to marry for money after all. Upon hearing of Beth’s death, Laurie returns to Amy. They mourn together and, as time passes, begin to fall in love. Amy agrees to marry Laurie.

“It takes people a long time to learn the difference between talent and genius, especially ambitious young men and women.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Counting Your Blessings

“Don’t cry so bitterly, but remember this day, and resolve with all your soul that you will never know another like it.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Jo is happy to learn about Amy and Laurie’s engagement, but for the first time, starts to long for a love of her own. She begins writing new stories based on truth rather than sensationalism. Her stories are a success. She finds an old note from Mr. Bhaer and wishes he would come to see her.

“I do think that families are the most beautiful things in all the world!”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Laurie and Amy come home. As Amy visits first with Marmee, Meg, and the twins, Laurie tells Jo that he and Amy are married. Jo and Laurie resume their old friendship. Amid the family’s celebrations, Friedrich Bhaer arrives, surprising Jo. Everyone likes him immediately, and invites him to visit often while he is in town on business. Amy and Laurie settle into married life and discuss their desire to help the less fortunate, especially the genteel poor.

“I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queen’s on thrones, without self-respect and peace.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Demi exhibits a mechanical, philosophical mind, while Daisy enjoys helping Hannah with household tasks. One day Demi tells Friedrich he kissed a little girl, and asks whether grown-up boys like grown-up girls. The professor admits that they sometimes do. Later, Jo gives Demi a big hug and a treat, much to the little boy’s confusion.

“Be worthy love, and love will come.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

Friedrich and Jo meet often. Jo loves having him around, but she’s embarrassed to admit she might be falling in love. One day in town, she runs into Friedrich just as it begins to rain. He covers her with his umbrella, and they shop together. He tells her he’s moving west to teach. Jo, upset that he is leaving, begins to cry. The professor tells Jo he loves her; she says she feels the same way about him, and they make plans for their future.

“Go on with your work as usual, for work is a blessed solace.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

A year later, Aunt March dies and leaves her estate, Plumfield, to Jo. She and Friedrich decide to open a boys’ school on the property. Mr. Laurence pays the tuition for a few impoverished boys, and soon the school is running smoothly. In October, the entire family gathers at Plumfield to pick apples and celebrate Marmee’s 60th birthday. Jo, Meg, Amy, and Marmee reflect on their good fortune and discuss their future hopes.

“Now and then, in this workaday world, things do happen in the delightful storybook fashion, and what a comfort that is.”

-Little Women Louisa May Alcott, Summary by Make Me Read

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