Summary of Little Women

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Little Women book summary

Literary Classic

  • Coming-of-age story
  • Realism

What It’s About

The Trials and Triumphs of Coming-of-Age

Little Women is many things: a coming-of-age story; a collection of anecdotes illustrating life in Civil War-era America; a pastiche of domestic and didactic fictions; a reflection on living morally and a proto-feminist critique of 19th-century “separate spheres” ideology. Louisa May Alcott’s best-known, beloved novel draws readers into the world of the four March sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – and their mother, Marmee, and follows the girls as they grow from impulsive teens into mature young women. Alcott’s episodic narrative showcases the girls’ individuality and ambitions, their triumphs and trials, their shortcomings and evolving characters, and their relationships with one another, with their mother and with society at large. Its voice is in a manner that is, alternatingly, humorous, uplifting and, sometimes, heartbreaking. Alcott’s novel doesn’t resist sentimentality, but it balances, and, ultimately, transcends it with realistic depictions of the challenges inherent in the pursuit of true vocation and true love, the burden of domestic labor, and the effects of social pressures and life’s challenges – including illness – on female ambition.

Take-Aways

  • Alcott’s most well-known and loved novel, Little Women pairs heartwarming life lessons with more radical ideas about women’s roles in 19th-century America.
  • Sisters Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March learn to bear relative poverty following the warm example of their mother, Marmee, while their father is away at war. Jo, who wants to be a writer, befriends her rich neighbor, a boy named Laurie. Beth becomes ill and never fully recovers her health. Meg marries and has twins. Jo travels to New York and meets the kindly Professor Bhaer. Jo rejects her dear friend Laurie’s proposal. He travels to Europe where, after Beth’s death, he falls for, and marries Amy, an artist, traveling there with her elderly mentor. Jo discovers she loves Mr. Bhaer. They marry and open a boys’ school.
  • Both Alcott’s transcendentalist father and her social activist mother shaped Alcott’s worldview.
  • Alcott wrote Little Women quickly and with reluctance. Both she and her publisher were surprised by its immediate, overwhelming popularity. She followed it with Little Men, about the boys in Jo’s school. It was also excellent but less popular.
  • Alcott drew inspiration for Little Women from her mother’s childhood memories and those of her own.
  • Little Women makes domestic labor highly visible, showing it as necessary and important.
  • Alcott uses both Jo and Laurie to illustrate the sometimes artificial nature of gender norms.
  • Little Women portrays marriage as an equal partnership – a radical notion in its time.
  • Little Women both reflects and critiques the 19th-century “separate spheres” ideology, that men and women inhabit different realms. This idea all but barred women from public life and encouraged submissive, domestically minded femininity.
  • “I’ve got the key to my castle in the air, but whether I can unlock the door remains to be seen.” (Jo)
 

Summary

Holiday Adventures

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.

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.” (Jo)

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.

The Laurences

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.

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.

Trials

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.

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.” (Marmee)

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.

Work and Play

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.

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.

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.” (Mr. Brooke)

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.

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.

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.”

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

New Challenges

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.”

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.

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.” (Marmee to Meg)

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.

Away from Home

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.

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.

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 visit her family.

Endings and Beginnings

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.

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.

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.” (Marmee)

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.

Counting Your Blessings

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

About the Text

Structure and Style

This semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age story has features from domestic fiction and didactic (moralistic) fiction. It also fits the post-Civil War realism movement, showing middle-class American life. The novel is narrated chronologically in mixed third- and first-person-omniscient voice. The narrator occasionally uses “I” and “we” to comment (often humorously) on the action or to foreshadow events, and speaks from both external and internal perspectives – sometimes going inside a character’s unspoken thoughts. At times, the characters’ letters, stories and poems appear in the narrative. The text has tremendous charm, but some archaic references and a slower pace than modern novels.

The first part of Alcott’s episodic novel consists of a series of mostly lighthearted anecdotes of the March girls’ lives as teenagers. Chapters often focus on one girl and a lesson she learns. Part two, set three years after part one, is more serious, covering the girls’ early adult years, as the Marches grapple with serious issues: marriage, motherhood, vocation and death.

Interpretation

  • Jo and Laurie’s’ parallels in character, taste and temperament illustrate the artificial nature of gender norms, showing how these expectations limit individual possibilities: Laurie gives up his “feminine” love of music in favor of business, and marriage curbs Jo’s “masculine” literary ambitions.
  • Alcott presents financial need as a legitimate problem, but sees spiritual poverty engendered by an unchecked longing for wealth as a far more serious issue.
  • Each March girl represents a different response to 19th-century expectations for women: Meg, as the young wife and mother, and Beth, as the sweet, dutiful daughter, embody facets of ideal domesticity. Boyish Jo and artistic Amy rebel by attempting to achieve more public lives – though, unlike Jo, Amy outwardly conforms to social norms.
  • In contrast to the 1800s “separate spheres” ideology, Alcott shows a “democratic household” where men and women unite to raise children and create a happy home. She emphasizes that unpaid domestic labor is necessary and important work.
  • Alcott portrays hard work and sacrifice as noble ideals that give life meaning and build moral principles. In this context, life as depicted in the 1800s can hardly avoid characterizations that stereotype women in the light of the 21st century, but the characters’ individual strengths offer compensatory balance.
  • The novel depicts a “good marriage” as a loving partnership of equals a radical notion in an era that saw wives as extensions of their husbands. Alcott is clear that senseless passion or yearning for wealth aren’t acceptable reasons to wed.
  • Female independence and ambition are rendered as natural and normal. As the girls’ ambitions evolve, Alcott frames their changes to reflect their maturation and to critique societal forces subordinating women to domestic goals.

Historical Background

Reforming Women’s Roles in 19th-Century America

In 19th-century America, women and men operated, generally, within distinct social and gender spheres: Men lived public lives – working outside the home, and involving themselves in politics and philosophy – while women were expected to embrace a role as “the angel in the house” – that is, submissive, domestically-minded femininity. When women did work outside the home, necessity drove their choices and society often viewed their labor as demeaning. However, the years leading up to the Civil War saw a marked increase in women’s involvement in public causes. Women formed volunteer organizations aimed at promoting social reform, including abolishing slavery. Society framed these efforts as an extension of females’ supposed essential moral nature. These pro-abolition groups, in turn, lay the early groundwork for the first wave of the women’s rights movement. In addition, new philosophical movements such as Transcendentalism raised questions about the validity of traditional social structures and ideals, particularly those that infringed upon individual freedoms.

The war itself brought even more women into public life. Women became factory workers, nurses and teachers, and otherwise took charge of traditionally male endeavors while their fathers, husbands and brothers were away at the front. Although most women returned to the domestic sphere after the war, their sense of independence and individuality engendered during those years didn’t dissipate entirely. Some women chose to continue working in their new professions after the war (though their male counterparts were better paid).

Many more women began to push for suffrage and to call for recognizing domestic labor as worthwhile work, despite its unpaid status. At the same time, societal pressure remained for women to adhere to gender norms, even in literature. For instance, the 1860s saw the rise of the domestically-focused “girl story” as a counterpoint to the boy’s “adventure tale.” Still, some authors, like Louisa May Alcott, though ostensibly conforming to “separate spheres” genre tropes, deliberately complicated the construct by showing how boys and girls alike could find the confines of their respective orbits artificial and stifling.

Development

Though Alcott had already found some success writing for children prior to 1868, she was more reluctant than pleased when her publisher Thomas Niles suggested that she write a book for girls. In her diaries, Alcott noted that she didn’t enjoy producing “moral pap for the young” and thought the story “dull.” Nevertheless, she managed to produce an initial 12 chapters in just a month’s time – which, Alcott’s own tastes notwithstanding, Niles’s niece and her friends thought “splendid.” The rest of the first volume quickly followed. Alcott completed the manuscript for volume two in just three months after volume one’s publication.

Alcott shaped Little Women’s characters after her family: the indomitable Abigail May became Marmee. Alcott’s eldest sister Anna, who easily embraced domestic life, became “Meg.” Elizabeth, who died at 23, became “Beth.” Artistic, charming May became “Amy.” And Louisa May Alcott herself was the model for literary, boyish “Jo.” Alcott’s friend, Alf Whitman, with whom she acted in the Concord Dramatic Union, and a young Polish musician named Ladislas “Laddie” Wisniewski, whom Alcott met during her travels in Europe, together formed the basis for “Laurie.”

Inspiration for many of the book’s events came from Alcott’s memories and those of her mother, Abigail. Many of the lessons Alcott incorporates into the March saga reflect the transcendental ideals that informed her upbringing: self-reliance, independence, love of nature, belief in self-denial and a general Christian ethos. Likewise, Abigail’s fierce belief in women’s rights informs the March sisters’ ambitions and, in particular, Jo’s struggles against societal limits. Other autobiographical elements showcased in Little Women are less true to life: While Mr. March is a mild-mannered war hero who enjoys spending time at home, is a kind father and works gainfully as a chaplain, Alcott’s own dictatorial father was often away on lecture tours and earned scant money. Likewise, the Marches’ genteel privation is a decidedly romanticized depiction of the dire poverty Alcott experienced in childhood.

Reviews and Legacy

The first printing of volume one of Little Women, published in September 1868, sold out quickly. Roberts Brothers had trouble keeping up with the popular demand for more copies. The first volume ended with a declaration that the author would offer a conclusion to the Marches’ story if the “reception given the first act” warranted it. In response, Alcott received a tidal wave of letters from fans, eager to know the fate of the March girls especially, who they would marry. The author quickly produced the novel’s second volume, Good Wives, published in April 1869. Later editions of the novel typically combined both volumes.

At the time of its publication, critics received Little Women as warmly as Alcott’s lay readers. While some recent analyses of the text critique her sentimentality and idealization of “hearth and home,” other critics argue that the author leverages “the familiar construct of domesticity” in the service of more radical, proto-feminist ideas. Nineteenth-century women looking for models of female autonomy could, these critics suggest, find one, at least in part, in Jo, while all the March women, in their own ways, illustrate the complexity of women’s struggles for social identity.

Little Women remains a popular novel today. A recent BBC poll listed it as fourth on a list of “Best-Loved Novels” and a School Library Journal survey recognized it as one of the all-time greatest children’s novels. The novel has been adapted for film four times, most notably by George Cukor in 1933 and by Gillian Armstrong in 1994. It has been made into a musical, an opera, a stage-play, and, in 2014, into a web video series on YouTube. The BBC debuted its new television adaptation in late 2017.

About the Author

Louisa May Alcott was born on November 29, 1832, in Germantown, Pennsylvania. The second daughter of transcendentalist philosopher, Amos Bronson Alcott, and civil rights and women’s suffrage activist, Abigail May, Louisa and her sisters, Anna, Elizabeth and May experienced an unusual childhood, shaped by their parents’ beliefs and causes. Louisa, an independent, tomboyish child, received a formal education from her father, augmented by informal teachings from family friends Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Margaret Fuller. Her father’s pursuit of his ideals often left his family suffering extreme poverty. Alcott herself began working to earn money as soon as she was able. She started writing for magazines in 1851 – producing whatever paid – under various pen names. She wrote juveniles, poems and stories as Flora Fairfield. She also wrote a number of sensationalist works – including melodramas that were staged in Boston – under the pen name A. M. Barnard. Her Hospital Sketches (1863), inspired by the letters she wrote to her family during a short period working as a Civil War nurse in Washington, DC, marked a turning point in her career, bringing Alcott the recognition and accolades she’d long desired. She used her own name for stories in various magazines, including Atlantic Monthly and The Ladies’ Companion, and edited a girl’s magazine, Merry’s Museum. In 1868 Alcott reluctantly acceded to her publisher’s request to write a book for girls. Drawing on her girlhood memories, she dashed off the first volume of Little Women. Its instant popularity finally gave her full financial independence and paved the way for her other young adult writings, including Little Men (1871), Eight Cousins (1875) and Jo’s Boys (1886). Her novels for adults, including Work (1873) and A Modern Mephistopheles (1877), never sold as well as her young adult sagas. Alcott never married – having seen “so much of ‘the tragedy of modern married life’” – but after her sister May’s death, she cared for May’s daughter Lulu until her own passing. Alcott began suffering chronic ill health after succumbing to typhoid fever during her time as a nurse. Some authorities believe she suffered mercury poisoning from her typhoid treatments, and that she may also have developed an autoimmune disease. Alcott died of a stroke on March 6, 1888 and was buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts.


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