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Kind Cinderella lives luxuriously in a castle after enduring her hardships obediently. Gentle Snow White gets saved by the dashing prince because of her sweet personality. Loving Sleeping Beauty wakes up from her slumber with a single kiss. Characters in these cherished fairy tales we’ve grown up with always end up with their dreams being fulfilled—if they’ve been virtuous. Then what explains what happens to the girls in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott?

Little Women documents the growth of four very different sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—from childhood to womanhood. Each sister symbolizes a distinct type of personality, but how they end up in life doesn’t match readers’ initial expectations. By steering us away from our preconceptions, Alcott accurately depicts what life is really like: sometimes unfair and cruel, yet undeniably satisfying. From Alcott, I learned to accept that “happily ever after” doesn’t exist, nor is it ultimately gratifying.

My mom had recommended this book to me, but I was hesitant to read it because the story of four girls didn’t initially intrigue me. However, after learning that Alcott’s father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was a friend of Emerson’s and a leader in the transcendentalist movement of the time, I decided to try it. How might Alcott’s feminine perspective of this period add to my understanding? I soon became lost in the intriguing plot which takes place during the Civil War and realized that this novel offers so much more than I had anticipated. The hardship the characters had to endure during this difficult period in American life and the complex moral message for women of all ages have had a lasting impact on me.

Though they grew up in the same household, the sisters are all quite different and each is sharply drawn. Meg dreams of ending up in the lap of luxury, but is eventually content with something quite the opposite. Jo, a classic tomboy, learns to balance her literary ambitions with tenderness. Beth, an ever dutiful daughter, willingly resides at her cozy home without any further aspirations, while Amy grows from a pampered little girl to an ardent artist.

My two favorite characters are Jo and Amy, despite the fact that they are opposites. Both are ambitious girls, but Amy’s graceful manners are what society valued in a woman at the time, while Jo’s headstrong spirit is often questioned. Even though frivolous Amy almost always winds up better off than Jo, Alcott twists our expectations to ensure that each girl ends up content in her own way. It’s a harsh truth that practicality sometimes wins out over idealism and that being virtuous doesn’t ensure a happy ending.

Through this moving story, Alcott steers us away from our childish fairy-tale beliefs to a more mature understanding of joy and suffering. Ultimately, Alcott portrays women as happiest when pursuing their own unique path in life. As Jo explains, we must find “the key to [our] castle in the air” and accept that “whether [we] can unlock the door remains to be seen.”

I highly recommend this book to any girl struggling with growing up in a complex world. Little Women offers insight into conventional gender stereotypes and leaves us with important moral issues to think about. This makes it a novel for all readers. In the end, we must ask ourselves: what truly is “happily ever after"? Does it even exist?


Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Roberts Brothers, 1968. Buy the book here and help support Stone Soup in the process!

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