Little Women is a female bildungsroman about the moral growth of the four March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Jo is wild, boyish, unladylike, and has dreams of being a famous literary writer. Meg is the oldest, pretty and sweet, but covetous of nice things and jealous of her wealthy friends. Beth is the quiet reserved one who never complains, does her duty, and is the comfort of her family. Amy is the spoiled youngest child and constantly complaining about her snub-nose. She dreams of becoming a famous artist and hopes to marry into high society. The novel, especially the first half, is very episodic, with each chapter feeling like an episode of a television show with smaller problems that have some sort of life lesson for the girls to learn rather than a part of a larger unified plot. During the first half of the story, the girls must work outside their home due to the family falling on hard times, growing up under the care of their mother, while their father is participating in the Civil War. The second half of the book is about the girls grown up into women, each finding love, and coming to terms with the changes that happen to their dreams and expectations that they had as children. Jo is initially successful as a writer, but ends up selling popular thriller stories to make fast money, failing to achieve her true literary aspirations. Despite claiming she will never marry, she ends up married in the end and running a young boy’s school. Meg falls in love with a poor teacher and marries him, which helps her see that she has more happiness in her poor home than her rich friend has with all her many possessions.
Early in the book, Mrs. March gives each of the sisters a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress to help serve as a moral guide for their lives. This Christian allegory helps each sister deal with the burdens they carry much like Christian in Bunyan’s allegory carries his worldly burdens. Even many of the chapters are named after allegorical figures from Bunyan’s work. The idea is that each girl has their burdens and vices they must overcome. Each has their “castle in the air” (their individual dreams) that they must sacrifice to find their true happiness. Each of them must grow. What we dream will make us happy isn’t always what will actually make us happy. The story suggests that virtue and self-improvement is better than riches and success.
Domesticity is another major theme of the book. Despite their lack of riches, their early home life is depicted as a warm and happy place, especially as the violent Civil War is happening in the backdrop. In a good home, there is a happiness and contentment to be found with family and loved ones, no matter what awful events are occurring in the world. This theme relates directly back to the growth of their virtue: they grow as individuals in contrast to growing more worldly (wealthier, successful, etc.), while there is joy to be found at home rather than in the world.