Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy March have a lot to be thankful for. They might not have much money, but they do have a roof over their heads, food in their bellies, two loving parents and—most importantly—each other.
But they also have their share of woes: Meg laments how dreadful it is to be poor; Amy longs to be loved and respected; gentle Beth just hopes that their father can return home for Christmas. And Jo? Well, Jo simply cannot get over the disappointment of being a girl.
For starters, she can’t do half the things she wants to do, such as volunteering for the army. But more than that, being a woman in the 1860s has its limitations. Jo wants to be a writer and make her own way in the world, something she can’t do if she settles down and gets married as is expected of her. But even if she does succeed as an author, any money she makes would belong to her husband. And any story she writes featuring a heroine must result in the woman being dead or married by the end if she wants it to be published.
Nevertheless, the March sisters (under the patient, loving tutelage of their mother, Marmee) persist to overcome their struggles, persevering each day as they grow into the good little women that their parents are so proud of.
Whether it’s the March sisters giving up their delicious Christmas breakfast to help a family in need, or Jo selling her hair to purchase a train ticket for her mother to visit her sick father, the value of generosity pervades every aspect of Little Women.
Marmee and Mr. March are respected within their community due to this generosity, which is often sacrificial in nature. Mr. March, who was once wealthy, gave up his riches to aid a friend in need and also volunteered to serve in the Union army, knowing he would be risking his life and unable to be with his family. Marmee donates her time, money and even her own warm winter clothing to aid the war effort.
These examples are not lost on the March sisters, who often sacrifice things they desperately want in order to help each other and serve others. Laurie, a young man and close family friend who lives next door, also picks up on this trait, convincing his wealthy grandfather to help the Marches whenever an opportunity arises—such as providing a carriage to take an injured Meg home and paying for a doctor when Beth falls ill.
The March girls are also taught to be kind, and none of them exemplifies this trait more than Beth. In addition to giving generously out of the goodness of her heart, she is humble and gently reminds her sisters that they should be “good.” This kindness rubs off on Mr. Laurence (Laurie’s grandfather); he is reminded of his own daughter (who died very young), and he begins to treat the March sisters and Laurie with more love as a result.
Another trait passed on from the March parents to their daughters is the ability to recognize character flaws. Marmee confesses to Jo that she is not a patient person by nature and that she’s actually quite angry most of the time. Jo is shocked by this revelation. But she uses it as motivation to overcome her own savageness, learning to forgive others and to be happy for them, even when she is jealous or doesn’t agree with their choices.
Meg struggles with vanity and longs for pretty things. When she marries a “penniless tutor,” this becomes an even bigger problem. She allows herself to be influenced by peer pressure, buying things she can’t afford and saying some pretty harsh words to her husband about their lack of money. Ultimately, though, she apologizes for her “wicked” behavior and makes the effort to right her wrongs, remembering that she married her husband because of his kind soul, not his money.
Amy, especially as a child, leans towards the melodramatic, huffing and puffing and stomping her feet. At one point, she even burns Jo’s prized manuscript, knowing that it would be the only thing that could truly hurt her sister. However, as she matures, she learns to control these impulses. She even helps Laurie recognize his own foolish behavior when he starts to act out after a heartbreak.
Other lessons learned by the March girls further emphasize the values of honesty and forgiveness.
Little Women isn’t what you’d traditionally call a “Christian” film. However, the Christian virtues of sacrifice, generosity, kindness and forgiveness are illustrated throughout.
When Beth falls deathly ill, Jo does everything she can to save her sister’s life. Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that the young woman isn’t going to recover, and Jo is told that she can’t stop God’s will. Jo responds fiercely, “God hasn’t met my will yet.” However, Beth informs Jo that she’s had a long time to think about her death and isn’t afraid of what’s to come. Marmee prays silently by Beth’s sickbed and also earnestly says, “Thank God.”
Mr. Laurence says he will pray for the recovery and safe return of Mr. March after the latter falls ill. A church appears in the background of a few scenes. Jo writes a play called The Witch’s Curse, and we see one of her sisters portray the witch. Someone is called “the high priest of what’s good and bad” as an insult. A child thinks Santa Claus is responsible for a gift.
Several couples hug, hold hands and kiss. People dance at parties, and some women wear dresses revealing a bit of cleavage. Friendly hugs are exchanged between men and women, as well as kisses on the cheek. Jo removes her outer skirt in front of Laurie, but she has several petticoats on underneath. Amy asks a man to help her unbutton her apron, and he looks at her longingly while doing so.
Jo punches a friend in the arm, throws a pillow at her sister’s face and smacks Amy. Jo also tackles and punches Amy after discovering that Amy has burned her manuscript.
A man says he would rather hang himself than not be with the woman he loves. A girl wishes her teacher would die after it is revealed that he struck her on her hand as a punishment. Meg limps after twisting her ankle at a party. A woman’s dress catches fire but is promptly put out.
A girl’s heart is weakened when she gets scarlet fever and a few years later, she passes away. A man says that two of his sons have died in the war, one is captured by the enemy and the last is sick in an army hospital.
We may hear an indistinct misuse of God’s name. A few insults are exchanged, including “pompous blowhard,” “minx” and “idiot.”
People drink from champagne flutes and beer steins at parties. A man shows up drunk to a ball with two women (who are also apparently inebriated). When he slurs his words in a later scene, his friend inquires if he is still drunk. A woman is warned that she will get a headache if she continues drinking. A man smokes a cigar, and teenage girls pretend to smoke from pipes while acting.
Aunt March (a rich and elderly relative of the March family) equates wealth with security, and she emphasizes the need for the March sisters to marry well so they won’t be poor like their father. She says that while Mr. March’s actions to help a friend were honorable, they were also foolish. She makes cruel comments about Jo’s somewhat “boyish” behavior; and by the standards of the time, many of Jo’s actions and outbursts are considered “unladylike.” Aunt March also critiques Meg’s choice in a suitor before taking on Amy as a companion. She tries to convince the impressionable young woman that marriage is an economic arrangement, and the older woman’s influence very nearly results in Amy marrying a wealthy man she doesn’t love.
Jo and Laurie get into a serious argument when he confesses his love for her. Although she apologizes for not loving him back and gives good reasons for why they shouldn’t be together, he takes it hard and begins acting out by partying, rebelling against his grandfather and acting rudely towards his friends. We hear some derogatory comments about Laurie’s Italian heritage as well.
When Jo submits one of her stories to a publisher, he harshly critiques it and tells her to cut out more than half the story. When she points out that the story will lose many important values by shortening it, he tells her that morals don’t sell, scandals do.
A woman convinces a friend to break her budget for a new dress, insisting that her friend’s husband will be so pleased with how she looks that he won’t mind the expense. A young girl is caught making a cruel caricature of her teacher. A boy refuses to sit still and pay attention to his tutor. A girl’s hair is accidentally burnt off by her sister.
Since Louisa May Alcott’s famous novel was first published in 1868, there have been multiple film adaptations of Little Women. And while there are stalwart opinions regarding which of those is “the best,” director Greta Gerwig’s version of this classic faithfully gives fans more of what they adore from the beloved March sisters.
Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy have their share of flaws. Yes, they bicker and tease and overreact and hurt one another. But they also forgive and support and trust and love one another, too. As Jo eventually says, “Life is too short to be angry at one sister.”
The loss of Beth—who is characterized as “the best of us”—is heartbreaking. As someone with three sisters of my own, I openly wept when she dies because I could feel the devastation of Jo, Meg and Amy. Moviegoers who have experienced the pain of losing a sibling (or even a child, since Marmee’s grief is also felt heavily) should be aware of this poignant plot point going in (if, somehow, they’re not aware of it already). However, it should also be noted that Beth’s death, while distressing, brings her family together and inspires hope in all who knew her.
Jo states that if she was a girl in a book, this would all be so easy (a bit ironic, of course, since she is a girl in a book). But the story of Little Women doesn’t offer a formulaic path to love and success and wisdom and happiness. It shows the pain that must be experienced, the losses that must be endured, the struggles that must be faced. And in the end, the March sisters and their friends find true joy through the kindness that they show to others.