It is the middle of the Civil War, and the women of the March family are holding the home front while Mr. March is away as chaplain in the war. Mrs. March is a sensible and loving woman who occasionally lets her girls make mistakes so they can learn the lessons they need. Meg is the eldest girl, lovely and prone to vanity but also intelligent and able to keep order amongst her younger sisters. Jo is the second girl, brash and boyish, with a fiery temper and a fierce love for her sisters. Beth is the third girl, gentle and calm, drifting through the world yet somehow quietly leaving her influence on everyone. Amy is the youngest, a bit spoiled and vain, but kept in check by Meg’s more level-headed behavior.
These characters could have become clichés, but Alcott managed to make them real in their own right. They all have their virtues and flaws, and the way those play out are quite real. The novel isn’t so much one continuous plot as numerous episodes in the daily life of the March household. Some are hilarious, and some are quite sad, but all show an understanding of just how complicated life can get, even when living a fairly simple life.
Two things seem to always come up when discussing this book. The first is the belief that Jo and Laurie should have married. Apart from the fact that they have no chemistry together, I would also point out that Jo spends most of her time nagging Laurie about something. He didn’t want a wife; he wanted a mother-figure to coddle him and scold him. His choosing Amy comes at a point when he stops moping about his own life and is only concerned for her emotional pain. He matures and learns to be selfless, and it happens to coincide with Amy’s own similar journey.
The second is that “BETH IS ZOMGBORING”. My only comment here is that Beth is sort of the glue that holds everyone together. She is quiet, drifting through the background and taking care of a thousand little things, that no one notices until they stop getting done. While I understand the complain that she isn’t a “dynamic” character-she doesn’t have any particular character arc of her own-the complaints usually extend to her being “saccharine” and “too good”. I’ve gone on an extended rant about these kinds of complaints, which I will post later. Suffice to say, I think Beth is awesome, deal with it.