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Research Papers on Symbolism in Little Women

This is a topic suggestion on Symbolism in Little Women from Paper Masters. Use this topic or order a custom research paper, written exactly how you need it to be. Our literature writers can focus on the typical symbols of the novel or choose non-traditional symbols that are prolific within the story. Some common symbols in Little Women include the following:

  • The Umbrella
  • Meg's Lost Glove
  • Jo's Burned Dress

In her novel Little Women, Louisa May Alcott employed symbolism to explore society's treatment of men and women. One of the novel's most important symbols is the umbrella. Umbrellas represent the security offered by a man to a woman. When Meg attends the vanity fair, she complains that her mother gave her the wrong umbrella. This episode suggests that Marmee cannot offer her daughter the financial and social security Meg wants because she is a woman. Symbolism in Little  WomenLater, Jo is angered at the presence of Mr. Brooke's umbrella because she recognizes his intent to marry Meg. Jo's defiance of marriage in general leads her to reject Mr. Brooke and his umbrella. The evolution of Jo's character is illustrated by her later acceptance of Professor Bauer's umbrella. Jo's decision to allow Professor Bauer to share his umbrella demonstrates that she has accepted the fact that men can offer some protection to women. Her acceptance of Professor Bauer's umbrella also indicates that she loves him.

Different articles of clothing are also employed as symbols throughout the book. Meg's lost glove, for example, is symbolic of Mr. Brooke's love. Mr. Brooke must initially keep the glove secret out of concern that Meg's family will reject his intentions. Jo's burned dress and willingness to not wear gloves symbolize her disinterest in living up to society's gender expectations. Amy's preoccupation with increasing her social standing is symbolized by her painted boots.

Thus, even as the text appears to reinforce prevailing gender ideals, Alcott also cleverly uses it to call attention to and criticize the injustices inherent in the social demands that women conform to the overt rules. At the center of the transformations of the young Marches from burgeoning adolescence to fully gendered womanhood is their acquisition of the “womanly” qualities of self-sacrifice and self-denial so idealized during the nineteenth century. Rather than embracing these qualities “naturally,” however, the little March women find it difficult to accept their society’s demand that they should sacrifice and deny their individual goals and desires in deference to social ideals. Indeed, a careful reading of Little Women reveals that this demand is the source of considerable underlying anger and hostility, emotions that, if left unchecked in women, would seriously threaten the prevailing patriarchy.

Symbolism and Society in Little Women

Alcott’s covert text goes further to delicately critique how her society demands that one of its oppressed groups—women—must suppress its anger in order to preserve the prevailing social orders. For instance, a careful reading of the text reveals Alcott’s recognition that women’s anger is defined by the society as a personal or psychological problem that the individual must work to control, rather than as a social problem that might lead to a close examination of and attack upon the prevailing social structures under which women are compelled to live.

Research reveals that in the decades between the start of the Civil War and the Second World War American society was marked by considerable ambivalence towards anger. Throughout much of the period, child-rearing manuals repeatedly stressed the need for parents to channel anger in boys while simultaneously emphasizing the need to ensure its total absence in girls. Girls, after all, were ideally being prepared from early in life to confront all domestic problems with the unbendingly cheerful responses that were essential to maintaining a tranquil household. Thus, even as working-class American parents were regularly disparaged for their alleged tendencies to respond to their children’s anger with “childish” tantrums of their own, suppression of anger emerged as one of the hallmarks of domestic “success” among middle-class families—which in their values the Marches and the Alcotts clearly were, notwithstanding the serious economic problems that often beset the latter in particular.

Little Women also makes evident the fact that by the time of Alcott’s writing middle-class American families were applying a wide assortment of complex and precise mechanisms for achieving anger control within the household in general, and among its female members in particular. How the Marches respond to anger is especially evident in one of the most emotionally explosive scenes in the novel, when, after Jo refuses to let Amy go with her on a rare theatre outing, Amy retaliates by burning the sole copies of Jo’s compilation of children’s tales. Strangely, Amy’s seemingly unwarranted actions seem to cause less concern for the family than does the seemingly justified rage with which Jo responds. More important, perhaps, is what Mrs. March reveals as she counsels Jo against her almost daily problems with anger and in the process informs her surprised daughter that she herself was once often troubled by repeated bouts of anger. Although the underlying sources of that anger have apparently never been removed, Marmee claims that by managing her responses to anger-inducing stressors, she is no longer affected by anger as Jo is. Anger emerges, therefore, as the enemy of “respectable” womanhood and Jo’s verbal expressions of rage as the most egregious manifestation of that enemy.

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