Little Women is the story of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. The story follows the girls for about 13 years - opening with all the girls in their teens and closing with the girls as adults, married and with children.
The theme centers strongly around Christian values and especially the role of a woman in a good home. The story is set at the end of the Civil War and at the beginning the four March girls and their mother are running the household alone while their father contributes to the war effort. I think the book is forward-thinking in its way and in its time. The women are portrayed as strong, multi-dimensional, capable and diverse. Meg is mothering, Jo is the "boy" of the family, Beth the saintly homebody and Amy the ambitious, precocious artist. While Little Women certainly doesn't break down any walls with a feminist message, it does an excellent job of showing the depth, difficulties, and strength required of a woman in that traditional role. The women and men alike struggle with the mold they are expected to fit, and at times rebel and act against self-interest when they find that mold uncomfortable. The novel loses its revolutionary edge in the end where each character finds happiness in their own way in a very traditional life. Each girl reaching adulthood ends the book married to a respectable man and finds happiness and fulfillment in bearing children and being a good wife.
As an interesting point on growing up, I was very amused by the parts of the story that were the most familiar on the second read. I assume these were the bits that resonated the most strongly with younger me. In my days as a young reader, I was more into action, more sensationalist. At one point Amy falls through some ice on the river and nearly dies. This chapter I could have recited the plot at the opening. I think its been 15 years since I read this book, but I remembered exactly how this exciting scene played out. I also remembered the scene when Jo cuts off all of her hair and sells it, so I must have been vain in my youth. The book also deals with death, and reading the passages about the long illness of one character filled me again with dread and confusion.
What I did not see on my first read were the really obvious messages. The book was clearly written for the betterment of young women, and Mrs. March speaks to the faults and triumphs of her four girls as a lesson to the reader. Any girl could identify with one or more of the sisters and take that girl's lessons as her own. From a strictly stylistic standpoint, the character development is the opposite of subtle. After a break in time Alcott often describes the changes in character in detail, up front and relays the reactions of other characters in equally plain language. As a tool to teach young girls it is probably really effective, but for an adult reader it sort of took away the mystery when we're reunited with a character.
Anyway, I can recommend this book to readers young and old, its a good story and well-written. If I were handing it to my own daughter, I'd probably include a disclaimer that the book is a period piece. While I do believe that happiness is found in the love of one's friends and family, the book only acknowledges one type of family - man, wife, chilluns. Not exactly the message I'd want to send my daughter.