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“Jo had learned that hearts, like flowers, cannot be rudely handled, but must open naturally” (519). Abstract feelings such as love can be challenging to depict in writing without using other figures to embody those feelings. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women uses natural and common objects as symbols to represent and illustrate the conflicts and joys of the March sisters. Flowers are used as symbols to represent the natural and ideal beauty that is important to the March girls. As an example, the narrator outright explains that Meg March, the eldest of the four sisters, uses orange blossoms as ornaments on her wedding dress to reflect her wholesome, ideal beauty.
Another use of floral symbols is Theodore Laurence, also known as Laurie, being pricked by a thorn as he grasps for a high-up crimson rose that is out of his reach. Amy, the youngest March sister, explains that he should reach for the more humble, low-hanging, beige roses that were easier for him to pick.
This exchange is a representation of Laurie’s newfound love for Amy replacing his unrequited affection for Jo, Amy’s older sister. Amy is the low-hanging roses, within arms reach and available both physically and emotionally. Jo becomes closed off and purposely distances herself from her best friend to sever the blossoming one-sided romance.
Class differences are also expressed through flowers. Laurie and his grandfather, who are both considered to be quite wealthy, own a greenhouse and grow a multitude of exotic flowers. On the other hand, Amy, who is considerably less wealthy, deemed Valrosa, a small Italian villa adorned with roses, “a regular honeymoon paradise” due to its beautiful array of flowers (637).
The working class March sisters value the beauty of flowers, using them in place of jewelry and to decorate their home. Another prevalent symbol in the novel is fire, which represents both positive and negative aspects of the March girls’ young adult life. As a child, Amy’s violent temper is revealed when she is not invited to accompany Meg, Jo, Laurie, and John Brooke to the theater. As a result of her anger, Amy throws Jo’s prized manuscript, a product of years of work, into the fire, completely destroying it. The fire symbolizes burning anger that causes such an act of revenge, which results in a drawn-out tension between the two sisters.
Although the fire may represent the anger Amy felt towards Jo, it is also a symbol of a new beginning. When Amy realizes what she has done and the true effects of her actions, she resolves to take hold of her fiery temper and rekindle the broken relationship with Jo, who vows to never forgive her sister. The fresh start reappears later in the story when Jo hears Professor Friedrich Bhaer’s opinion on the “sensation stories” being published in the Weekly Volcano. Jo, who had been writing and profiting off of these stories, burns the copies of the paper that she has been saving and decides that she would no longer create the tales that Bhaer would “more rather give [his] boys gunpowder to play with than this bad trash” (563). Burning the newspapers is the beginning of Jo’s reinvention as a writer. Lastly, the burning in Little Women illustrates the resentment the girls have for the poverty they face. Throughout the story, Meg constantly dreams about wealth and hopes to become rich later in life. Not only is she concerned with money, but Meg is also concerned with her appearance and the appearance of her sisters. After being invited to Mrs. Gardiner’s New-Year’s-Eve dance, the sisters are preparing for the evening by planning their outfits and Jo’s only dress has a burn hole in the back.
Declaring that Jo must “sit all [she] can, and keep [her] back out of sight,” Meg exposes her vanity and desire for her and her sisters to be attractive as she creates a plan to disguise the burn hole in Jo’s skirt. In addition to fire, birds are a natural object used to symbolize the character traits of all four of the March sisters, but the symbol is mostly connected to the second youngest sister, Beth. Similar to floral symbols, birds are representative of Beth’s natural beauty, but they also portray her musical and timid nature. Beth explains to Jo at the seaside that “[she] likes peeps better than the gulls. They are not so wild and handsome, but they seem happy, confiding little things” (595). The humble peep is comparable to Beth, who is a tame and timid young girl that is content in her sheltered life. She has no plans to do anything besides tend to their home. Beth calls peeps “her birds” and Mrs, March says that the “busy, quaker-colored creatures, always near the shore and always chirping that contented little song of theirs” reminds her of her daughter, who rarely leaves home and sings psalms every night before bed (595). Jo is described by her sister as a gull, “strong and wild,” Meg is described as a turtle dove, and Amy is a lark, “no matter how high she flies, she never will forget home” (595).
Near the end of Beth’s short life, the sight of a sandpiper comforts her and reminds her that there is still beauty to be enjoyed in the world. Though the sandpiper is dull-colored and relatively boring when compared to the other birds that could be observed at the seashore, it is still beautiful in the eyes of Beth. This concept is reflected in Beth’s life; in comparison to other girls her age, she is plain and ordinary but everyone around her recognizes and admires her beauty. Unlike the other symbols, which have wide ranges of meanings, umbrellas are precisely used as a symbolic representation of protection, both husbandly and motherly. As the romance between Meg and John Brooke began to flourish, John’s umbrella is left behind in the March’ house. When he comes to retrieve it, Jo is less than pleased. Her displeasure is not necessarily about the umbrella itself, but it is about the fact that there is a man threatening the balance that Jo believes their family has. Jo believes that they only need the protection of their family. Later in the story, Jo is rushing to town and hoping to run into Friedrich Bhaer after not seeing him for days. As she leaves, Mrs. March reminds Jo to bring her umbrella as the weather may change. Jo forgets the umbrella and makes her way into town, where it begins to rain. She trudges through the mud, cursing herself for coming into town to seek out Bhaer and not listening to her mother, and “being a woman as well as a lover, she felt that, though it was too late to save her heart, she might her bonnet” (739).
Bhaer supplies Jo with an umbrella, protecting her from the downpour. This is representative of the transition from motherly protection to husbandly protection. Jo’s fixed mindset that she would become an old maid quickly changes when Bhaer asks if she will “make a little place in [her] heart” for him (749). Love, anger, protection, beauty, and character are concepts that can be difficult to illustrate without the use of symbolism. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, natural and everyday objects are used to symbolize such abstract feelings that shaped the experiences and lives of the March sisters.
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