Castles In The Air: Religion in Little Women

The Throne of Heaven in The Castles in the Air

by

Brandy Anderson

Religion in Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women is paramount to the lives of the Marches as they strive to practice the Christian themes of kindness, charity, and maintaining morals consistent with the teachings of Christ. Although the Bible is not mentioned directly, God is a constant presence in their lives, notably made visible in various ways: by the family patriarch who is a reverend, by the Biblical passages the Marches remember and recite whenever a situation arises which calls for spiritual reassurance, and God’s presence in the lives of the March girls is evident in their near daily reading of  John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress throughout the book.

The March sisters live their lives through earnest work, spreading kindness, and embodying the Christian motto of “Treat others as you would like others to treat you” (New Jerusalem Bible, Luke 6:31).  Not only do the Marches follow this Christian value but they are rewarded for their good deeds when others return the favour. The March matriarch, Marmee, is forever helping others less fortunate than herself. She visits the poor immigrant Hummel family and brings them food and comfort. By setting this example, it teaches her daughters the value of Christian charity. On Christmas, the daughters gather around the table that usually has rather meager offerings but has a plump spread for the holiday. Marmee is gone and Hannah explains “some poor creeter come a-beggin’, and your ma went straight off to see what was needed. There never was such a woman for givin’ away vittles and drink, clothes and firin’” (15). Marmee is quick to help those who need it.

Marmee’s return home elicits the family decision that they will take their Christmas breakfast treats to the Hummels who then declare “it is good angels come to us!” (16) and the Hummels continue to call the young women “angel children”, which pleases Jo exceedingly. Meg declares “that’s loving our neighbours better than ourselves, and I like it” (17). This Christian charity is swiftly returned to them when their stately neighbour, Mr Lawrence, hears of their kind endeavor and in return for their kindness to others, he sends an elegant banquet for them to dine on for Christmas supper.

Christmas itself is an important theme in the novel. It opens with Christmas and much of the climatic actions take place during Christmases over the years. During the first Christmas, the girls are each given a very special gift from Marmee, who says she is giving them “a guidebook” (12). The narrator confides that Jo knows this book “very well, for it was that beautiful old story of the best life ever lived, and Jo felt that it was a true guidebook for any pilgrim going the long journey” (13). Meg, who is “sweet and pious” (13), instructs her sisters to read the book daily and to take careful notes of the didactic morality contained within. She says they used to be faithful in their religious studies but they have neglected their lessons in the wake of their father going to war.

Marmee explicitly mentions the girls’ love of Pilgrim’s Progress. She says, “Do you remember how you used to play Pilgrim’s Progress when you were little things? Nothing delighted you more than to have me tie my piece bags on your backs for burdens, give you hats and sticks and roll some paper, and let you travel through the house from the cellar, which was the City of Destruction, up, up, to the housetop, where you had all the lovely things you could collect to make a Celestial City” (11). Not only does Marmee, who is the figure head to these girls, make it clear that Christian values are important to learn from a young age, but Alcott echoes this priority by featuring such a “lesson” so early in the narration. In fact, the emphasis on Christian values is painfully clear as soon as the reader first opens the book to find a passage from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as the preface to the novel.

Idleness is also a major concern in Little Women. The March sisters must battle slothfulness and idleness, both of which are warned against in the Bible. In “Timothy 5:13” Paul warns against idleness, saying it is a gateway to gossip and more negative behaviour. Paul warns “they learn how to be idle and go round from house to house; and then, not merely idle, they learn to be gossips and meddlers in other people’s affairs and to say what should remain unsaid” (Tim. 5:13). When the March sisters complain of being too busy and burdened by work Marmee tells them they may do an experiment where they are able to lounge about idly all day without a care. They agree to this experiment, instantly enjoying the freedom, however, it is not long before they realize that idleness soon leads to unhappiness and that work is a way towards leading a happy and “good” life. Laurie’s constant idleness, as seen in his nickname of “Lazy Laurence”, is a predominant character flaw of his that, once mended, allows him to grow and mature into a “good man”. Marmee concludes that it is good to “take up your little burdens again, for though they seem heavy sometimes, they are good for us, and lighten as we learn to carry them” because “work is wholesome” and it “keeps us from ennui and mischief” (109).

Chapter Thirty-four defends Christianity directly. Jo enjoys a philosophical debate until “it dawned upon her gradually that the world was being picked to pieces, and put together on new and, according to the talkers, on infinitely better principles than before, that religion was in a fair way to be reasoned into nothingness, and intellect was to be the only God” (329). Professor Bhaer, who arguably represents more than one type of salvation for Jo, argues with the atheists, as he “defended religion with all the eloquence of truth”, his religious conviction making “his plain face beautiful” (330).

These signify only a few examples out of many of the religious themes found within Little Women. The idea that “God was not a blind force, and immortality was not a pretty fable, but a blessed fact” (330) is reinforced just before and after Beth’s death towards the end of the book and is seen in their reminisces of her in the final chapter which also ends with the characters recognizing the “crosses they must bear” (455) and thanking God for their blessings.

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Works Cited:
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. New York: TOR, 1994. Print..
Bunyan, John. Pilgrim’s Progress.
New Jerusalem Bible. ed. Rev. Henry Wansborough. New York: Double Day, 1999. Print.

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4 thoughts on “Castles In The Air: Religion in Little Women

  1. Wow! I just wanted to say thank you for this post! it is fantastic!!! I am writing an essay on Little Women and your thoughts have answered So many of my questions!!! thanks for putting this together!

  2. Brandy, this was so helpful, thank you.

    I recently saw my daughter play the role of Beth in the Musical Little Women and the scene where she dies was just so sad (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J55z8FUD6hg – maybe her being my daughter had something to do with how much it moved me too), but your article gave me a completely different perspective on how Louisa May Alcott saw Beth’s death, not as an ending (“All my life, I’ve lived for loving you. Let me go now”) but a temporary parting awaiting a wakening to a glorious new day.

    Thanks again.

    • Hi John!

      Thanks so much for your lovely comments! They made my day! 🙂 That is so cool that your daughter played Beth! Thanks for the song link, I’m listening to it now – it is very powerful.

      Thanks so much!
      Brandy

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