Life for women in the mid-19th century had a pretty straightforward progression. They started as girls, they became eligible for marriage, they soon married a man of similar social station, and they were basically done. The choice of who to marry was the defining choice of their lives.
A reader who was not paying very much attention might think that the “Little Women” are just illustrations of this. The narrative moves almost entirely away from the girls once they marry. But then again, it is a children’s book–the troubles of married couples aren’t really good material. The truth is that Meg, Jo, and Amy’s choices of husband don’t define who they are. Who they are defines their choice of husband.
Still, each of the girls is traveling towards the destination of a husband perfectly suited for them (by authorial determination). Each will marry, have children, and live in domestic bliss. But there is a sense that the girls are bigger than that destination. They aren’t focused on becoming good wives: they are focused on becoming good (and agonizingly moral) individuals. Each marriage allows them to become more themselves, rather than less. Meg becomes even more domestic and boring, Amy more society-focused, Jo more wild.
Although this is balanced by regular comments on how womanly and virtuous each girl is, the fact remains that something powerful is peeking through. Although the feminine ideal is usually passive (represented by Beth’s passivity before everything unto death), each of the girls is a maker in her own right. Meg makes a home and children, Amy draws and makes all sort of crafts, and Jo of course publishes heaps of stories and then sets up a school.
There’s a reason this book has survived. The women in it are fully realized and recognizable people, and each finds her way to happiness by coming to a comfortable arrangement with the demands of the time. It’s a brilliantly constructed story of real women.