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Little Women

Louisa May Alcott

Chapters 6–10

Preface–Chapter 5

Chapters 11–15

Summary — Chapter 6: Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful

The March girls start spending time at the Laurences’ house. Meg loves to walk in the greenhouse there, and Amy loves to look at the artwork. Beth loves Mr. Laurence’s piano, but she is still afraid of him; she will not venture far inside the house. Mr. Laurence learns of Beth’s fears and comes over to the Marches’ house one night, talking about how no one plays the piano and how no one is around the house during the day. With that assurance, Beth decides to venture into the house during the day and play the piano. Unbeknownst to her, Mr. Laurence sometimes leaves his door open to hear her play. Beth reminds him of his beloved granddaughter who passed away. After a while, Beth makes Mr. Laurence a pair of slippers to show her gratitude. In return, he sends her the little piano that his granddaughter owned, which thrills Beth. Jo tells Beth that she should go thank him, thinking that her shy sister would never be so bold. To everyone’s surprise, Beth marches over to Mr. Laurence’s house and kisses his cheek. The two have solidified a friendship.

Summary — Chapter 7: Amy’s Valley of Humiliation

At Amy’s school, the girls trade pickled limes, a fashionable treat at that time. Amy is worried because she has been given many limes but doesn’t have the money to buy limes for her friends in return. Taking pity on her little sister, Meg gives Amy money to buy some limes. Amy tells her enemy, a girl named Miss Snow, that she will not get any limes. In revenge, Miss Snow tells the teacher, who has forbidden limes in class, of Amy’s hoard. The teacher makes Amy throw the limes out the window, strikes her on the palm, and makes her stand at the front of the classroom until recess. At recess, Amy goes home and tells her family what happened. They are not sorry for her punishment, for she did wrong, but they are upset that she was struck on the palm. Marmee decides that Amy may have a vacation from school and learn at home with Beth.

Summary — Chapter 8: Jo Meets Apollyon

I am angry nearly every day of my life.

(See Important Quotations Explained)

Jo and Meg are going to a play with Laurie, and Amy wants to go too. Jo tells her, a bit harshly, that she cannot go because she was not invited. Angered, Amy tells Jo that Jo will be sorry. During the play, Jo feels some remorse for her bad treatment of her little sister. When the older girls arrive home, Amy gives Jo the cold shoulder. The next day, Jo finds her manuscript missing, and discovers that Amy has burned it. Jo says she will never forgive Amy, because that book was her pride and joy. Amy apologizes, and Marmee warns Jo not to “let the sun go down upon [her] anger,” but Jo is not ready to forgive Amy. The next afternoon, Jo and Laurie go skating, and Amy tries to follow. Laurie warns Jo that the ice is thin in the middle, but Jo does not pass on the message to Amy. Amy falls through the ice, and Jo hesitates for a moment, paralyzed with fear. Finally, Laurie comes to Amy’s rescue. At home, Jo confesses to Marmee that her anger overwhelms her. Marmee admits that she too struggles with controlling a quick temper. Jo is amazed and bolstered by this revelation, for she has always seen Marmee as a perfectly calm person. Amy and Jo end their quarrel and make up.

Summary — Chapter 9: Meg Goes to Vanity Fair

I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.

(See Important Quotations Explained)

Meg has plans to stay with Annie Moffat, a wealthy friend. She packs all of her nicest clothes, but wishes she had more splendid attire. The Moffats are very fashionable. While Meg is there, they visit friends, go to plays, and give parties. At the first party, Meg wears her simple clothes, and she hears people gossiping that Meg’s mother must be intending for Meg to marry Laurie for his money. At the next party, the Moffat girls insist on dressing Meg in borrowed finery. She is a bit embarrassed about the luxury of her attire, but she enjoys playing the role of a fashionable girl. Laurie is at the party and reprimands Meg for being so frivolous. His criticism makes Meg regret letting her friends dress her. When Meg gets home, she tells Marmee and Jo how she dressed up and overheard gossip about herself and Laurie. Marmee tells them that she has no such plans for Meg. She says that she hopes only that the girls are happy in youth and in marriage, and that they are good. She adds that she hopes that they understand that appearances are shallow and that true love is built on something deeper than money.

Summary — Chapter 10: The P.C. and P.O.

In the spring, the girls take to gardening. They also hold meetings of the Pickwick Club, a society for arts and letters modeled on an all-male society in Charles Dickens’s novel The Pickwick Papers. The sisters produce a newsletter each week, with advertisements, poems, and stories. At one meeting, Jo proposes that they invite Laurie to join. At first, Amy and Meg are horrified; they do not want a boy making fun of them. As soon as they give in, Laurie bursts out of the closet where he has been hiding. He presents the club with a postal box to be put between the houses so that the March sisters and Laurie may pass things back and forth.

Analysis — Chapters 6–10

In these second five chapters, each girl marks a step on her journey from childhood to adulthood by struggling and succeeding in overcoming a fault. First, Beth must overcome her shyness in order to pursue her musical hobby. She is rewarded for her efforts with a piano, and she proves that her gratitude trumps her shyness when she marches across to Mr. Laurence’s house and gives him a kiss in thanks. Beth’s attachment to Mr. Laurence also symbolizes that she is the most old-fashioned of the sisters—the most eager to play traditional female roles for an old patriarch, a male figure at the head of a household. Though Mr. Laurence is a benevolent presence, he also symbolizes oppressive male behavior, for he does not let Laurie follow his dream of becoming a musician, a culturally feminine pursuit; instead, he wants Laurie to be a real man with a professional career in business. His earlier rewarding of the Marches’ selflessness on Christmas with a feast reinforces the gender stereotype of the perpetually giving, selfless woman who is taken care of by a man.

In Chapter 7, Amy is too concerned with the humiliation and unfairness of her punishment to worry about the crime that brings on the punishment. She is preoccupied with appearances. When her mother chides her for being arrogant, Amy absorbs the lecture and understands it. She speaks admiringly of the fact that Laurie is both accomplished and modest, and we understand that she has realized the value of being humble. As she says, “It’s nice to have accomplishments, and be elegant; but not to show off.” Amy is more vain and difficult than her other sisters, but Alcott characterizes these flaws as partly charming, and certainly as the product of Amy’s young age. Alcott suggests that Amy’s heart is in the right place, and that she has the capacity to improve.

Jo’s anger at the destruction of her writing, the art with which she tries to transcend the limitations placed on her gender, is portrayed as understandable but also dangerous. It is understandable that Jo would be furious with Amy, but it is dangerous that Jo lets her anger take over. Nevertheless, Jo’s anger is an essential aspect of her character. Similarly, Marmee’s admission that “I am angry nearly every day of my life” reveals that anger is an essential component of her character, as well. Critics often point out the feminist underpinnings of such an admission: Alcott may be suggesting that women—even wise, patient mothers—are, or have a right to be, angered by the oppression they suffer.

In Chapter 9, Meg’s attraction to the luxury of Annie Moffat’s life and subsequent longing for finery and riches of her own sets her up as an example of how materialistic desires can corrupt a good person. Laurie’s disapproving lecture at the ball reminds Meg that she should not put on airs or pretend to be someone she is not. Throughout Little Women, Alcott condemns judging people by their exteriors, telling us that it is not shameful to be poor or to be a woman. The importance Alcott places on the mind and soul—people’s interiors—reflects transcendental values.

The fact that the sisters mimic the all-male society of Dickens’s novel is characterized as humorous, but the club’s activities highlight the limited role available to women in nineteenth-century America. The announcements in the newspaper the girls produce are revealing: the first relates that a “Strong-Minded Lecturer,” a woman named Miss Oranthy Bluggage, will give a talk on “Woman and Her Position;” and the last mentions a lauded new play, presumably written by Jo. These strong feminist announcements are balanced by announcements for a cooking class, “The Dustpan Society,” and doll’s clothes. Although the tone of these announcements is comical, Alcott seems to be making the point that for the March sisters, traditional women’s work and more unconventional womanly strength exist side by side. Moreover, Alcott pokes fun at her own rather moralizing, oversimplifying depiction of the sisters in the section of the newspaper labeled “Weekly Report,” which reads simply: “Meg—Good. Jo—Bad. Beth—Very good. Amy—Middling.” For readers who might scoff at the simplistic, one-dimensional portrayal of the girls, the Weekly Report is Alcott’s humorous admission of her own authorial choices.

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