During the summer, the King family, for whom Meg is the governess, and Aunt March go on vacation, leaving Meg and Jo free from their duties. Relieved, Meg and Jo decide to do nothing at all with their newfound freedom. The younger girls, Amy and Beth, also take a break from their studies. After the girls neglect their chores for almost a week, Marmee and Hannah take a day off as well. That day, the girls fail miserably at running the household smoothly. They soon discover that Marmee has taught them a lesson about the importance of everyone doing at least a little work.
One July day, Meg receives one glove in the postbox, though she has lost them both and wonders where its mate is. With the glove comes a German song translated by Mr. Brooke, Laurie’s tutor. Laurie has also sent an invitation to a picnic to be held the next day. The following day, the March girls attend the picnic along with various other guests: Sallie Gardiner; Ned Moffat, Annie Moffat’s older brother; Mr. Brooke; Laurie’s British friends, Fred and Kate Vaughn; and their siblings, Frank and Grace Vaughn. During the picnic, Fred cheats in a game of cricket. Jo notices and is annoyed, but manages to control her temper. When Kate discovers that Meg works as a lowly governess, Kate is first rude and then patronizing. Mr. Brooke defends Meg, which leads to a long conversation between him and Meg. Meanwhile, Grace and Amy chat about ponies and Europe, and Beth has a conversation with Frank, who has a hurt leg. As the party breaks up, even the condescending Kate says that American girls are nice.
I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous; that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream.
Laurie swings idly on his hammock and spies the March girls walking out to a hill. There, the sisters sit working—knitting, sewing, drawing, and reading. Feeling left out, Laurie asks if he may join them. They admit him under the condition that he contribute something useful, as is consistent with the work ethic of the girls’ Busy Bee Society. Laurie’s contribution is his reading of a book to the sisters. While they work, all five friends discuss their dreams. Laurie wants to become a famous musician, Jo a famous author, and Amy a famous artist. Meg wants to be rich so that she does not have to work, and Beth wants everyone to be happy and together. Upset that Laurie cannot follow his dream, Jo tells him to run away from his grandfather, who does not want him to be a musician. Sensible Meg tells Laurie to ignore Jo’s advice and to be good to both his grandfather and Mr. Brooke. Laurie decides to follow Meg’s advice.
Jo finishes the manuscripts for two stories and brings them to a newspaperman in town without telling anyone. She is very anxious. She meets Laurie as she comes out of the news office. After he pleads with her to tell him what is going on, she confides her secret. Laurie then tells Jo his secret—that Mr. Brooke has kept Meg’s glove and carries it with him wherever he goes. This secret disgusts Jo, because she hates the idea of someone loving Meg and taking her away. Laurie, in an attempt to cheer Jo, persuades her to race him down a hill. In a wild, messy state, they encounter Meg, who has just visited the Gardiners. Meg reprimands Jo, though she secretly feels tempted to join their romp. For about a week, Jo behaves strangely. Then, one day, she reads a story aloud from a paper and announces at the end that the story was hers. She has not gotten paid, but she says that she will for future stories. She feels wonderfully independent.
November arrives, and everyone is glum. Marmee receives a telegram saying that Mr. March is ill and that she must go to Washington, D.C. to be with him. Marmee sends Laurie to ask Aunt March for money and sends Beth to ask Mr. Laurence for wine. In the spirit of the moment, Jo runs out to find a way to contribute. Later, Mr. Laurence offers Mr. Brooke as a travel companion for Marmee, and she gratefully accepts Mr. Brooke’s company. Jo returns home, having earned twenty-five dollars by selling her hair. Pretty Amy is horrified that Jo has lost her “one beauty.” Jo, however, is not sad until late at night, when she cries a little for her lost hair.
In Chapter 11, Alcott stresses the importance of work and suggests that idleness does not lead to happiness. Alcott has held up domestic work—such as cleaning the house, teaching young children, and nursing the sick—not as a particularly challenging or rewarding endeavor for women, but rather as an unfortunate duty. However, here she shows us that idleness is an inadequate alternative.
Alcott stresses the importance of work again in Chapter 12, indicating that it is a particularly American value. In this chapter, Kate Vaughn, Laurie’s British friend, is set up as a foil, or contrast, to Meg. While both women are intelligent and attractive, Kate, the lady of leisure, is characterized as snobby, insensitive, and unkind. Meg, on the other hand, is unpretentious, sweet-natured, and -hardworking.
At the beginning of Chapter 13, Laurie feels bad that the March sisters have left him out of their Busy Bee Society. Scholar Nina Auerbach feels that this scene indicates that a society of women can be complete without men; Laurie wants to join the women, not the other way around. Auerbach believes that Little Women often depicts an all-female world as paradise.
In Chapter 13, when the March girls and Laurie describe their goals, Jo, Laurie, and Amy stand apart from the rest of the group. They all have big, ambitious dreams, and none of them mentions marriage as a goal. Beth and Meg, however, have begun the process of conforming to the typical roles of the time: Meg, always conventional, wants a husband and a household of her own, while Beth typifies the perfect nineteenth-century woman in that she is “perfectly satisfied” and has no desires. Alcott may have drawn this chapter title, “Castles in the Air,” from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond, an important transcendentalist work that advocates building castles in the air—dreaming, that is—and then building the foundations under them. Alcott suggests that Jo, Amy, and Laurie have built their castles in the air, but are prevented by gender roles from building foundations under them. Already, by the end of the chapter, Laurie has agreed to give up the feminine pursuit of music in order to pursue his grandfather’s dreams for him.
In Chapter 14, Meg and Jo begin maturing into two very different types of women, as reflected in the difference between the role that each chooses for herself. Meg waits for her future to come to her, while becoming a more proper, elegant lady. Jo becomes independent through her work, both in terms of her income and her creativity. She leaves the protective shelter of the house and ventures out into the male world of newspapers. Jo even cuts off her hair, erasing her own femininity, in order to fulfill the stereotypically male role of providing money for the family.