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Little Women

Louisa May Alcott

Chapters 16–20

Chapters 11–15

Chapters 21–23

Summary — Chapter 16: Letters

Marmee departs, and the girls communicate with her by letter. The girls write letters in their own ways: Meg writes of everyday events in a refined way; Jo writes impassioned letters with slang and silly poems; Beth sends simple notes of love; and Amy strives for sophistication but ends up discussing trivialities. Hannah writes misspelled letters about home life, while Laurie writes short, humorous tidbits, and Mr. Laurence writes informative and sincere notes.

Summary — Chapter 17: Little Faithful

For a while, the girls are extremely diligent in their work, but they soon grow lazy again. Marmee had asked her daughters to visit the Hummels every day, but Beth is the only one who has done so. One day, Beth asks that another sister take a turn visiting the Hummels, but her sisters, wrapped up in their own pursuits, ignore her. Finally, when no one else will go, Beth goes again. When she returns home, she tells Jo that the Hummel baby has just died from scarlet fever. She says that she feels strange and fears that she might have the disease too. Luckily, Jo and Meg have had it already, so they are not in danger of contracting the illness if Beth does in fact have it. Hannah decides that Dr. Bangs should be sent for to look at Beth. He arrives and says that she shows symptoms of the disease. The family decides to send Amy to Aunt March’s, since Amy is susceptible to scarlet fever, but she will not go until Laurie promises that he will come visit her every day. At Aunt March’s, Amy is harassed by her aunt’s speaking parrot and finds herself miserable.

Summary — Chapter 18: Dark Days

Beth is much more seriously ill than anyone supposed. After a while, the family decides that Marmee must be sent for, just in case something dreadful happens. Jo breaks down in front of Laurie, saying that she does not want Beth to die. Laurie admits that he telegraphed for Marmee the day before and that she will be arriving that night. Around two in the morning, Jo and Meg notice a change in Beth: the fever and pained look are gone. Jo whispers goodbye to her sister. Hannah, however, announces that the fever has broken. Beth is not dying but rather recovering. The doctor confirms the good news, and Marmee arrives.

Summary — Chapter 19: Amy’s Will

During Beth’s illness, Amy has a hard time living with Aunt March. Though Aunt March likes Amy, she makes her niece work very hard. For consolation, Amy turns to the servant, Esther, who tells her stories and plays with her among Aunt March’s old dresses and jewelry. After a while, Esther tells Amy that she finds solace in prayer. She even tells Amy that she will help set up a small shrine for her. Esther then reveals that Amy is to receive her aunt’s turquoise ring. From then on, Amy behaves extremely well so as to be assured of getting the ring. She and Esther set up a chapel in a dressing closet, and Amy derives comfort from praying there. Amy also decides to make a will, in case she falls ill and dies. She has Esther and Laurie serve as witnesses.

Summary — Chapter 20: Confidential

Marmee watches carefully over Beth, while Laurie goes to Aunt March’s to tell Amy of Beth’s recovery. Later, Marmee also comes to visit Amy. Amy shows her the chapel, which Marmee approves of as a place for quiet reflection. Amy also asks Marmee if she may wear the turquoise ring that Aunt March has now given her. She wants to wear it to remind herself not to be selfish, and Marmee approves of this plan. When Marmee gets home, Jo tells her that Mr. Brooke has Meg’s glove. Marmee asks Jo if she thinks Meg cares for Mr. Brooke and tells Jo that Mr. Brooke has confessed an interest in Meg. This unwelcome revelation saddens Jo, who does not want to lose Meg. Marmee says that she too would like Meg to remain in the house until she is at least twenty years old. Jo says that she wanted Meg to marry Laurie and live in luxury. Meg comes in, and Marmee evaluates how Meg reacts to discussion of Mr. Brooke. She decides that Meg does not love him yet but that she will learn to love him soon.

Analysis — Chapters 16–20

In several ways, Chapter 16 reinforces the idea that the mother is the emotional and practical head of the family. Alcott portrays Marmee’s absence in Chapter 16 as much more significant than Mr. March’s absence throughout the whole novel thus far. The family, which has managed perfectly well without the father’s presence, struggles as soon as the mother leaves. The girls cry over Marmee’s departure, suggesting that their father’s continuing grave illness does not cause them as much anxiety as Marmee’s initial absence. Though a letter from Mr. March is read early in the novel, no letters from the girls to him are ever described. In contrast, an entire chapter is devoted to the girls’ letters to their mother. Female-female bonds are strong in the novel, and most female-male bonds are weak by comparison.

Alcott places blame for Beth’s illness both on selfishness and on selflessness. Certainly, we are meant to condemn Beth’s sisters for their selfish refusal to visit the Hummels. In one way, Meg and Jo are responsible for Beth’s grave illness, because they are immune from scarlet fever; if they had visited the Hummels instead of Beth, no one would have gotten sick. It is no coincidence that on the very day Beth asks them to go to the Hummels in her stead and they refuse, she falls ill. Alcott positions these events in a cause and effect relationship, which places blame squarely on the shoulders of Meg and Jo. At the same time, though, one can argue that Beth’s selflessness is responsible for her illness. Scholar Elizabeth Lennox Keyser has suggested that Beth’s illness is symbolic of her being the weakest, most conforming March sister. In condemning selflessness, Alcott is probably condemning not Beth but rather a society that idealizes women who put everyone else above themselves. Beth is the most stereotypically ideal sister, and it is she who falls ill. Extreme selflessness is presented as both admirable and potentially dangerous.

In Chapter 18, Amy matures by leaps and bounds at Aunt March’s house. She confronts her selfishness, realizing with shame that she is more worried about getting her hands on the turquoise ring than she is about her ill sister. She learns that a place for quiet reflection is often necessary; she even thinks seriously about death, demonstrating that she can overcome material concerns. She does not lose her aesthetic values, however—her chapel, after all, is beautiful and dramatic, and her reminder not to be selfish is her turquoise ring. Her continued appreciation of beautiful objects here suggests that while she is becoming an adult, she is still a child at heart.

That Amy writes out a will, leaving her treasured possessions to her beloved family and friends, demonstrates her ability to blend generosity with regard for material things. On the one hand, Amy’s attachment to things of the earth suggests that she has not fully absorbed the transcendentalist values mastered by Beth, who, though close to death, never thinks of making a will. On the other hand, Alcott suggests that Amy has something equally important that Beth lacks: the will to live and thrive. We must decide which way of thinking about the world is better or more admirable.

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