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Little Women

Louisa May Alcott

Chapters 29–33

Chapters 24–28

Chapters 34–38

Summary — Chapter 29: Calls

Amy and Jo go out visiting, and Amy makes Jo dress up and behave nicely. At the first house, Amy reprimands Jo for being too reserved and for hardly speaking at all. To tease her sister, Jo imitates a social butterfly named May Chester at the second house they visit. Amy grows even more mortified as Jo reveals secrets of their poverty. At the third house, after Amy tells her to stop this new behavior, Jo amuses herself by playing with a group of young boys, telling them stories. As Amy and Jo walk to Aunt March’s house, Amy declares that poor young women should be pleasant because they have nothing else to give. Disagreeing, Jo says that she will probably be crotchety all of her days. Aunt Carrol is at Aunt March’s house when they arrive. During the visit, Amy is charming, but Jo is curt. Alcott indicates that something good will happen to Amy because she is so delightful that day.

Summary — Chapter 30: Consequences

Amy is to work at the art table at the Chesters’ upcoming fair. She works hard to put the display together. The night before the fair, Mrs. Chester hears how the March girls insulted her daughter, May, and tells Amy that she should work at the flower table instead, while May will work at the art table. Amy is insulted, but she maintains her composure, taking her art with her to the new booth. The next day, hoping to smooth things over, Amy offers her art back to May. Over the course of the day, few people go to the flower table. That night, however, the Marches send over a brigade of young men led by Laurie. These boys surround Amy and buy all her flowers. Then, to kill May with kindness, Amy sends the boys to May’s booth to buy the vases that May has made. Amy returns home to find the vases filled with flowers for her. She then receives a note from Aunt Carrol, telling her that she is going to Europe and wants Amy to accompany her. Amy is thrilled, but Jo is very disappointed, having hoped that she would get to go on the trip. Before Amy sails for Europe, she asks Laurie to come comfort her if something should happen. He agrees to do so.

Summary — Chapter 31: Our Foreign Correspondent

Amy sends several letters from Europe, detailing her romps through England, France, Germany, and Switzerland. She says that she is trying to absorb every beautiful attraction. Along the way, she runs into Fred and Frank Vaughn, Laurie’s English friends. She and Florence, Aunt Carrol’s daughter, spend a lot of time with them, and it becomes clear that Fred is interested in courting Amy. She decides that she will accept him if he proposes. She is not madly in love with him, but she likes him and thinks that his fortune will help the whole family. But Fred finds out that Frank is very ill, and must leave abruptly. Fred asks Amy to remember him, and tells her meaningfully that he will return to her soon.

Summary — Chapter 32: Tender Troubles

Marmee asks Jo to find out if something is troubling Beth, for Beth’s spirits seem low. After thinking, Jo concludes that Beth might be in love with Laurie, but Jo is afraid that Laurie is in love Jo herself. Jo asks her mother if she might go away for a while in an attempt to broaden her horizons and to escape Laurie’s growing love. She hopes that Laurie will fall in love with Beth while she is gone. Marmee agrees that Jo and Laurie are unsuited for each other because they are too similar, with their strong wills and frequent quarrels. Jo decides to go to New York to live with a woman named Mrs. Kirke and to teach her children. When Jo tells Laurie of her decision to leave, he responds by telling her, teasingly but seriously, that she will not get out of his grasp so easily.

Summary — Chapter 33: Jo’s Journal

Jo sends letters from New York. She reports that the children are fine and that she is enjoying her little room in the big boarding house. She also writes about another boarder, a German professor named Frederick Bhaer. Professor Bhaer does not have much money, and tutors children in order to make a living. He is not particularly good-looking, and is around forty years old. Jo watches him doing good for everyone around him and is impressed by his kindness. They become friends when she mends some of his garments for him. Soon, he begins teaching her German. At Christmas, he gives her a beloved volume of Shakespeare from which he hopes she will learn. She gives him many trinkets in return. For New Year’s Eve, the boarding house has a masquerade, and Jo goes as Mrs. Malaprop, a character from a Restoration comedy by Richard Sheridan called The Rivals. Bhaer goes as Nick Bottom, from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Jo thoroughly enjoys herself.

Analysis — Chapters 29–33

In Part Two of the novel, Alcott uses a narrative technique slightly different from the one she employs in Part One. Whereas the first part of the novel is didactic, tending to teach us lessons, the second part is sentimental, tending to steer the novel in an emotionally satisfying direction. Alcott addresses her audience more frequently here than she does in the first part; this direct address is a common device in sentimental literature. These direct and sometimes syrupy appeals to the reader are supposed to inspire emotion. This shift in genres may be due partly to audience response and artistic choices. It may also be due to the fact that Alcott is no longer writing about the cloistered, all-female household that so closely mimics her own early womanhood, but now writes about strictly imagined events. In particular, Jo’s resemblance to Alcott lessens in the second part of the novel.

Amy’s departure from America signals a departure from the everyday, humble life that she has led until now. She develops into a woman, learning to balance virtue and luxury. She adores being a part of wealthy society, but realizes that she does not want to lose the lessons she has learned from Marmee. If Alcott’s idealization of Beth suggests that humility is the highest virtue, her portrayal of Amy suggests something different. She does not fault Amy for her love of luxury; rather, Alcott shows that Amy can both remain a good person and live a life of material wealth. She does not condemn Amy or punish her with dire consequences for her desire to own nice things and have elegant experiences. The fair provides a microcosm of Amy’s ability to have it all: while participating in a high-class pursuit, she keeps the moral high ground. Amy may take her love of money too far, though; it remains to be seen whether Fred Vaughn is a morally acceptable candidate for marriage, given that Amy does not love him. Alcott suggests, however, that Amy is put in this slightly distasteful situation because she has a natural urge to help her own family out of its poverty. Alcott seems to insinuate that poverty makes morally ambiguous behavior acceptable if the motive behind such behavior is to alleviate that poverty.

Loving, charming, and rich, Laurie is highly marriageable and more and more obviously in love with Jo, who does not return his affection. Generations of readers have been tormented by Jo’s seemingly inexplicable refusal to love Laurie. One can argue that Alcott sets up what looks like the perfect match between Jo and Laurie, then allows Jo to spurn his affections in order to explore the idea that a woman must marry a suitable man in order to be happy.

In New York, Jo finds a new kind of friend in Professor Bhaer. He is not only her friend but also her teacher. This student-teacher relationship mimics the relationship between Marmee and Mr. March, as well as the relationship between Jo and Mr. March. Surprisingly, in Bhaer’s presence Jo becomes nearly conventional, conforming to a more accepted code of female behavior. She darns the professor’s socks, for example, in order to show him her affection; her willingness to engage in such a domestic and traditionally female chore reflects her newfound willingness to abide by nineteenth-century society’s expectations of how a woman should act. Additionally, whereas earlier she takes on male roles in her plays, she now dresses as a female character, Miss Malaprop, at the New Year’s Eve masquerade, revealing an ability and willingness to check her unconventional desires.

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