In New York, Jo begins to write sensationalist stories for a publication called the “Weekly Volcano.” She is not proud of these stories, as they are not moral or profound in any way. They do, however, provide her with a lot of money. Later, she witnesses Mr. Bhaer defending religion in a philosophical conversation and is more impressed with him than ever. When he finds out that she writes sensationalist fiction, she is even more ashamed, and quits writing the tales. In June, she must return home. She tells Bhaer that she will see Laurie graduate, and Bhaer looks a bit jealous. He tells himself that he cannot hope to have Jo. She goes home feeling unsuccessful in writing, but very successful in having found such a good friend.
All of the Marches except Amy go to see Laurie graduate from college. He has done well there, having spent the last year working hard, probably to impress Jo. When he returns home, he finally confesses his love to Jo. She tries to stop him from speaking his mind, but he insists on telling her how he feels. She rejects his marriage proposals, telling him she doesn’t love him in that way, which breaks his heart. He worries that she loves Professor Bhaer, and speaks scornfully of Bhaer’s old age. Jo energetically defends the professor, but says she does not love him. After the rejection, Laurie mopes for a while until Mr. Laurence, to whom Jo has told of her conversation with Laurie, suggests that he and Laurie go to Europe for a while. Laurie reluctantly agrees and sadly leaves.
Coming home from New York, Jo has been surprised to find Beth even paler and thinner than before. She proposes to take Beth to the mountains with the money that she has earned. Beth says that she does not want to go so far and asks to go to the seashore again instead. When they are on holiday, Beth confesses that she knows that she will die soon. Jo tells her that she will not, but Beth is certain that she will. Beth tells her that this realization was the reason she was melancholy the previous fall. She asks Jo to tell their parents so that she does not have to. But when they return home, Jo does not need to say anything. Their parents can see the change in Beth for themselves.
Laurie meets up with Amy in Nice, in southern France, on Christmas. They each find that the other has changed quite a bit. Laurie notes that Amy has grown into a sophisticated and lovely young woman. Amy sees that Laurie is more somber, but she also starts to see him as a handsome gentleman instead of a childhood friend. He escorts her to a ball in her hotel that evening. She deliberately tries to look extremely pretty for him. At first, he is not as attentive as she wants him to be. Toward the end of the night, however, when she merrily and honestly confesses to the little tricks she employs to make herself pretty despite her poverty, he is touched, and fills up her dance card with his own name.
Meg is spending so much time taking care of her babies that she rarely spends time with Mr. Brooke. After half a year of this behavior, he takes to going over to a friend’s house at night. When he begins to spend less time with the children, Meg is saddened by his absence. Marmee figures out what the trouble is and suggests that Meg make an effort to be more interested in her husband’s affairs and to be more presentable and loving. She says that Meg needs to work on her relationship with her husband as well as her relationship with her children. Meg resolves to try Marmee’s advice: she puts the children to bed early, makes a nice dinner, and dresses up. John comes home and is pleased with what he sees. Demi, however, will not go to sleep. John takes over, reprimanding his son and making sure that he minds his mother. This night marks a change: Meg and John begin sharing the childrearing responsibilities and, as a result, spend more time together in their home.
In Chapter 34, Jo is still largely the same person as at the novel’s beginning, pursuing her writing talent. The name of the magazine for which she writes—“Weekly Volcano”—suggests intense, even dangerous, creativity. Like a volcano, Jo possesses a wild and unpredictable temperament, and she is never really at ease. She is ready to erupt with her writing, and this magazine serves as the perfect outlet for her creativity.
In Chapter 35, in an extremely unusual literary event, Jo rejects Laurie’s offer of marriage. Literary works are inevitably influenced by the values of the society in which their authors live, and at the time Alcott wrote, society did not look kindly on women who turned down eligible men. Women were expected to accept as their destiny the roles of wife and mother, and to dismiss any ideas of living an independent life that rejected these conventional roles. For this reason, very few female characters in literature from before the twentieth century display the sort of assertiveness and expression of individual desires that modern society, for the most part, values in women. It is therefore extremely significant that Jo rejects Laurie despite the fact that he is handsome, kind, loving, and rich, and that she rejects him for no other reason than that she does not love him as she wants to love a husband. Alcott depicts this decision as admirable. As Laurie says, everyone expects the marriage to happen—not only the characters in Little Women, but also everyone in the reading audience. Yet Alcott shows us that a strong woman is perfectly within her rights to flout the expectations of society.
In keeping with Alcott’s progressive ideas about female roles in society, scholar Elizabeth Lennox Keyser has suggested that Beth’s death results almost necessarily from the fact that the society in which she lives is evolving and thus rendering outdated the traditional values to which she clings outdated. Beth’s quiet and old-fashioned character symbolically cannot survive in a world in which women begin to demand more from life than housework. She seems to have no place in the future and, by extension, no place in the second half of the novel.
Eager for her characters and her story not to be flat, Alcott attempts to show life’s complexities by exploring both the positive and the negative aspects of certain experiences and attitudes. She realistically depicts marriage as a mixture of love, grumpiness, miscommunication, and gradual improvement. Similarly, she depicts Jo’s separateness as a mixture of independence and loneliness. Earlier, Meg and John seem to be growing apart; now, however, they strike a balance in their relationship and begin to appreciate it again. Conversely, Jo, who earlier revels in her rebellious nature and defiance of social convention, now begins to envy Meg’s family and see marriage in a more positive light. By putting her characters through this flux of emotion and attitude, Alcott makes her characters more realistic.
Alcott characterizes Meg and John’s twins along traditional gender lines, which seems to reflect her understanding that progress toward a greater role for women would be achieved only gradually. Daisy is a stereotypical girl, while Demi is a stereotypical boy, who often tries to control his sister. While the family considers Demi’s domination sweet, this behavior perpetuates the gender roles that Alcott has blurred with some success in the preceding generation, that of the March girls and Laurie.