Although Laurie originally intends to spend a week in Nice, he ends up staying for a month in order to enjoy Amy’s company. While he is there, Amy becomes more and more distressed at his laziness and bad humor. One day, they go for a drive to a scenic hilltop villa so that Amy can sketch. While there, Amy decides to lecture Laurie, telling him that he should be more attentive to his grandfather and that he should find a way to keep himself busy. Soon, she figures out that Jo has refused his marriage proposal, and she becomes somewhat more sympathetic. Still, she tells him not to waste his talents by sitting around moping. The next morning, she gets a note saying that he has heeded her advice and is on his way to see his grandfather. Although she will miss him, she is pleased that he has taken her advice.
Because of Beth’s failing health, the family sets up a lovely room for her. In it they place her piano, Amy’s sketches, and other beautiful things. Meg also brings the babies over to brighten Beth’s days. As time passes, Beth gets weaker, but she is not afraid of death. Jo writes a poem about all Beth has meant to her, which pleases Beth, who worries that her life has been useless. Before Beth dies, she asks Jo to take care of their parents. Beth passes away peacefully.
Laurie is more active when he returns to Switzerland. He spends some time in Austria working on a requiem and an opera. He tries to make Jo his heroine, but she seems ill fit to be his artistic muse, or inspiration, so he begins to imagine a blonde damsel, although he does not name her. Laurie also begins to correspond with Amy frequently. When Fred Vaughn finally proposes, Amy turns him down because she does not want to marry for money. Amy and Laurie find out about Beth’s death at nearly the same time, and Laurie goes to comfort Amy. They begin to spend much time together and fall in love. One day, Laurie and Amy are boating on a river. Laurie is doing the rowing, and Amy asks to help, telling him that he looks tired. They begin to row smoothly together, and Laurie asks Amy if she will always row in the same boat as him—that is, if she will marry him. Amy responds that she will.
Jo grows lonely at home, although she tries to make life easier for Marmee, Mr. March, and Hannah. One day, she confides to her father how much she misses Beth. Word arrives that Amy and Laurie are engaged, and Marmee is worried about how Jo will take the news. Jo is calm, though, and pleased that they are in love. She does wish that she could find a love of her own, but she does not begrudge Amy Laurie’s affections. Jo begins to write more, and finds a style that is all her own. It has more truth in it than her previous sensationalist writing, and magazines publish many of her stories. She begins to think about Professor Bhaer sentimentally, hoping that he will come for her.
Laurie comes into the house, surprising Jo. He tells her that he and Amy have married so that they could come home together without a chaperone. He tells Jo that she was right about her being unsuitable for him, and that he is happy to have Amy as his wife and Jo as his sister. With Amy, Laurie, and Mr. Laurence home, everyone celebrates all day and into the night. Mr. Laurence asks Jo to be his “girl” now that Beth is gone. As the family revels, Mr. Bhaer arrives unexpectedly. He says that he is in town on some business. Jo warmly greets him. Everyone likes him very much. Jo notices that he is all dressed up as if he were courting. After a long evening, he asks if he may come back, as he is in town for a few days. Jo gladly tells him that he may.
Amy and Laurie display their happiness at every moment, relishing each other’s company. They discuss Mr. Bhaer, whom they think Jo will marry, and decide that they want to help the impoverished Bhaer financially. They also discuss the kind of philanthropy that they would like to practice, and conclude that they will support people who are ambitious and in need of money. In talking about all the good they will do, they feel closer than ever.
Demi is interested in mechanics and philosophy, although he is only three. His grandfather adores him. Daisy adores Demi too, and allows herself to be dominated by him. She loves to help Hannah make food and keep house. Both children love to play with Jo, whom they call Aunt Dodo. She plays with them less when Bhaer is around, but they like him anyway, because he gives them chocolate drops. One day, Demi tells Jo and Bhaer that he has kissed a little girl. He asks Bhaer innocently whether big boys like big girls. Bhaer is a bit embarrassed but says that he thinks they do, an answer that delights Jo.
After much visiting, Bhaer stays away for three days. Jo heads out one day to run some errands, hoping to run into him. Just as rain begins to fall, she bumps into him, and he then covers her with his umbrella as they do some shopping together. He tells her that he has finished his business in town. He adds that has gotten a job teaching in the West, where he can make some money. She is distressed that he will go so far away, and begins to cry. Because she has displayed her feelings for him, Bhaer feels comfortable telling her that he loves her. She responds that she loves him too, and they decide to get married.
Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!
Jo and Bhaer spend a year apart, pining for each other. Aunt March then dies unexpectedly, leaving her house, Plumfield, to Jo. Jo decides to turn it into a school for rich and poor boys alike. The family decides that it is a good idea. After several years, the school is up and running successfully. Mr. Laurence helps by paying some tuition for poor boys. In October, they have an apple-picking festival. The Marches, Brookes, Laurences, and Bhaers all arrive for a day of fun. They also all celebrate Marmee’s sixtieth birthday. All of the sisters revel in their good fortune and count their blessings, congratulating Marmee on such a successful life. Jo says that she still hopes to write another novel but that she is very happy. Amy frets that her daughter, Beth, is ill, but plans to enjoy her for as long as she has her. Everyone expresses gratitude for the wonderful life they all share.
All of the characters who earlier wish for genius and success—Amy, Jo, and Laurie—now realize that they merely possess talent, not the genius for which they earlier hope. These realizations are the result of growing up and learning to accept small defeats. When old Mr. Laurence asks Jo to be his “girl” in place of Beth, Jo agrees, demonstrating that she has tempered some of her wildness with the gentle femininity she loved in Beth. Even Jo’s writing style changes; she no longer writes tales of adventure and intrigue but, instead, writes in a simpler style that sounds similar to that of Little Women itself. Though one can argue that this change in writing style reflects a loss of independence for Jo, one can also argue that it demonstrates an ability to adapt her creativity to the world around her.
Alcott presents a new model of marriage with the pairing of Amy and Laurie. Amy serves as a mentor for Laurie, instead of the other way around. Scholar Elizabeth Lennox Keyser suggests that the two have the most egalitarian marriage of the novel, citing the fact that they row together as symbolic of their cooperation. Though this marriage holds promise, Alcott seems to layer it with a bit of regret suggesting that Laurie becomes his old playful self not in Amy’s presence but only in Jo’s.
In contrast to the stormy, childish encounter between Laurie and Jo when he proposes to her, Bhaer’s proposal to Jo is touching and more grown-up. Jo goes out to seek Bhaer, demonstrating that she has some agency in the affair; when he proposes, the rain and mud prevent him from going down on his knee or giving her his hand, so they stand literally on an equal footing. Jo, furthermore, looks nothing like a romantic feminine heroine; she is bedraggled with rain and mud, but it makes no difference. This marriage, which begins with equality and primacy of the heart rather than primacy of appearances, is promising.
The fact that Jo inherits Aunt March’s old house recalls the bond that exists throughout the novel between these two strong March women. What makes this detail most important is that property is customarily inherited by a man from another man. Aunt March’s last act can therefore be seen as one of defiance against patriarchal norms. The endurance of this feminist stance is manifest in the fact that Jo too continues to defy gender conventions by sharing with her husband the typically male role of headmaster.
The end of the novel is both domestic and sentimental. Except for Beth, of course, all of the March girls have married, and two of them have had children. The girls’ children hint at the eternal nature of such stories. Long after these characters have gone, others will take their place in the endless cycle of growing up, nesting, and raising one’s children. As a sentimentalist novel, Little Women ends with everyone apparently getting what she deserves. Because of their continual efforts to be good, the March girls are rewarded with happy lives and loving families.