Little Women


Chapters 16–20

Summary Chapters 16–20

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.