Literature Study GuidesLittle WomenPart 1 Chapters 16 19 Summary

Little Women | Study Guide

Louisa May Alcott

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Little Women | Part 1, Chapters 16–19 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 16: Letters

The girls put on a brave face for their mother but break down and cry after she leaves for the capital with Mr. Brooke. Nevertheless, they resolve to be a credit to her and continue with their duties. The chapter includes a series of letters to Marmee from her daughters, Hannah, Laurie, and Mr. Laurence, in which they express their love and reassure her that everything is fine at home. The girls are relieved to hear that their father is getting better although still seriously ill.

Chapter 17: Little Faithful

Although the girls are models of good behavior in the first week, they slack off in their duties, to some degree, as time passes. Thus, they neglect the Hummels, whose baby is very sick. Beth is not feeling well, but she visits them after her sisters shirk this duty. The baby dies of scarlet fever on Beth's lap, and soon she herself becomes ill. The family sends Amy to live with Aunt March so she doesn't catch scarlet fever, and Beth chooses Jo to nurse her. Amy puts up a fuss at first but then relents when Laurie promises to visit her every day. Hannah decides not to inform Mrs. March for now about her Beth's illness.

Chapter 18: Dark Days

Beth is very sick, and Jo continues to faithfully nurse her while seeing more clearly "the beauty and the sweetness of Beth's nature ... and to acknowledge the worth of Beth's unselfish ambition to live for others." On the December 1, Jo sends her mother a telegram at the doctor's suggestion. After she breaks down and weeps, Laurie tells her he secretly sent a telegram the day before. The doctor says Beth will take a turn, either for better or worse. That night, they keep a vigil. When the doctor comes in the middle of the night, he confirms that Beth is better. It has been snowing, which delays Mrs. March. In the early morning, she finally arrives.

Chapter 19: Amy's Will

Amy is unhappy at Aunt March's and feels herself to be in exile. Aunt March is not unkind but is still strict and makes Amy work. She makes friends with the French maid, Esther, who amuses her by allowing her to look at Aunt March's jewelry and other curiosities. Esther tells Amy that the jewelry will be left to the March girls when the old lady dies and her aunt will likely give her the turquoise ring when she returns home. Esther also encourages Amy to meditate and pray, even setting up a private place for her to do so. Laurie's visits also alleviate the tedium. Amy decides to write her will, which is witnessed by Esther and Laurie, and then prays for Beth.

Analysis

The author writes Chapter 16 as a series of letters, again interrupting the narrative and temporarily changing the genre. The letters reflect each writer's unique personality.

The girls are now on their own for the first time, and they must face a terrible crisis that furthers their moral education. The family has an ongoing commitment to minister to the impoverished Hummels, but the only one who faithfully keeps this commitment is Beth. As a result, she comes down with scarlet fever. Since Beth is the sister whom Jo has unofficially taken special responsibility for, Beth's sickness is an indictment of Jo's careless behavior. When Beth heads off to visit the Hummels even though she is not feeling well, Jo tells her the air will do her good, and anyway, she can't go because she needs to finish what she's writing. Thus, Jo puts her writing ahead of her sister's needs. This is the second time Jo's selfishness—connected to her writing—results in a disastrous outcome for one of her sisters. The explicit lesson for Jo is that she must not put her artistic aspirations ahead of her duties to her family. Jo repents by entirely devoting herself to her beloved sister's recovery. Beth does get better, but she never regains her former strength and ends up dying a few years later.

Amy also learns an important lesson during Beth's illness. When she is sent off to live with Aunt March, she is suddenly thrust into an environment where she is not spoiled and is expected to work a lot harder than she does at home. Selfishness is the fault she names at the beginning of the novel as the one she must correct. She now gets the opportunity to do so when she is made to endure her aunt's loving but somewhat harsh rule. Amy learns to submit to the new order with the help of Laurie and the maid Esther, who teaches her to collect herself in the quiet of prayer. Beth's sickness forces Amy to think about death as well, and she metaphorically gives away her precious possessions in her will, perhaps to remind herself about the transience of things. When she prays sincerely for Beth's recovery, she realizes that "a million turquoise rings would not console her for the loss of her gentle little sister." Laurie is seen as an active guardian of the March girls in these chapters—keeping up Amy's spirits, consoling Jo and Meg, and sending for Mrs. March before Hannah does so.

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