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Little Women | Study Guide

Louisa May Alcott

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Little Women | Part 1, Chapters 20–23 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 20: Confidential

The girls are overjoyed to see their mother, especially Beth. When Amy hears from Laurie that her mother has arrived, she behaves "like a capital little woman," according to him. Mrs. March soon visits Amy and approves of her little "chapel." She is less pleased with the turquoise ring, which her daughter is too young to wear, but she relents when Amy says it will serve as a reminder to be less selfish.

Back home, Jo speaks privately to Marmee about Meg's missing glove; Mrs. March responds by asking if Meg cares for him. Jo becomes angry, thinking Mr. Brooke has wheedled his way into her parents' good graces. Indeed, he has confided in them, and Jo laments he will carry Meg off and "make a hole in the family." She asks her mother if Meg shouldn't marry a rich man, and Marmee says she'd be satisfied if Mr. Brooke simply established himself with enough income to be free of debt and make her daughter comfortable since he truly loves her.

Chapter 21: Laurie Makes Mischief, and Jo Makes Peace

Laurie tries to convince Jo to tell her new secret, but she is steadfast. Nonetheless, he guesses a romance is afoot, and he writes Meg a fake letter of proposal, which she answers by saying she will be only Brooke's friend for now. Laurie doesn't send Brooke her letter and apologizes with great sincerity and remorse for his misdeed. When Jo visits Laurie at home, she finds him extremely agitated because his grandfather has physically shaken him for refusing to say what happened at the Marches. Mr. Laurence suspects Laurie has been up to some mischief. Laurie asks Jo to run away with him to Washington to visit her father, and though sorely tempted, she can't: "I'm a miserable girl, I must be proper and stop at home," she says. She makes peace by explaining to Mr. Laurence that Laurie's silence on the matter is meant not to shield himself but someone else. Jo tells Mr. Laurence his grandson is thinking about running off and advises him to send him a formal apology as a bit of fun to smooth over the quarrel. He takes her advice, and Laurie immediately forgives the old man.

Chapter 22: Pleasant Meadows

Mr. March's and Beth's health continue to improve. The sisters lavish Beth with attention and affection while she returns to her cats and and her beloved and broken dolls. On Christmas day, the girls and Laurie make Beth a snow maiden outside and gift her with new music, fruit and flowers, and an Afghan. The other girls receive gifts as well, and the family's happiness is crowned when Mr. March appears in the flesh. He praises his daughters, noting the moral progress they have made since he last saw them. The family resumes their custom of singing together before bedtime, and Beth chooses a song about pilgrimage.

Chapter 23: Aunt March Settles the Question

Mr. Brooke proposes to Meg, who says she is too young to marry. When he presses her that she might change her mind in time, she dismisses him. Aunt March witnesses this scene when she comes to visit Mr. March and guesses what has happened. She immediately tells Meg she will not leave her a penny if she marries Mr. Brooke. This command angers Meg, and she defends Mr. Brooke and the possibility of marriage to him. Mr. Brooke has been listening, and he comes back in after Aunt March storms out in a huff. Meg now accepts his proposal, but they plan to wait until he can establish himself financially. Jo is distraught, but Laurie comforts her and promises to stand by her as a loyal friend. This chapter ends Part 1 of Little Women.

Analysis

The narrator does not describe Marmee's return to her daughters, saying "such hours are beautiful to live, but very hard to describe," thus reinforcing the idea that familial love is superior to art and transcends words. Laurie refers to Amy as a little woman for the first time (he will do so again), meaning that she has shown maturity in waiting to see her mother without putting up a fuss. His assessment of Amy also foreshadows his future relationship with her and indicates that even the youngest girl in the March family is on her way to womanhood.

Mr. Brooke stays behind to nurse Mr. March, and Jo shares Laurie's secret about Meg's missing glove with her mother only to learn, to her dismay, that Marmee is very well aware of his feelings and does not think he is a bad marital prospect for her daughter. Jo knows that Meg longs for a more luxurious lifestyle, which is why she reminds her mother that it would be better for Meg to marry a rich man. But Marmee replies that while money is useful, "genuine happiness" in marriage comes from love and not money. Jo is worried that Meg's marriage will create a "hole" in the family, but as the novel progresses, she learns that adding men enhances rather than detracts from it.

Meg is at first in no hurry to marry John Brooke and is not even sure how she feels about him. However, the meddling of both Laurie and Aunt March push her in that direction, and she ends up giving her consent before she has time to reflect upon it. First, Laurie writes her a fake love letter, which provides Meg with a dress rehearsal for how she will handle a proposal. Laurie's actions bring the prospect of marriage to the forefront of Meg's consciousness and make it more likely that she will accept Mr. Brooke when he gets home. When Mr. Brooke does propose to her, she tells him she's much too young to think about marriage, but when Aunt March gets wind of what's going on, she seals Meg's fate: "If Aunt March had begged Meg to accept John Brooke, she would probably have declared she couldn't think of it, but as she was preemptorily ordered not to like him, she immediately made up her mind that she would."

The feminizing and taming of the male characters is also evident in the final chapters of Part 1. Mr. March returns home, and the girls and their mother were "[l]ike bees swarming after their queen." Thus, the patriarch becomes the queen bee of the female hive, a reversal of gender roles. (Drone bees are males while the queen is female.) Laurie and Mr. Laurence both benefit from Jo's ministrations. She smooths Laurie's ruffled feathers after he is shaken by his grandfather, and she gently advises Mr. Laurence to apologize. Both men take her advice to soften their stance and reconcile. In this same scene, Jo is reminded of the restrictions placed on her as a girl, and she sadly tells Laurie she cannot run away with him. Jo still shakes her fist at Mr. Brooke's umbrella after he comes courting, a symbolic reminder of his intentions to divest her of her sister, but the fact that she acts as a female mediator and refuses to run away with Laurie to solve his problem with Mr. Laurence show that she is maturing and has begun to accept the responsibilities of female adulthood.

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