Literature Study GuidesLittle WomenPart 2 Chapter 36 38 Summary

Little Women | Study Guide

Louisa May Alcott

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Little Women | Part 2, Chapter 36–38 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 36: Beth's Secret

Jo notices a dramatic change in Beth that seems more spiritual than physical; she seems to be drifting away from the world. Jo takes Beth to the seashore, using her earnings she has saved from writing. While they are away, Beth confesses to Jo that she knows she is dying. "It's like the tide, Jo," Beth tells her sister, "when it turns, it goes slowly, but it can't be stopped." On the beach Beth compares the March girls to the birds: She is like the peeps, "happy, confiding little things ... always near the shore, and always chirping that contented little song"; Jo is like the gulls, "strong and wild, fond of the storm and the wind, flying far out to sea, and happy all alone"; Meg is like the turtledoves, and Amy like the larks, who always return to their nests. When they return home, Mr. and Mrs. March immediately understand the situation with Beth.

Chapter 37: New Impressions

Christmas Day finds Laurie strolling on the promenade in Nice, France, where Amy sees him from her carriage. She invites him to a Christmas party at her hotel. He has left his grandfather in Paris with friends and visits him in between adventures. Amy is unhappy with Laurie's attitude, which seems indifferent despite his cordiality. Laurie is pleased with Amy's lovely appearance when he meets her later that evening, and she dances with many partners. They exchange some light banter, and Laurie notices that Amy has grown into a self-possessed young woman. She has already noticed he is a handsome young man. They spend the rest of the evening together on somewhat new footing.

Chapter 38: On the Shelf

This chapter returns to Meg, who has become so totally absorbed in motherhood that she neglects her marital relationship. John bears it for the first six months after the twins are born, but soon he retreats to his friend's house in the evening. After awhile Meg notices her husband is missing, and Marmee advises her to make time for her husband and to enlist his help in rearing the children. She also suggests that she allow Hannah to help her with the children. Meg takes her mother's advice, and Mr. Brooke begins spending more time at home again and is glad to be a more active father.

Analysis

When Jo comes back from New York, she takes on the care of her little sister. The passage in which Beth compares herself and her sisters to the birds at the seashore is particularly evocative and heart-wrenching. Beth is beginning to take her leave of the world even while Jo claims she will have Beth "well and rosy" by the time Amy returns from Europe. Beth helps her family accept the idea that she is dying through her own resignation: "Jo, dear, don't hope any more ... We won't be miserable, but enjoy being together while we wait. We'll have happy times, for I don't suffer much, and I think the tide will go out easily if you help me." Beth's resignation is in keeping with the passivity and self-sacrifice she lives by, but there is great bravery in it as well. The family takes its cue from Beth and makes the best of the time they have left together.

In Europe Laurie and Amy reunite, and they begin to look at one another as potential partners. Amy doesn't yet know that Laurie has been rejected by her sister, so their first days of reacquaintance are not burdened by sexual tension even though they recognize one another as sexually attractive. Back at home, Meg is in danger of letting the passion in her own relationship burn out. She is understandably overwhelmed by her twins and begins neglecting her husband. Moreover, she does not allow him to help her, thinking that the parenting role belongs entirely to her. Marmee once again steps in to help her through this difficult trial, sounding surprisingly modern in her advice to allow Mr. Brooke into the nursery and to make romantic time for herself and her husband. Meg learned "that a woman's happiest kingdom is home, her highest honor the art of ruling it not as a queen, but as a wise wife and mother." She internalizes the lessons learned in her own happy family, and with advice from her wise mother, creates a haven of "love and mutual helpfulness, which the poorest may possess and the richest cannot buy." Thus, the Brookes demonstrate the theme that wealth is not necessary for happiness.

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