Literature Study GuidesLittle WomenPart 2 Chapters 39 41 Summary

Little Women | Study Guide

Louisa May Alcott

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Little Women | Part 2, Chapters 39–41 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 39: Lazy Laurence

Laurie ends up spending a month in Nice, since he enjoys being with Amy, and both are happy to find a familiar friend away from home. Amy becomes impatient, however, with Laurie's laziness. She encourages him to visit his grandfather. He asks her what she intends to do with her energy and talent, and she says that since she is not a genius, she refuses to be a "common-place dauber." She intends to become an "ornament to society if [she gets] the chance." Laurie asks her about Fred and chides her for thinking about marrying for money. She scolds him in return: "You have grown abominably lazy, you like gossip, and waste time on frivolous things, you are contented to be petted and admired by silly people, instead of being loved and respected by wise ones." Laurie tells Amy he has been turned down by Jo, and she feels sorry for being insensitive. That evening Laurie sends Amy a note addressed to "My dear Mentor" and signs it "Telemachus" (the name of Odysseus's son in Homer's Odyssey). He says he is going to see his grandfather and wishes her luck with Fred.

Chapter 40: The Valley of the Shadow

The March family accepts the inevitability of Beth's death and sets her up in the best room in the house with her favorite things. Beth finds everything very beautiful, but after a few months she puts her needle down because it is too heavy. Jo is constantly at her side and often finds Beth reading her New Testament or singing softly to herself. Jo writes a poem for Beth and promises to "be everything to Mother and Father" when Beth gone. Beth tells Jo "you'll be happier doing that than writing splendid books or seeing the world," so Jo renounces "her old ambition." Beth dies peacefully just before dawn.

Chapter 41: Learning to Forget

The narrator bitterly notes that "when women are the advisers, the lords of creation don't take the advice till they have persuaded themselves that it is just what they intended to do. Then they act upon it, and, if it succeeds, they give the weaker vessel half the credit of it. If it fails, they generously give her the whole." Laurie is roused by Amy and decides to soldier on despite his broken heart. He tries composing music but gives it up when he realizes he has no genius for it. He puts away his letters from Jo and begins writing to Amy. Fred comes back to ask for Amy's hand, but she turns him down. Both Amy and Laurie get the news of Beth's death around the same time, and Laurie comes to comfort her in Vevay. The family advises her not to rush home. One day while Amy and Laurie are out on the lake, she remarks how well they "pull together," and he asks her if "we might always pull in the same boat." She answers in the affirmative.

Analysis

Amy becomes disgusted with Laurie's attitude of languor and indifference, and she steps up to instruct Laurie and put him on the right path. He signs himself "Telemachus" and addresses her as "Mentor," referencing Homer's Greek epic The Odyssey, in which the goddess Athena advises Odysseus's son, Telemachus, to go on a journey to discover if his father is still alive. Amy is sending Laurie on a journey, too. When she finds out he has been spurned by her sister, she feels more sympathy for him. At the same time, she knows he cannot spend the rest of his life pining for her sister nor would Jo want him to do so. It is time for Laurie to take his place as a man in the world, and that is what Amy wants to see. He also serves as her mentor when he advises her not to marry for money. Amy's decision to give up art because she is not a genius revives the theme of woman as artist. Amy keeps sketching even after she says she will give it up. The narrator, in a particularly bitter passage in Chapter 41, rails against male prerogative, sarcastically referring to men as the "lords of creation" and implying that even the beloved Laurie is not immune to taking more credit than he deserves. In any case, he does take Amy's advice to move on with his life, and he also decides that art is not worth pursuing if he can't create a masterpiece in music.

Back at home, Beth charges Jo to take her place when she dies and to put aside all her own plans and desires. This seems like a bitter parting gift, but Jo agrees to take on the burden: "With eyes made clear by many tears, and a heart softened by the tenderest sorrow, she recognized the beauty of her sister's life—uneventful, unambitious, yet full of the genuine virtues which 'smell sweet, and blossom in the dust,' the self-forgetfulness that makes the humblest on earth remembered soonest in heaven, the true success which is possible to all." Alcott fashions a smaller and smaller box into which Jo must squeeze herself. The fiery Jo is thus reduced to emulating her self-effacing sister and looking forward to a reward in the hereafter. Fortunately, the author will not leave her entirely bereft, and Jo gets a second chance at a new kind of life.

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