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Little Women | Plot Summary

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Summary

Part 1

The novel begins by introducing the four young protagonists, Jo March (age 15), Meg March (age 16), Beth March (age 13), and Amy March (age 12). It is December 1861. The girls are sitting around a hearth, lamenting that they have to work so hard and won't even get any Christmas presents because their mother says it would be wrong to spend money when the men are suffering. Mr. March is away at war, working as a chaplain. The March family, living in the Northeast, are staunch abolitionists who favor the war that will free the slaves. Mrs. March, whom the girls call Marmee, comes in and reads a letter from their father, in which he reminds them to "conquer" themselves so that he can be even prouder of them when he comes home and sees his "little women."

Jo, an aspiring writer, has a bad temper. Meg is vain about her good looks. Beth loves music and suffers from timidity, and Amy, an aspiring artist, is selfish and a little spoiled. Marmee reminds the girls about how they used to play a game in which they acted out portions of The Pilgrim's Progress, an allegorical text in which the main character, "Christian," undergoes trials in the world until he reaches the "Celestial City" (heaven). Marmee challenges the girls to pick up the game again to perfect their characters, and they all agree to work on their faults. In the morning, they bring their Christmas breakfast to an impoverished family and eat bread and milk instead. Their neighbor, Mr. Laurence, hears of their deed and sends them treats for supper. He is rich and an old friend of Marmee's family, and he now has his grandson living with him. The girls are curious about the boy and want to meet him.

Meg and Jo are invited to a New Year's celebration at a friend's house, where the two girls meet Theodore (Laurie) Laurence, a tall, handsome boy about Jo's age. He has studied abroad and will head off to college in a year or so. Not long after the party, Jo gets permission from her mother to visit Laurie because he is sick at home. The two become friends, and when Mr. Laurence sees how good the friendship is for his lonely grandson, he makes an effort to reacquaint himself with the March family. Laurie and the girls become good friends. They invite Laurie into their family circle and make him a sort of honorary sister, but he and Jo become particularly close friends. Laurie and Jo have adventures, and he wholeheartedly supports her aspirations as a writer.

Jo's temper is sorely tested when Amy, in a fit of pique, burns Jo's fairy tales. Jo does not accept Amy's apology and continues to ignore her, which results in Amy falling through the ice during an ice-skating outing when Jo doesn't warn her about the thin ice. Jo is horrified that her anger was almost indirectly responsible for her sister's death, so she recommits herself to controlling her passions. Meg must come to terms with her desire for fine clothes when she visits her more prosperous friends.

However, the biggest trial for all the girls is when Mrs. March gets word that Mr. March is ill, and she must leave them and go to Washington, D.C. to nurse her husband. Beth comes down with scarlet fever and almost dies, and Amy is sent away to live with Aunt March, where she learns to be less selfish. Jo nurses Beth through her illness. Soon after, Jo must cope with Meg's love interest—Mr. John Brooke—who is Laurie's tutor. He goes to Washington D.C. with Mrs. March so she doesn't have to travel alone, and while there, he confesses to both parents that he is in love with Meg. Jo learns about this from her mother when she returns home. Shortly after Beth recovers, Mr. March also comes home, and Mr. Brooke proposes marriage to Meg. Jo is afraid that Meg's marriage will leave a "hole" in the family, but she has no choice but to deal with the fact that they are all growing up.

Part 2

The second part of the novel begins three years later. Amy has taken over Jo's job as a companion to Aunt March, and Jo is now free to do more writing. In fact, she is getting paid for her romance stories. Meg quits her job as a governess and marries John. He has worked hard to get enough money together to establish them in a little house. Laurie is at college, and John works as a bookkeeper. Amy is now working very hard at her art, trying a variety of mediums but producing failed projects, although she does have drawing talent. As Meg settles into life as a married woman, she has some bumps in the road but is able to negotiate them with her mother's guidance. After a year she has twin babies—a boy and a girl—and she learns how to incorporate her husband into her new role as a mother, again, with the help of Marmee.

Beth is not doing well, having never fully recovered from her illness. Jo writes her first thriller, wins a hundred dollars in a contest, and uses the money to send her mother and Beth to the sea for a few months. Jo gets more money for "blood & thunder" stories and even publishes a novel to mixed reviews. Meanwhile, Amy continues to cultivate herself as a refined woman, and because she is a model of social grace, Aunt Carrol decides to take her on a trip to Europe instead of Jo, who prefers to go through the world "with [her] elbows out." Laurie begins acting like a suitor, so Jo decides to go to New York for awhile. While she is there, she meets Professor Bhaer, a kind and scholarly German professor who is working as a tutor. He gave up his university job to come to America to take care of his orphaned nephews. Jo is now writing even more lurid thrillers for the New York market. However, Professor Bhaer believes that such writers poison people's minds. As a result, Jo gives up this type of writing.

When she returns home, Jo finds Beth even more ill. She also can't run away from Laurie anymore, and when he proposes, she turns him down. Laurie has just graduated college, so his grandfather decides to take him to Europe to get over his heartbreak. Meanwhile, Jo takes Beth to the seashore, but it is now apparent she will die. Jo nurses Beth through her last days and is quite heartbroken after Beth dies. Her parents convince Jo to start writing again. She develops a new style and is successful at selling some stories.

Meanwhile, Laurie meets Amy in Europe and begins spending time with her. The family tells Amy not to rush home after Beth's death since there is nothing she can do. She and Laurie become close, and the two of them marry in Europe and come home on the eve of Jo's 25th birthday. That same night Professor Bhaer shows up on Jo's doorstep for a visit. He stays in town for a fortnight and proposes, but they must wait until he can figure out a way to support both Jo and his nephews. He has landed a job in a college, but it is out West. More than a year later, Aunt March dies and leaves her huge house to Jo. Jo decides she and Professor Bhaer can now open a school for boys, and they are able to marry.

The novel ends with an autumn celebration five years after Jo and the professor marry. The school is thriving, and there are now five grandchildren—one from Amy and two from Jo in addition to Meg's twins. The three women decide that they are quite happy with how their lives turned out even though Jo and Amy have abandoned their artistic aspirations. Still, both women claim they hope to produce something great—someday.

Little Women Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Mr. March goes to war, leaving behind his family.

Rising Action

2 Jo and Meg meet Laurie at Mrs. Gardiner's dance.

3 Amy burns Jo's stories and later falls through the ice.

4 Marmee goes to Washington to care for a sick Mr. March.

5 Beth comes down with scarlet fever.

6 Mr. March returns from the war.

7 Meg and Mr. Brooke marry.

8 Amy leaves for Europe.

9 Jo goes to work in New York and meets Professor Bhaer.

10 Jo turns down Laurie's marriage proposal.

Climax

11 Beth dies of the aftereffects of scarlet fever.

Falling Action

12 Laurie and Amy marry in Europe.

13 Amy and Laurie come home; Professor Bhaer visits.

14 Professor Bhaer proposes to Jo, and she accepts.

Resolution

15 The family celebrates Marmee's 60th birthday.

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