Special thanks to Sarina Byron, a new BSR contributor who wrote this great recap! Sarina is a British Author and Contributing Writer living in California. Sarina enjoys bringing forth a different perspective and encouraging a different way of thinking through her writing. Visit her blog to read her reviews, and check the end of the review for a link to her Instagram.
Louisa May Alcott
***** Everything below is a SPOILER *****
What happened in Little Women?
The book opens with the four March girls complaining about Christmas, not feeling festive this year because they do not have Christmas presents. With a description of the things they desire to purchase for themselves, the author provides a detailed description of each of the sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. They do not have much time to sulk, however, as their mother will be home shortly, and they go about setting the room for her and warming her slippers. Whilst undertaking these tasks, they decide to use their meagre means to buy Christmas gifts for their mother instead. Mrs. March—or Marmee, as the girls like to call her—comes home announcing a letter from their father has arrived. He’s serving as a chaplain in the Army during the Civil War.
They wake up on Christmas morning to find a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress under their pillows with a note from their mother. As they come down to breakfast, they find their mother gone to tend to a poor woman who had come looking for help. When she returns, she tells the girls about the lady’s family, freezing in a draughty house with no food. The March family gives them their Christmas breakfast and prepares to make their living quarters more comfortable. They eat bread and butter upon return home and put on the play they had been rehearsing. In the evening, their neighbour, the elderly Mr. Laurence, sends them food, for he heard they had given theirs away.
Meg and Jo are invited to the Gardiner’s Christmas party, where they meet their young neighbour, Mr. Laurence’s grandson, Theodore Laurence, fondly called Laurie. Laurie tells Jo he often likes to look at their house as he can see them all sitting cosily by the fire with their mother. She resolves never to draw the curtains from now on so he can look all he likes but also insists he visit instead of just look. That evening, they go home in Laurie’s coach as Meg had sprained her ankle.
Not everything about the girls is kindness and sunshine, though, for soon enough, in Chapter 3, they share their burdens with us. Meg wishes she did not have to work and could spend her days like the other girls. Jo is a companion to their rich relative, Aunt March, and thoroughly dislikes her sour disposition. Beth is shy to the point of being frightened. And Amy is a favourite amongst her classmates and a fantastic artist but severely dislikes her nose, which had not grown an aristocratic tip yet. At the same time, however, they realise that in each of their desired lives lays a burden they do not wish to carry. Gently nudged by Marmee, they find their way back to being good little pilgrims.
Their friendship with Laurie turns stronger when Jo visits him during his convalescence and reads to him. Thus begin regular visits between the two households. During one, the older Mr. Laurence visits them and speaks of his piano, which has no one to play it. Always coming to everyone’s rescue, Beth offers to play the piano, if no one would mind her coming in and out. Thereon begins musical evenings in the Laurence household that everyone cherishes but says nothing about lest shy Beth take flight. As a token of her gratitude for the use of the piano, Beth knits Mr. Laurence a pair of slippers, a gesture at which Mr. Laurence is so overcome that he sends her a note expressing his immense gratitude accompanied by a cabinet piano complete with a stool. In his note, he also tells Beth about his own little girl, the original owner of the piano, whom he loved momentously and had tragically lost.
This heart-warming incident is followed by Amy’s abject humiliation at being caught with the pickled limes she smuggled into school. Mr. Davis was tipped off by a rival of Amy’s, and he punishes her severely for breaking the “no limes in school” rule. He strikes her palm as a punishment and makes her stand in front of the class until recess. She vows never to return to the school. Marmee does not approve of her breaking the rules but neither does she approve of striking a child, so she sends Mr. Davis a note withdrawing Amy from the school.
In another reference to The Pilgrim’s Progress, Laurie invites Meg and Jo to see The Seven Castles. Being thoroughly un-entertained after her withdrawal from school, Amy insists on going but is refused as she was not invited. She threatens Jo with consequences and acts on those by burning the book Jo had been writing. Jo is so angry with her that she does not speak to her for days. The silence breaks the day Amy follows Jo and Laurie to the frozen lake. Jo does not pass on Laurie’s advice on skating to the sides of the lake, and Amy falls in where the ice is thin. Laurie and Jo manage to pull her out, but Jo is so ashamed at having endangered Amy’s life that she asks Marmee for help with her temper. Marmee is only too glad to share her own struggles with a quick temper and munificently shares how she manages hers.
By and by, it is Meg’s turn to learn some harsh lessons. She is invited to stay at Annie Moffat’s place for a fortnight, which is an eye-opening experience for her. She realises that opulence does not necessarily equal a kind disposition and finds the Moffats to be worldly-wise but completely lacking in other virtues exalted by her parents. She is disturbed at being taken in by their offer to dress her up. She also feels robbed of her innocence when she hears Mrs. Moffat speaking about her mother’s “plans” regarding their association with the Laurences. Marmee hears all about her daughter’s experience and praises her for beginning an honest discussion. She then tells Meg and Jo that she does have plans but not the kind that Mrs Moffat was insinuating. She intends to bring her girls up to be pleasant and industrious and value love of good character above love of money.
Dickens and secret societies were the order of the day, and the girls are no different. They form a secret society named after the first novel of Charles Dickens and each adopt a character. They meet each week and produce a weekly newsletter under their pseudonyms. Laurie is admitted into the society after much discussion about adhering to the rules and becomes a valuable member.
Summer rolls around quickly, and the girls fall into the temptation of dropping their pilgrim’s loads to rest a bit. They decide that for a week they will not do any chores and will only indulge themselves. This arrangement works for a couple of days before annoyance and boredom set in. Jo cooks a disastrous meal on Hannah’s day off, and Pip the bird dies from not being fed. The lesson of balance is quickly learnt, and all four girls commit to furthering some skills to employ their holidays well.
Summer is also a time of visits, and the girls join Laurie for a day out with Mr. Brooke and some friends visiting from England. Mr. Brooke displays protectiveness towards Meg for the first time. Towards the end of the summer, Laurie follows the girls to a hill where they sit, diligently working away at personal projects. He apologises for intruding but asks to be included when he learns this is their “Delectable Mountain” where they work away at their dreams and can see the “Celestial City” at which they intend to arrive. Laurie commits to bringing his projects here, too, and not being idle as was required on the “Delectable Mountain”.
Jo’s excitement at having her story accepted by the newspaper is soon dulled by the secret Laurie shares with her. He tells her Mr. Brooke has Meg’s missing glove and he thinks Brooke rather fancies Meg. She thinks this is awful but soon forgets all about it when her story is printed. The family celebrates seeing her name in print. All the joys and trifling worries are soon overcome by a telegram announcing that Mrs. March must travel to Washington, D.C. instantly as Mr. March is gravely ill. A shocked silence comes over the gentle household, and they all get busy in preparations for Marmee to leave.
Money is borrowed from Aunt March, and Mr. Laurence generously gives his best wine along with offering all manner of services to help out. Caught in a desperate desire to help, Jo sells her hair and offers the twenty-five dollars to Marmee. Mrs. March leaves with Mr. Brooke as an escort, feeling terrified for what she may find in Washington yet grateful they have so many friends willing to help and look after the girls in her absence. They exchange many letters, and each strives to set Marmee’s mind at ease that they were doing well. Trouble comes in twos, and Beth contracts scarlet fever from the Hummel baby she was looking after. Much to her chagrin, Amy is sent to stay with Aunt March. The two older girls and Hannah nurse Beth. Matters come to the point where Beth is so gravely ill that Laurie secretly telegrams Mrs. March to come home on the double. Beth makes a turn for the better just before Marmee arrives, and things began to feel more settled again.
As Christmas approaches, Laurie is up to mischief and sends a love note to Meg pretending to be Mr Brooke. After Meg happens to address Mr. Brooke on the matter, the trick is discovered, and Laurie’s mischief is revealed. Mrs. March has a stern word or two with him, and since he wouldn’t share the matter with his grandfather, he has a row with him, too. Jo manages to smooth the matter over between the two Laurence men, but the mischief is done and Meg is already thinking of Mr. Brooke.
Marmee then reveals that Mr. Brooke had sought their permission to court Meg. They approved on the condition that it was what Meg wanted and the wedding would take place in a few years. At a joyous Christmas celebration with the Laurences, Mr. March surprises the family by coming home with Mr. Brooke, his loyal escort by his side. After Christmas, when Mr. Brooke comes to speak to Meg about it, she torments him with her refusal. However, Aunt March walks in just then to meet her favourite nephew. Seeing Meg with Mr. Brooke, she threatens to not remember her in her will if she does not make a wealthy match. These inflammatory remarks cause Meg defend Mr. Brooke, and she inadvertently expresses her fondness for him and her lack of care of Aunt March’s money.
The curtain falls on a happy and content family including Jo, who was comforted by Laurie’s promise that he would always be by her side.
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