What happens in Little Women?

Little Women follows the March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, who live with their mother during the Civil War. After their father falls ill, Beth contracts scarlet fever, and their family suffers much financial hardship. In the end, the three surviving March sisters are able to build happy lives for themselves.

  • Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March grow up in Plumfield, where their family regularly struggles to make ends meet. When their father falls ill, Jo sells her long, beautiful hair so that their mother, Marmee, can travel to be with their father.

  • In Marmee's absence, Beth contracts scarlet fever and eventually dies. Later, Meg marries, Jo moves to New York City, and Amy leaves home to live in Paris. Laurie, a family friend who was once in love with Jo, ends up marrying Amy.

  • Jo meets and marries a man named Professor Baehr, with whom she establishes a school on the estate of her late aunt. In the end, the three surviving March sisters are content in their new lives.

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The March family lives in a small house next door to the Laurence mansion, where young Theodore Laurence, known as Laurie, and his aged grandfather have only each other for company. Old Mr. Laurence is wealthy, and he indulges every wish of his grandson, but often Laurie is lonely. When the lamps are lit and the shades are up in the March house, he can see the four March sisters, with their mother in the center, seated around a cheerful fire. He learns to know them by name before he meets them, and, in his imagination, he almost feels himself a member of the family.

The oldest is plump Meg, who has to earn her living as the governess of a group of unruly youngsters in the neighborhood. Next is Jo, tall, awkward, and tomboyish, who likes to write and who spends all her spare time devising plays and entertainments for her sisters. Then there is gentle Beth, the homebody, content to sit knitting by the fire or to help her mother take care of the house. The youngest is curly-haired Amy, a schoolgirl who dreams of someday becoming a famous artist like Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci. The sisters’ father is away, serving as an army chaplain during the Civil War.

At Christmastime, the girls are confronted with the problem of what to do with the dollar that Marmee, as they call their mother, has said they might spend. At first, each thinks only of her own pleasure, but all end by buying a gift for Marmee instead. On Christmas morning, they insist on sharing their breakfast with the Hummels, a poor family in the neighborhood, and for this unselfishness they are rewarded when Mr. Laurence sends over a surprise Christmas feast consisting of ice cream and bonbons along with four bouquets of flowers for the table.

Many happy days follow, with Laurie becoming a part of the March family circle after he meets Jo at a fashionable New Year’s Eve dance. In November, however, a telegram brings a message that the girls’ father is critically ill. Mrs. March does not know what to do. She feels that she should go to her husband at once, but she has barely five dollars in her purse. She is hesitant about going to her husband’s wealthy, irascible relative Aunt March for help. Jo solves the problem by selling her long, beautiful chestnut hair, which has been her only vanity, for twenty-five dollars. She makes the sacrifice willingly, but that night, after the others have gone to bed, Meg hears Jo weeping softly. Gently, Meg asks if Jo is crying over her father’s illness, and Jo sobs that it is not her father she is crying for now, but for her hair.

During Marmee’s absence, dark days fall upon the little women. Beth, who has never been strong, contracts scarlet fever, and for a time it looks as if Jo is going to lose her dearest sister. They send for Marmee, but by the time she arrives, the crisis has passed and her little daughter is better. By the next Christmas, Beth is her old contented self again. Mr. March surprises them all when he returns home from the...

(The entire section is 1,902 words.)