Chapter 17 Summary
When Marmee has been gone a week, the girls begin to lose their resolve to be good. Perfect behavior is hard work, and they feel that they deserve a break. This feeling increases when they learn that Father’s condition is improving.
Jo gets lazy about covering her newly cropped head on chilly days, and she catches a bad cold. Aunt March tells her to stay home for a few days, and Jo does so—spending her time lounging and reading. Amy lets her housework lapse and does artwork instead. Meg keeps going to work every day, but at home she spends most of her time reading and rereading the letters she receives from Marmee, Father, and Mr. Brooke.
Beth alone does her duties faithfully. When her sisters neglect their housework, she does it for them. When she grows sad and lonely, she sneaks away to cry by herself. But her work keeps her busy, so her low moments are relatively rare. Her mood is generally steady, and the other girls seek her out when they need comfort.
One day Beth asks her sisters to pay a visit to the Hummels, the poor family Marmee has been helping since the Christmas breakfast at the beginning of the book. Meg says she is too tired from her work. Jo says she cannot go outdoors because of her cold—even though she just went out with Laurie a few hours ago. Beth explains that she has checked on the Hummels every day since Marmee left and that she is very worried about them. The baby is sick, and she is beginning to feel sick too.
Meg and Jo promise to visit the Hummels later, but they both forget. Beth sees this; even though she does not feel well, she goes to visit them herself. A while later, she returns home in tears and runs upstairs. When Jo asks what is wrong, Beth explains that the Hummels’ baby died in her arms. The child had scarlet fever. Beth has never had scarlet fever, and she is afraid that she may be growing ill.
Jo is furious with herself and with Meg for not taking care of the Hummels as they should have done. Jo and Meg have both had scarlet fever, so they are immune. Now Beth is in danger because of their laziness. Hannah calls a doctor, and Jo resolves to nurse her sister faithfully through her illness. Amy, to her dismay, is sent to Aunt March’s house to keep her out of danger.