Chapter 36 Summary
Beth looks much weaker and sicker than she did before Jo left for New York. Jo notices this at once when she arrives home, and then she is distracted by her problems with Laurie. When he leaves, she turns her attention back to Beth. Jo confesses to Marmee about the trashy stories she published in New York. Jo still has all of the money she earned, so she decides to pay for a trip to the seaside for Beth’s health. Marmee refuses to go, preferring instead to stay near Meg’s babies, so Jo takes Beth herself.
Neither Beth nor Jo takes any part in the social life at the shore. Beth is too shy, and Jo is too busy caring for Beth. However, the other vacationers watch the two sisters with compassion, noting the differences between the strong sister and the weak one, wondering if the two of them know what seems apparent: Beth is too weak to live much longer.
As the days pass and Beth’s health fails to improve, Jo begins to suspect that her sister is going to die. One day, while Beth rests with her head on Jo’s lap outdoors, Jo is overcome with sadness. Beth looks up, sees the look on her sister’s face, and says, “Jo, dear, I’m glad you know it.” She has known for a long time that she is dying, but she has been reluctant to burden her family with the knowledge.
As it turns out, Beth's sadness last autumn was the result of her growing sense that she was dying. Jo is shocked to learn that her sister lived with that feeling for so long without telling anyone. Jo confesses that she thought Beth's sadness was the result of an unrequited love for Laurie. This idea shocks Beth, who is clearly unable to imagine wanting the lover she always thought Jo wanted. Jo is glad that Beth has been spared the unhappiness of heartbreak.
Musingly, Beth says that she never really imagined growing up, getting married, and living an adult life the way her sisters always did. Now she wonders if she simply was not meant to grow old. She is getting used to the idea of dying, and she does not mind it. “The only hard part now is the leaving you all,” she says.
Beth begs Jo to tell Marmee and Father what is happening. She cannot do it herself, and she wants the family to know. Jo agrees but says that her parents may see the truth for thesmselves. Indeed, when the girls arrive home, their parents see immediately that Beth has not improved. After Jo takes Beth upstairs to bed, she goes to her parents and finds them already grieving.