Chapter 4 Summary
The morning after the party, the girls go back to work and school. They all feel out of sorts, and Jo and Meg bicker as they walk to their jobs. Meg complains because, at the wealthy house where she tutors, she daily sees the children’s elder sisters display the pretty possessions she longs to have. Jo, meanwhile, is forced to spend her time running back and forth to satisfy the unfriendly Aunt March when she would much prefer to lounge around and read books.
Beth and Amy have a hard time, too. Beth desperately wants a nice piano and pretty music; however, unlike the others, she does not complain. She is a shy little girl who cannot stand to go to school, so she studies at home and looks after the house. She works hard to make everyone else happy, and she hopes quietly that her desire for music will someday be fulfilled. The narrator comments that the world contains many people like Beth, who spend all their time caring for others and rarely think of themselves. Such people are rarely noticed until their “sweet, shiny presence vanishes, leaving silence and shadow behind.”
Amy suffers because her nose is flat instead of pointed—a problem that matters little to anyone except her. She is well liked at school because she is smart and good at drawing. However, she is forced to wear a cousin’s ugly, cast-off clothes. This is a great embarrassment to her, especially when the richer girls tease her about it.
In the evening, each girl tells a story about her first day back at work or school. Jo tells how she read part of a popular novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, to Aunt March, who refused to admit that she liked it. Meg says the household where she works is in crisis because one of the elder brothers committed some grave sin. She says she is glad she does not have “wild brothers...to disgrace the family.” Amy speaks up next, saying that she envied a friend’s pretty ring all day but then felt differently when the girl got punished for bad behavior. Beth tells a story about a hungry woman who begged for food at the store.
After the stories are finished, Marmee finds morals in each of them. She explains that Meg’s story shows how wealth can fail to protect a family from shame; Jo’s shows how much better it is to be poor and happy than rich and sad; Beth’s shows how hard, honest work is easier than begging; and Amy’s shows how pretty possessions “are not so valuable as good behavior.” The girls tease Marmee for turning their own stories into sermons, but they also thank her for her gentle lessons.