Chapter 40 Summary
In spite of their great sadness at Beth’s illness, the members of the March family work together to make the end of her life as pleasant as possible. They give her the nicest room in the house and surround her with all of her favorite things: her piano, her cats, her pictures, and so on. Everyone spends as much time as possible by her side, waiting on her or just talking.
Even now that her health is failing, Beth keeps constantly busy. She often makes little gifts for the children that walk by her house on the way to school. She knits mittens for a child who has none, makes a scrapbook for a little artist, and so on. Soon the children of the neighborhood begin to regard Beth as a kind of fairy godmother who knows what they want and gives it to them when they least expect it.
For months, this state of affairs is actually quite happy, and Beth often comments on the beauty of her life. Soon, however, she grows too weak to sew, read, or even talk. Pain takes over, and the family watches, unable to help. In the final weeks, her pain seems to subside a bit. When she is awake, she looks frail but ready.
Jo stays constantly by Beth’s side, refusing to leave even for an hour. She does not go to her bed to sleep, but dozes instead on the couch or on the floor. One night, Beth awakes and finds one of Jo’s poems on the nightstand. It is called “My Beth” and it describes how Beth is a model of goodness and courage for her sisters. Reading this poem reassures Beth, who has been worried that her life made too small a mark on the world. When Jo wakes up, she assures Beth that, to her family, her life has made an enormous mark indeed. This brings Beth a measure of peace. Beth knows the end is almost here, so she urges her sister to take care of their parents through their grief. Jo promises to try.
The narrator notes that, in books, death often happens with dramatic words and gestures. Beth’s death is not dramatic at all. As the spring grows warm and beautiful, her health fails completely, and she quietly dies. Her family grieves but feels comforted by their belief that she has gone to a better place. There her health cannot fail her, and she is at peace.