Key Plot Points
Last Updated on August 15, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1541
While we recommend reading Alcott’s Little Women in its entirety, we understand that your classroom may have time constraints. The following Key Plot Points are meant to guide you and your students to the most relevant parts of the text so you can plan your lessons most efficiently.
The Marches Give Away Their Christmas Breakfast (Part 1, Chapter 2): The March sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—live with their mother in a modest house. It is Christmas in the early 1860s, and the girls’ father is volunteering as a chaplain in the Civil War. Mrs. March, or “Marmee,” tells them that a nearby family, the Hummels, are starving. The girls enthusiastically give their Christmas breakfast to the Hummels and opt to eat bread and milk instead—an act that impresses their wealthy neighbor, Mr. Laurence. He rewards the girls with a lavish breakfast that includes ice cream and cake.
Jo and Laurie Dance at a New Years Eve Party (Part 1, Chapter 3): Meg and Jo, the oldest March sisters, are invited to a New Year’s Eve party at the wealthy Gardiners’ house. Jo, who is clumsy, burns the back of her dress while getting ready and must stand against a wall throughout the dance so that no one notices. Mr. Laurence’s nephew, Laurie, asks her to dance, and suggests that they go into the hallway when Jo reveals that her dress is damaged. They dance alone and spark up a great friendship.
Amy is Beaten at School (Part 1, Chapter 7): Each of the March sisters faces a personal struggle: Meg covets finery she cannot afford, Jo is hotheaded and tomboyish, Beth is shy and insecure, and Amy is vain and self-conscious about her family’s low social status. Amy asks Meg, who works as a governess, if she can borrow money. She has accumulated a significant debt of pickled limes, which are in fashion among her classmates, and must repay them. Limes are banned in Amy’s classroom, and upon discovering Amy’s, her teacher beats her palm with a switch. The March household is infuriated when they find out. Amy is allowed to stay home with Beth, who is too shy to go to school.
Jo’s Resentment Nearly Kills Amy (Part 1, Chapter 8): Amy is upset when she is not permitted to go to a play with Jo, Meg, and Laurie because she is sick. Jo snaps at Amy, who takes revenge by burning Jo’s manuscript. Jo is outraged and refuses to forgive Amy. The next day, Amy follows Jo and Laurie when they go ice-skating. Laurie warns Jo that the ice is thinning in the middle of the river, but Amy does not hear him and Jo does not tell her. Amy falls through the ice and Jo, terrified, forgives her at once and feels ashamed for letting her temper get out of hand.
Meg Stays with the Moffats (Part 1, Chapter 9): Meg spends two weeks with her friend, Annie Moffat, who comes from a rich family. The Moffats host multiple parties, and Meg feels insecure about her clothes. During the first party, she overhears her friends gossiping about her relationship with Laurie and about the simpleness of her dress. Meg is horrified and allows Annie to dress her up in an extravagant, low-cut gown for the next party. She receives a lot of attention, but Laurie—who is in attendance—tells her he dislikes “fuss and feathers.” Meg is ashamed of her vanity and is relieved to return home.
The March Sisters Meet with the Vaughns (Part 1, Chapter 12): The March sisters spend an afternoon in Longmeadow with Laurie, Mr. Brooke, Ned Moffat, Sallie Gardiner, and the Vaughns, who are Laurie’s English friends. Fred Vaughn cheats at a game of croquet with Jo, and Kate Vaughn looks down on Meg’s job as a governess. Mr. Brooke defends Meg and invites her to read a German passage. Kate shows off her own perfect German by reading a passage aloud; in contrast, Meg’s reading is error-ridden but emotional, and Mr. Brooke clearly enjoys it. When Kate leaves them, Mr. Brooke reflects that America is the best place for “us workers,” underscoring the key theme of hard work versus leisure in the novel.
Jo’s Story is Accepted by the Local Paper (Part 1, Chapter 14): Laurie notices Jo sneaking into an office building and offers to tell her a secret if she tells him what she is doing. She tells him that she submitted two stories to the local newspaper. In return, Laurie reveals the location of Meg’s missing glove. It is implied that the glove is being carried by Mr. Brooke, and Jo is displeased. A couple of weeks later, Jo is sent a copy of the newspaper in which one of her stories has been printed. Her family is delighted, and Jo looks forward to being paid for her writing.
Beth Contracts Scarlet Fever (Part 1, Chapters 17–18): Meg, Jo, and Amy succumb to laziness a week after their mother departs for Washington, D.C. Beth, however, remains industrious and keeps the Marches’ promise to help the Hummels while Mrs. March is away. Beth contracts scarlet fever from the Hummels’ baby and narrowly survives.
Amy Refines Her Manners Under Aunt March’s Influence (Part 1, Chapter 19): Amy stays with Aunt March while Beth is sick. She is overwhelmed by Aunt March’s expectations for her behavior, but she is delighted to learn that Aunt March plans to bequeath her a beautiful turquoise ring. Amy resolves to be obedient and pious in order to be worthy of such an extravagant gift.
Meg Marries Mr. Brooke (Part 2, Chapter 25): Despite her youthful aspirations of marrying a rich man, Meg falls in love with and happily marries Mr. Brooke. Their wedding is simple, with Meg wearing a modest dress and lilies of the valley in her braided hair. Despite initial misgivings, even Aunt March enjoys herself at the humble ceremony. The Marches say goodbye to Meg, who has now entered into the domestic realm of married life.
Jo Becomes a Novelist (Part 2, Chapter 27): Jo learns that she could make good money by writing sensational stories. She submits such a story for a contest and wins $100, which she uses to send Beth and Marmee to the seaside. Encouraged by the continued success of her sensational stories—and the income they provide—Jo finally submits her novel for publication. It is accepted on the condition that she revise heavily and cut the length of the book down by one third. She asks her family for advice on how to approach the endeavour, and in an attempt to please everyone, she rewrites to suit their particular tastes. Her novel is published and she is paid $300 but the work receives mixed—and contradictory—reviews, and Jo is frustrated to “be so misjudged.”
Jo Meets Professor Bhaer (Part 2, Chapter 33): Jo has gone to work as a governess at a boarding house in New York, so as to put distance between herself and Laurie. There, she meets Professor Bhaer—a German man who is in charge of caring for his orphaned nephews. Jo is impressed by his intelligence, humor, and popularity among the boarding house children. Their friendship begins to grow.
Laurie Proposes to Jo (Part 2, Chapter 35): Laurie graduates from university and professes his love for Jo. He wants to marry her and is devastated by her refusal. He suspects that she loves Professor Bhaer, which she vehemently denies. She assures him that he will fall in love with someone else, but Laurie insists that he cannot. He bids Jo farewell and accompanies Mr. Laurence to London.
Beth Dies (Part 2, Chapter 40): Beth never fully recovered her health after her bout of scarlet fever and the Marches know that she will die. They take special care to make her comfortable and to spend as much time with her as possible. Jo, in particular, spends all of her time with Beth, and resolves to take on Beth’s role in their family after her death. Beth dies while lying on her mother’s chest, on a spring morning, as the snowdrops bloom outside.
Laurie and Amy Elope (Part 2, Chapters 41–42): Laurie is surprised by how quickly his infatuation with Jo dwindles. Still, he writes her a letter in which he asks her one last time to marry him. Jo refuses and asks him to write to Amy about Beth’s failing health. Laurie has already become attached to Amy through their meetings in Europe, and their letters develop into an intimate correspondence. When Amy learns about Beth’s death, she turns to Laurie for comfort. They become engaged, elope abroad, and eventually return to the United States.
Jo Inherits Plumfield and Marries Professor Bhaer (Part 2, Chapter 47): Jo, who has accepted a marriage proposal from Professor Bhaer, is stunned to discover that Aunt March has left Plumfield to her. She decides to transform Plumfield into a school for boys. Jo and Professor Bhaer marry and have two sons, Rob and Teddy. Five years after their marriage, the Bhaers host a harvest party and everyone arrives with their families. Mrs. March is delighted by how her daughters’ lives have turned out and tells them that she “can never wish [them] a greater happiness than this!”