Amy borrows money from Meg in order to buy some pickled limes. Amy explains that limes are “the fashion” at her school, and that the girls trade them amongst themselves. Amy, as it turns out, is in debt for a lot of limes. Amy buys a whole bag of limes with the quarter Meg gives her, and her schoolmates regard her with sudden respect, with the hope that she’ll give them limes at lunchtime. Amy snubs one of her enemies – Jenny Snow, a girl who’d insulted Amy’s nose.
Amy’s status anxiety – her concern with her social standing and her own family’s social class – is front and center in this chapter. The limes serve as a silly but palpable metaphor for social currency. Amy is able to curry favors and gain social standing through the possession of these treasures. Amy indulges in some very unchristian behavior in snubbing Jenny – an act she will pay for dearly.
Amy is having a delightful day until Jenny raises her hand and tells their teacher, Mr. Davis, that Amy has pickled limes in her desk. Mr. Davis has outlawed pickled limes, and he’s furious to discover that Amy has disobeyed his rule. He forces Amy to throw the limes out the window into the snow, where they’re snatched up by a group of Irish children. He then beats the back of her hand with a ruler, and forces her to stand in front of the class until recess. Amy has never been struck in her life, and is utterly disgraced.
Poor Irish immigrants were commonplace in nineteenth century New England, and often their children didn’t enjoy the benefit of schooling – hence the convenient Irish children in the snow! Amy gets her just desserts for her sin of snubbing Jenny, and the loss of her limes means she’s back to being in the “lower class” of her school.
At recess, Amy runs home and tells her family what happened. Her family is incensed. Mrs. March agrees that Amy can take a vacation from school, given that she disagrees with corporal punishment and “Mr. Davis’s manner of teaching.” She also feels that Amy’s schoolmates are a bad influence. Mrs. March then says that Amy deserved to be punished for breaking the rules, and warns Amy that she is becoming conceited. Amy then realizes that although Laurie is quite accomplished and talented, he isn’t conceited, and that his modesty is part of his charm.
Taking a stand against corporal punishment was at the time a radical stance, one that reflected the real life influence of Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson Alcott. Mrs. March is also concerned with Amy becoming less Christian as a result of her time at school, and of indulging in fussy fashionable behaviors as a result. In spite of being rich, Laurie has managed to cultivate a moral character.