In spite of keeping quite busy in her work as a governess, Jo still makes time to write stories for money. “She saw that money conferred power, money and power, therefore, she resolved to have, not to be used just for herself alone, but for those whom she loved more than life.”
Jo recognizes that money is power – moreover, it is a power that’s typically wielded by men. Beauty and refinement offer power to women in a patriarchal society; because Jo lacks these, she seeks power in a different (arguably more potent) way.
Jo “dresses herself in her best” and goes to the offices of the Weekly Volcano with her latest sensation story. Jo tells the editor that “her friend” would like to publish the story. The editor gruffly takes her manuscript and chuckles over her ruse. Jo leaves feeling embarrassed and nettled.
Jo is nervous about admitting that she herself wrote the story given that it’s full of sensational filth (most likely murder, scandal, and romance). She worries that she’ll be considered an immoral woman.
In spite of her less than desirable welcome at the Weekly Volcano’s offices, Jo is pleased to learn, the following week, that the editor will pay her “twenty-five to thirty” for her story. She’s crestfallen and confused, however, that the editor has chosen to cut out all references to morals in her story.
Jo’s inclusion of morals in her sensational stories is her way of attempting to be true to her Christian upbringing. It is understood that she’s compromising her morals by accepting money for the edited story.
Jo continues to write stories, and soon she has made a tidy sum from her writing. She can’t help but feel, though, that her parents would not approve of her stories. Her character begins to be affected by the subject matter of her stories. “She was living in bad society, and imaginary though it was, its influence affected her….”
In the world of Little Women, association with unsavory people or ideas is dangerous. Simply by writing stories about criminals and villains, Jo opens herself up to moral corruption.
Meanwhile, Jo studies Professor Bhaer, trying to discern what it is that makes him so attractive to everyone in his wake. Jo concludes that even though Professor Bhaer is poor and none too handsome, his “genuine good will” toward humanity was able to beautify and dignify him.
Mr. Bhaer serves as a role model to Jo at this point. She recognizes that his simple, natural, Christian goodness is enough to give him beauty. Again, note that there is no passion in Jo’s admiration of Bhaer.
A well-connected lady at the boarding house takes Jo to a symposium featuring a number of literary and philosophical luminaries. Jo is shocked to discover that many of her idols are flawed – a great novelist is drinking to excess, a famous divine (a clergyman) is flirting shamelessly, etc.
Alcott may well be mining her own experiences growing up around famed Gilded Age luminaries such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson in this scathing party scene. Again, the idea that poverty and hard work breeds virtue is at play in this scene (the luminaries are flawed in part because they’re famous and wealthy).
Professor Bhaer joins the ladies. Nearby, several philosophers begin talking about the possibility that God doesn’t exist. Professor Bhaer is furious, and staunchly defends the existence of God. As she listens to him, Jo is relieved to find that “God was not a blind force, and immortality not a pretty fable, but a blessed fact.” Jo is deeply impressed, and leaves the party thinking “character is a better possession than money, rank, intellect, or beauty….”
Conversations such as this were commonplace among intellectuals in the Gilded Age. Alcott rejects this notion, steadfastly advocating for the character-building benefits of Christian beliefs and ideals. It’s worth recalling that Jo’s father is a minister; Bhaer must strike Jo as a kind of father figure in this scene.
Professor Bhaer has taken it upon himself to teach Jo German. One evening, he arrives to their lesson wearing a paper hat (a gift from one of his students). Jo breaks out in laughter, and Professor Bhaer removes the hat from his head. Jo realizes that the hat is made from a paper that prints sensational stories, and she blushes. Professor Bhaer realizes that Jo must be writing sensational stories, and he feels it’s his duty to protect Jo from harm. He denounces sensational stories, and throws the paper hat in the fire.
Again, Professor Bhaer takes the role of father figure in Jo’s life. He’s not only taking it upon himself to tutor Jo in German; he assumes it is also his role to teach her about morality as well. Jo’s subservience to Bhaer is strongly in line with the accepted role of women in the 19th century.
Jo returns to her room that night and, upon further reflection, realizes that she’s writing nothing but trash. “I’ve gone blindly on,” she thinks, “hurting myself and other people, for the sake of money.”
It’s assumed that just the simple act of reading pulp fiction will lead to the corruption of one’s character.
Jo attempts to write in other genres, but is unable to come up with anything good. She resolves to set writing aside for a time, with the hope that someday she might try again afresh.
Jo’s abandonment of her writing is troubling, insofar as she’s done it not simply in order to be more virtuous, but in order to please the patriarch in her life (Bhaer).
Winter and spring pass, and Jo readies herself to leave for home in June. Before she leaves, she invites Professor Bhaer to visit her in a month, when Laurie graduates. Professor Bhaer seems troubled by the mention of Laurie, and he politely turns down her invitation. That night, Professor Bhaer resigns himself to the thought that Jo doesn’t love him. Meanwhile, Jo is left with the feeling that she’s made a wonderful friend, and she hopes to keep him all her life.
The fact that Jo doesn’t recognize that Bhaer is in love with her is another indication of the lack of passion in their relationship. Contrast this with Laurie’s ardor, which Jo is very much aware of, to the point where she feels anxiety about it.