The night before her birthday, Jo sits on the old sofa and reflects on her life. She’s turning twenty-five, and she speculates that she’s destined for life as a “literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse….” She drifts off to sleep.
It’s worth noting that Alcott herself was a “literary spinster.” Although she had a number of romances throughout her life, she never married.
Jo awakens soon after to find Laurie standing before her. Laurie reveals that he and Amy eloped while they were in Europe. Laurie tells Jo that he still loves her, but his love for her is “altered;” he no longer has romantic feelings for her. He begs Jo to let things be as they once were. Jo warns him that they can “never be boy and girl again,” and that they are “man and woman now, with sober work to do...we must give up frolicking.” Laurie quietly accepts this state of affairs.
By “frolicking,” Jo refers to the innocent play and flirtation that she and Laurie used to engage in. Because Jo has assumed her role as a grown woman (rather than an overgrown girl), she sees that the most virtuous path is to take on a different sort of relationship with Laurie based on their adult selves.
The whole family, accompanied by Mr. Laurence, enters the parlor. Amy’s European airs are noted by the Marches, and Jo notes that she and Laurie look wonderful together. The party goes upstairs, leaving Jo alone. She feels sorry for herself (for she feels Laurie has abandoned her), but her sorrow is interrupted by a knock on the door. Jo is ecstatic to discover that it’s Professor Bhaer. He reveals that business has brought him to her city.
Amy seems like the perfect match for Laurie, insofar as she can wrap herself in the illusion of being from the upper class. Jo’s despair can be seen as patriarchal, insofar as she needs a man in her life in order to be happy. (She is despondent when Laurie abandons her; ecstatic when Bhaer arrives.)
Jo invites him in and introduces him to her family. They welcome him as one of their own, and they feel “all the more friendly because he was poor.” Professor Bhaer falls into a conversation with Mr. March, and Jo considers how much her father would love to have the professor to talk with every day. Jo also takes note that the professor has dressed up as much as he can, as if “he’d been going a-wooing.” Jo’s family approves of the professor – Mr. March suspects that he is “a wise man.”
Bhaer is seen as a virtuous and good person as a result of his poverty. Bhaer’s father figure status is reinforced by Jo’s musings that her father would love to talk to him. One could say that Bhaer is simply a younger version of Jo’s own father, given that he’s bearded, poor, pious, and highly intelligent.