November. Meg is complaining about how dull and full of drudgery her life is. Amy posits that she and Jo will someday make a fortune for the Marches through their art, but Meg remains skeptical. Meanwhile, Mrs. March and Laurie come home. All is normal until Hannah bursts in with news of a telegram. Mrs. March snatches the paper from Hannah’s hand. She learns that Mr. March is in a hospital in Washington, D.C. and is very ill.
The importance of work is strongly emphasized in this chapter. Meg’s complaints about her drudgery will soon seem sinful when it becomes clear that her father’s life is in danger; she will soon be thankful for her hard-working nature. It’s worth noting that disease ran rampant through Civil War camps.
The March family, although overcome with grief, quickly springs to action. Hannah (for whom “work was panacea for most afflictions”) encourages Mrs. March to get ready to leave for Washington right away. Laurie rushes off to send a telegram to Washington, and Mrs. March makes plans to leave on the early morning train.
The healing power of work is showcased in this scene, where the family’s initial grief is staved off by the virtuous power of hard work.
Mr. Laurence returns to the Marches’ house with Beth, who had gone to him for a couple bottles of wine for Mr. March. Mr. Laurence offers Mrs. March everything he has at his disposal, and promises to keep an eye on the girls while Mrs. March goes away. Meanwhile, Meg almost runs into Mr. Brooke as she’s rushing about the house. Mr. Brooke informs her that he will offer himself as an escort to Mrs. March, as Mr. Laurence has business in Washington that Mr. Brooke needs to look into.
Although the power of women is often showcased in Little Women, there is also a consistent reminder that men are the ones who, ultimately, have the control. The women are able to take care of themselves to a point, but Mr. Laurence is able to provide the actual means (money, social position) to get things done.
The afternoon quickly passes as preparations are made for Mrs. March’s departure. Jo is gone all afternoon, and the Marches begin to worry about her. She returns, finally, and places twenty-five dollars cash before her mother. Mrs. March is taken aback – where did Jo get the money? Jo swears she came by the money honestly, and then removes her bonnet to reveal that she’s cropped and sold her “one beauty”: her hair.
Case in point: The only way Jo is able to contribute money to her father’s cause is by literally selling part of her body. In the patriarchal world of the Gilded Age, a woman’s chief financial asset was her body. Jo has sacrificed her one source of natural beauty in order to fulfill what she sees as her daughterly duty.
Addressing her stunned family, Jo tells the story of how she sold her hair. Mrs. March isn’t upset, but does worry that Jo will regret her decision. Later that night, Jo cries into her pillow about her lost hair. Meg overhears her and comforts her. Jo swears she doesn’t regret her decision. The girls anxiously lie awake, worrying about their father.
In a traditional patriarchal society, a woman’s value is tied to her beauty. In worrying about Jo’s hair, Mrs. March is ultimately concerned that Jo has lowered her value. Even though Jo often thwarts patriarchal gender norms, she finds it hard not to feel remorse.