Beth has become quite ill, and is under the constant care of Jo, Hannah, and the doctor. Meanwhile, Mrs. March has written to tell the girls that their father has relapsed. In nursing Beth, Jo grows to appreciate her sister’s sweet, simple, and pious nature. Beth grows more and more ill, and eventually lapses into a semi-conscious state.
The pious invalid often serves as a model to those around him/her. As such, Jo recognizes in Beth the characteristics (faith, piety, humility, simplicity, industriousness) she herself wishes to embody.
On the first of December, the doctor looks in on Beth and tells Hannah that Mrs. March must be sent for. Jo runs out the door to send a telegram. She bumps into Laurie when she returns, and she tells him that she’s sent for Marmee, and about Beth’s worsening condition. Tears stream down her face as she talks, and Laurie bids Jo to hold on to him for comfort. They embrace.
Overwhelmed by grief and panic, Jo forgets herself for a moment and allows herself to seek physical comfort in the arms of Laurie (something that a good Christian girl wouldn’t normally do). This offers some foreshadowing of how their relationship will unfold in the future.
He then reveals that he’s already contacted Mrs. March, and that she’s scheduled to arrive that very night. Jo throws herself into Laurie’s arms in relief and joy. Laurie, unsure of what to do, kisses her bashfully as she holds him. Jo snaps to attention after she’s been kissed.
Male decision-making once again overrides female decisions as Laurie reveals that he’s sent for Mrs. March. Jo is so simple and innocent, she has a hard time understanding why Laurie would kiss her.
News of Mrs. March’s imminent arrival spreads throughout the house, and hope is renewed. Beth’s pet bird begins chirping again, and a half-blown rose is discovered outside, which are seen as good omens. Beth, meanwhile, is unconscious. The doctor believes that Beth will undergo “some change, for better or worse” around midnight.
A half-opened rose seems to symbolize burgeoning hope; it could also symbolize Beth’s beauty and simplicity. Birds are often associated with Beth throughout the text; the bird in this instance seems to indicate the possibility of Beth’s recovery.
The whole household stays up to keep watch over Beth that night. When midnight strikes, Jo sees Meg kneeling with her face hidden. Jo suddenly fears that Beth has died and Meg cannot bring herself to tell Jo. Jo rushes to Beth’s side and sees that all traces of Beth’s illness are gone – Beth once again looks rosy and peaceful. Jo assumes Beth is dead, and kisses her forehead while whispering her goodbye. Hannah awakes at that moment, sees Beth’s change, and joyously declares that her “fever’s turned.”
In 19th century America, death was (unfortunately) a large part of everyday life. Readers at that time would have read scenes such as this –with loving family members praying by an ailing family member’s bedside – as commonplace. Beth’s “false death” in this scene can be seen as the death of the old, healthy Beth. Shadows of her illness will follow her for the remainder of her life.
Dawn is breaking. Meg brings Jo the rose that they’d found in the garden. “I thought this would hardly be ready to lay in Beth’s hand tomorrow if she – went away from us. But it has blossomed in the night,” she says. She places it in a vase, so Beth can see it when she wakes. Outside, the girls hear sleigh bells, and Laurie calls from outside to announce Mrs. March’s arrival.
The rose, symbolizing Beth’s simplicity, genuineness, and natural beauty (both physical and spiritual), has fully bloomed, indicating that Beth is on the mend. This test of familial love will shape the March girls’ futures.