The holiday is over, and the March girls have to return to their work. “Oh dear, how hard it does seem to take up our packs and go on,” Meg sighs. Jo and Meg trudge off to work. It’s revealed that the March family was once comfortably well off until Mr. March “lost his property in trying to help an unfortunate friend.” After this happened, Jo and Meg resolved to do their best to support themselves. Meg works as a governess for the Kings, and while she’s happy with her position she often finds herself coveting the wealth and ease enjoyed by the family she works for. Jo, on the other hand, works for crabby (and wealthy) Aunt March.
The virtue of work is emphasized throughout Little Women, and it is indeed the focus of this chapter. Even though the March girls long for the comfort of their former lives, work will prove to have a virtuous effect on their characters. It will teach them the Transcendentalist ideals of self-reliance and individualism, as well as the Christian virtues of humility, modesty, and industriousness.
Beth, meanwhile, is too shy to attend school, so she stays at home and helps the March’s lone servant, Hannah, with the housework. She also cares for a cadre of dolls. Beth secretly longs to take proper music lessons, and wishes her family could afford a better (and fully functional) piano.
Beth is, in many ways, the most traditionally feminine of the March girls, given that her realm is the home. Her seemingly effortless virtue will be revisited throughout the book. Here, even when she’s selfish, she longs for something wholesome that would benefit her whole family.
Amy, on the other hand, feels her greatest burden is her nose, which she believes does not look classically Grecian and is therefore unattractive. She harbors artistic ambitions, and spends many an hour sketching. Amy is vain and puts on airs – however, her attempts at using large words are viewed as “elegant” by her schoolmates, as are her tales of her family’s former wealth (which she is too young to actually remember).
Amy, meanwhile, is preoccupied with her looks – one of her moral failings in the scope of the book. Her desire to be accepted by her schoolmates will prove to be a lifelong pursuit, as she eventually goes on to attempt to be accepted by the upper classes in spite of her modest means.
Jo and Meg return home from work and rehash the day’s events. Jo tells of how she tricked Aunt March into reading a romance novel instead of a book of boring essays. Jo remarks that she’s puzzled by how dour and unhappy Aunt March seems. “What a pleasant life she might have if she only chose!” she says. This reminds Meg of her day at the Kings’ – evidently, the Kings’ oldest son had been disgraced at school, which threw his family into an uproar. Beth quietly chimes in with a pleasant story – earlier that day, she witnessed old Mr. Laurence buying a huge fish for a poor woman who was begging at the fish market.
Wealthy Aunt March operates as a cautionary tale about the moral depravity of a life lived without industriousness or gratitude. Jo is able to identify her aunt’s moral failings given that she has the advantage (in Alcott’s thinking) of being impoverished and employed The question of whether the middle and upper classes can embody virtue is at stake in this passage. The Kings seem as fallible as any, in spite of their wealth. Beth’s story reminds the girls that the wealthy can embody virtue if they are industrious and generous.
Mrs. March, who has been quietly listening the whole time, gathers the girls around her and tells them a fairy tale about four young girls who learn to count their blessings. The March girls realize that their mother has turned their stories into a sermon about gratitude in the face of adversity, and they take to heart their mother’s lesson.
Mrs. March acts as a surrogate for Mr. March (who is a pastor). She again acts as a moral compass for the girls, guiding them to follow Christian principles. The girls learn that their poverty helps them to be more virtuous.