Chapter 15 A Telegram
On a gray November day, just as Marmee arrives home, a telegram arrives from Washington Hospital informing Marmee that Father is very ill, and asking her to come at once. Mother, the girls, and Hannah feel the world changing. They gather in fear and hope, until Hannah recovers and finds work a cure for despair. All start running errands and making preparations. Mr. Laurence offers himself as an escort, but as he is too old, he insists that Mr. Brooke go instead. Meg is the first to learn of this, and is deeply grateful to him. Aunt March sends money with a chiding note.
Late that afternoon, Jo finally returns from town with a queer expression and $25, a significant sum of money. Everyone is shocked to learn she has sold her hair, in order to make Father comfortable and bring him home. She had to convince the barber to take it, helped by his wife, who had a son in the war. The family eats and prepares for bed, despite their concerns for Father.
Chapter 16 Letters
The early morning finds the girls diligently reading their guidebooks, seeking comfort in their time of worry. The girls agree to say goodbye to Marmee cheerfully, and not add to her woes. She leaves them in Hannah’s care and Mr. Laurence’s protection. She encourages them to stay busy with work and not to grieve or fear too heavily, Mr. Brooke takes Mrs. March to the train station in a carriage, and the girls turn to their work. When they see that Marmee had mended their stockings before leaving, they all cry together at her thoughtfulness. Hannah treats them with coffee, and then the girls go off to their days, Meg at the Kings, Jo to Aunt March, and Beth and Amy to help Hannah at home.
Mr. Brooke sends a telegraph as soon as they arrive in Washington, reporting that Mr. March is on the mend, and daily reports following. The girls are relieved that Father is mending, and all write of how Meg is acting as head of the house, Jo throwing herself haphazardly into work, Beth helping Hannah most with errands and chores, Amy staying sweet, Mr. Laurence sending over anything he can, and Laurie keeping everyone lively and as merry as possible.
Chapter 17 Little Faithful
After a week of their tremendous hard work and virtue, the girls become a little less faithful. Jo catches cold, Amy returns to her art, and Meg spends much time rereading Mr. Brooke’s dispatches and writing to her Mother.
Beth keeps up with her chores and does many of her sisters’ as well. She goes to see the Hummels every day, but when the baby gets sick, she asks Meg or Jo to go instead, to try to help. They all put it off until later, until Beth decides to go herself, despite feeling tired and achy. She returns home that evening, and Jo finds her in the medicine closet, reading about scarlet fever. The Hummel baby had died in her arms while the mother had gone to get the doctor, and when the doctor returned, he sent Beth home to take belladonna to prevent getting sick. Jo feels guilty and responsible for letting Beth go, rather than going herself. She wakes Hannah, who reassures everyone that Beth will be all right.
Jo and Meg had scarlet fever when they were babies, but Amy is sent to Aunt March’s to prevent getting sick. She refuses to go, until Laurie promises to come visit her every day. Jo becomes Beth’s nurse. Hannah says that, as Beth will be all right, they should not tell Mother and Father, who will just be anxious. They were instructed to mind Hannah, so the girls obey, despite disliking lying and being worried about Beth.
Chapter 18 Dark Days
In fact, Beth is quite sick, but Hannah tries to maintain a hopeful front. It is during Beth’s illness that many come to appreciate the importance of her sweet, selfless role in their lives. Jo, nursing Beth, has her rough was softened by Beth's tenderness and virtue. The girls are surprised by how many friends shy Beth has, when the milkman and grocer ask after her. When Beth grows delirious, the girls beg to write to Mother, and Hannah says she will consider it, but the decision is made harder when a letter comes saying Mr. March has had a relapse and Mother is needed there.
On the first day of December, Dr. Bangs decides that it is time to send for Mrs. March. Jo sends the telegram and returns to find Laurie with a letter saying Mr. March is on the mend. She cries to Laurie, who comforts her and brings her a little medicinal wine. He then confesses that he had grown impatient with Hannah and had disobeyed her orders and sent for Mrs. March the day previously, and that she would arrive late that night. Jo, ecstatic, hugs Laurie, who timidly kisses Jo, who quickly remembers herself, blames the wine, and sends him off to rest. The news that Mother is coming sends a wave of fresh air through the house, and even Hannah is relieved. Beth, however, is still in the throng of the fever, unmoving and unwell. At two o’clock in the morning, Beth suddenly looks peaceful and free of pain, and Jo begins to mourn her loss. Hannah, waking, realizes that the fever has finally passed, and Beth is beginning to get well. Dr. Bangs confirms Hannah’s belief, and they girls keep a long vigil until their mother arrives a few hours later.
Chapter 19 Amy’s Will
While life at home during Beth’s illness is trying for the girls, life for Amy with Aunt March is also difficult for her. Aunt March cares for Amy, but tries to raise her on discipline and demands, rather than the loving kindness to which Amy is accustomed. With Aunt March, Amy must do an extraordinary amount of housework, sewing, reading aloud, lessons, and has precious few moments of free time. Laurie keeps his promise to come every day to drive with her.
The maid Esther is very kind to her, showing her all of Aunt March’s possessions and jewelry boxes. Amy wonders where everything will go when Aunt March dies, and Esther explains that Aunt March’s will gives the jewelry to Amy and her sisters. Amy is to receive the turquoise ring, for Aunt March favors her. Learning this, Amy resolves to be good and earn the ring. Esther sets up Amy’s dressing room as a space for prayer and meditation, which is a great comfort to Amy. In her quest to be good, Amy decides to write a will, with Esther’s help, and asks Laurie to be a witness. Laurie mentions that Beth, feeling ill one day, had promised away her things as well. Amy, inspired by Beth’s goodness, asks that all of her curls be cut off and locks distributed to her friends, making a great sacrifice.
In this darker section of the book, the March family is threatened on several fronts. At first, when Marmee leaves, they turn to work, which Hannah considers Hannah considers a "panacea for most afflictions." Jo writes an ode to work and its ability to sweep out thoughts of sorrow from her mind. Yet after some time they relax. The experiment over vacation foreshadowed the girls' attempts to get on without Marmee; in that instance, Beth's bird was the victim, whereas in this case Beth herself falls ill.
Several of the sisters turn to their faith. The morning Marmee departs, all the girls read their guidebooks with greater attention and care. Marmee reminds them that whatever happens, they "can never be fatherless." Amy truly develops her faith in this section, in her chapel in Aunt March's house. Jo, who feels guilty for Beth's illness, questions her faith, feeling that she can't find God, and that the good and dear people die first. Laurie, though, comforts Jo, assuring her that God won't take Beth yet. Laurie's comfort helps bring Jo closer to God.
The experience also brings Mr. Brooke closer into the family. By naming him "Greatheart", the sisters include him in their Pilgrim's Progress play, a special cohort. The dramatic irony of the previous section is enhanced here -- now, the readers' knowledge of John's feelings for Meg allows us to understand the significance not only of his actions, but of hers as well. As Meg appreciates Mr. Brooke escorting her mother, rereading his dispatches from Washington, and dreaming of brown eyes, we realize she is falling in love with him before she does.
Jo also has a brief experience with romance when she flies at Laurie after he sends for her mother. She blames the wine for making her hysterical, reflecting Alcott's views on alcohol, and rejects Laurie's affections beyond friendship, as she will throughout the book.
By including letters, Alcott provides unique insight into their individual voices and styles. This is the longest excerpt of Hannah's dialect that the reader sees. The letters serve to deepen the characterization of the family members by illustrating their distinct cares and modes of expression. The inclusion of Hannah's, Laurie's, and Mr. Laurence's letters demonstrates the expansion of the March family to include dear friends, particularly in this time of crisis.
This section emphasizes the nobility of Beth's selflessness, which all learn from. Jo insists that Beth's illness is her fault, and devotes herself to nursing Beth back to health. In this, and in cutting her hair to send money to her Father, Jo appreciates the sweetness of making sacrifices to help the ones she loves. Meg learns to value the blessings of a happy home no money can buy, and Amy explicitly vows to imitate Beth and be less selfish, beginning with her will. The experience of Beth's sickness - particularly when Jo believes she has died, when indeed the fever has passed - foreshadows her eventual death.