Chapter 31 Our Foreign Correspondent
We learn of Amy’s travels through her letters home. She describes the ship to Ireland and the train to London in picturesque detail, her artistic eye soaking up the colors and scenery. She enjoys traveling very much, including the attentions of several gentlemen along the way. London is rainy, but Amy enjoys shopping with her aunt. She is surprised to find Fred and Frank Vaughn come calling at tea, and enjoys laughing about Camp Laurence and going to the theater with them.
The Vaughns are great hosts in London, taking Amy and her cousin Florence to museums and picnics. They are sad to part ways when the Carrols and Amy go to France, but they hope to meet in Rome. Amy particularly enjoys Fred, who then surprises them by turning up in Paris. They are thankful to have him along for company and translation. Amy is delighted by the Louvre, and is enjoying Fred’s company more and more.
Next, they sail up the Rhine, and Fred befriends some students who help him serenade Amy and Flo by moonlight. In Germany, Amy wishes she had read more, particularly Goethe. Fred gambles some money, and Amy says she thinks he needs someone to marry and look after him. Amy realizes that Fred has affections for her, and in her eminently practical way, decides that she will accept him if he asks. Fred is very rich, relatively enjoyable, and she thinks they could learn to be fond of each other. Amy wishes more to live in comfort than to be in love. Fred learns that Frank is ill and rushes away, but asks Amy not to forget him, and they plan to meet in Rome.
Chapter 32 Tender Troubles
Marmee notices that something is troubling Beth, for she has been quite sad, and asks Jo to find out Beth's secret. After observing her, Jo decides that Beth is in love with Laurie. Jo insists to herself that she will make Laurie love Beth back. In fact, Laurie has been trying to express his affections toward Jo, but she ignores or denies him. Jo hopes Laurie might learn to love Beth, particularly if Jo went away.
While pondering what to do, Jo finds herself in a conversation with Laurie about flirting, which he does quite a bit, but does not admire in excess in others, and at which Jo is hopeless. Jo advises Laurie to devote himself to a modest girl – meaning Beth – once he is through with college and deserving of her. Laurie, thinking Jo means herself, is encouraged and humbled. He starts behaving more seriously and speaking of “turning a new leaf.”
That evening, Jo finds Beth crying herself to sleep over a new pain. She will not tell Jo what it is, for Jo can do nothing to help, but promises to tell her in time. Jo, believing Beth’s heart is aching over Laurie, comforts her. The next day, Jo decides to spend the winter working as a teacher in a boardinghouse in New York for the daughters of Mrs. Kirke, one of Marmee’s friends. Jo tells Marmee that she feels Laurie is getting too fond of her, and she does not return the feelings. Marmee is thankful for Jo’s feelings, as she feels the two would be too strong-willed a match. Jo divulges that she thinks Beth might like Laurie, which Marmee does not believe, but still feels Jo should go away for Laurie’s sake.
Jo asks Beth to look after Laurie for her. Laurie simply tells Jo that going away will not do any good.
Chapter 33 Jo’s Journal
Jo’s letters describe her new home, a funny room in the boardinghouse, and her two pupils. Mrs. Kirke is quite kind, but busy, and Jo finds herself bashful in the big house. Jo observes Professor Bhaer, an older, poor German who tutors to support his nephews. As her pupils’ nursery is next to Mr. Bhaer’s study, she often listens to him humming Goethe or observes him teaching and playing with the children, doing kind things for the servants, and discussing philosophy with the young men. Jo also befriends Miss Norton, a rich gentlewoman at the house. Jo and the Professor become good friends, since they both have lively spirits and enjoy children and literature. Out of thanks for his kindness, Jo asks Mrs. Kirke if she might help with mending Mr. Bhaer’s clothes, which he does himself, and in return, Mr. Bhaer gives her German lessons. At New Year’s they exchange gifts, and their friendship flourishes beautifully. Jo is grateful for her friend, as she does not enjoy the “whippersnappers” in the house. At a masquerade ball, she goes down and is quite sociable and theatrical, and all are surprised at the unmasking that it was Jo all along.
Chapter 34 A Friend
For many years, Jo has wished to be wealthy, so that she could give make Beth comfortable, go abroad, and always have more than enough so she could share it with others. So, following her success with her prize money writing sensation stories, she continues to do so in New York for a paper called the Weekly Volcano. The editor accepts her first story only when all moral elements have been cut out, which alarms Jo, but for $25 a story she obliges. To keep her plots fresh and her stories thrilling, Jo finds herself including increasingly lurid material, which she seeks out in newspaper articles and ancient tales. She publishes anonymously and does not share the news at home, feeling they would not approve. Jo therefore stays focused on the ends, rather than the means, of her earnings.
In her new study of characters, real and imaginary, Jo finds that Mr. Bhaer is a real live hero. Wondering why he is so well loved, not being rich, handsome, or young, she decides it is his benevolence, his simple joyful attitude and goodwill towards his fellow men and women. She learned that in Germany he had been an honored Professor, though here he was a humble tutor, and never mentions his true intellect and position. When Jo attends a literary symposium with the kind Miss Norton, she is quite disillusioned by seeing authors, scientists, and musicians whose work she admires are still in society and flirt and eat and gossip just as much as anyone. Jo finds herself fascinated by a conversation about philosophy that seems to undermine religion and place intellectualism in its place. Mr. Bhaer, concerned about her and other young people being drawn into this tempting but empty system of thought, speaks out in defense of religion and morality. Jo, feeling the world is righted again, deepens her respect and admiration for him.
During one of their German lessons, Mr. Bhaer sees a newspaper story like the one that Jo secretly writes. He shares his disgust that such rubbish comes into the house, and his disapproval of those who write it. Jo blushes, and says the stories may only be silly, and their authors good. Mr. Bhaer realizes she may be writing such material and, remembering that she is far from the moral compass of home, says not all demands should be met, and the living made from meeting such immoral demands is not honest. After they part, Jo rereads her stories and decides she agrees with Mr. Bhaer, and burns them up. She tries writing moral stories and children’s stories, but does not find a demand, and stops writing for the rest of her time in New York. Instead, she deepens her friendship with Mr. Bhaer and all are very sad when she is to leave in June. At their parting, Jo invites him to visit, but then mistakenly blushes when she speaks of Laurie, and Mr. Bhaer gets the impression that she loves Laurie. That evening, alone in his room, he laments that to be with Jo is not for him.
Chapter 35 Heartache
Laurie, who worked ardently while Jo was away, grew his hair as she likes, and gave up billiards, graduates from college with honors and makes everyone proud. The day he returns from college, Jo meets him, fearing he may propose. Jo is right, as Laurie admits that he has loved her since the moment he met her, and tells how hard he has worked to earn her favor. Jo apologizes, saying she has tried to love him but does not, and cannot lie. Laurie accuses her of loving Mr. Bhaer, which almost makes Jo laugh, since it is so far from her mind. She tries to reason with him, but Laurie is deeply hurt, and tries to convince Jo that everyone expects it, and that they should not disappoint. However, Jo agrees with Marmee that they are too quick-tempered and strong-willed, and cannot marry. Jo says he should marry someone more fashionable and accomplished, and angry Laurie storms off saying he is going “to the devil.” This alarms Jo, who goes straight to Mr. Laurence and tells him what happened. Mr. Laurence, disappointed but kind, shares Jo’s fears about Laurie’s impetuousness and devises a plan for him to travel with Laurie abroad. Mr. Laurence will take care of business in London and visit friends in Paris, while Laurie can travel as he likes. When introducing the plan to Laurie that evening, Mr. Laurence artfully mentions music and adventures, and Laurie agrees to go. In but a few weeks they are gone. Jo feels that she has stabbed her best friend in the heart, and her boy Laurie will return a changed man.
Chapter 36 Beth’s Secret
When Jo returns from New York, she notices a change in Beth, as if the mortal is fading away and the immortal is starting to shine through. She proposes a trip to the mountains with her newspaper earnings, but Beth begs to stay closer to home, so she and Jo go to the seashore for a few weeks. It is here that Jo realizes that Beth's secret all along was not that she loves Laurie, but that Beth is dying. Beth says she does hope Laurie will be her brother someday, and Jo says Amy has left for him. Beth explains that she was sad in the fall because she had given up hope on living. She did not want to speak of it, not being sure, but she has since made her peace with it, and bravely, and piously now simply waits and tries to be willing. Jo still hopes something might change, but Beth says she has faith, and a feeling that she was not intended to live long, not having made the great plans and ambitions the others had. She does not share Jo’s hope of getting well, but wishes to enjoy peacefully their remaining time together, and asks Jo to help Mother and Father bear it. Jo agrees, and dedicates herself heart and soul to her sister.
When they return, Mother and Father see the change in Beth, and understand the truth without words.
The letters from both Jo and Amy encourage us to compare and contrast their experiences, as Jo points out often. Alcott encourages this comparison by having the girls refer to one another and make similar allusions, such as to Goethe. Both girls, away from home, are compromising their morality for money. Both are befriending potential suitors, though the suitors themselves are quite different. Fred is not honorable, but he is rich, while Professor Bhaer is the opposite. The comparison allows the reader to understand the similar challenges a young woman at this time faces while allowing for different contexts and decisions by the women.
Jo's struggle with morality is largely contained in her writing. Jo is driven to compromise her morals for money, much as Amy is. At the literary symposium, Jo is struck by the human fallibility of many revered authors. Her allusions are largely to eighteenth and nineteenth century authors, in part implicating them and their works. Alcott had attended many such symposia, and it is likely that Jo's disillusionment is drawn from Alcott's own experiences.
In praising Mr. Bhaer by using the words of a "wise man," Alcott quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson. Alcott befriended Emerson as well as several other New England thinkers and author through her father's philosophical circle. The Speculative Philosophers reference thinkers admired by the Transcendentalist philosophers like Alcott's father, but it is clear that Jo prefers Mr. Bhaer's philosophy.
Alcott conveys Mr. Bhaer's broken English dialect much as she does Hannah's. Jo and Mr. Bhaer's sharing German recalls John translating and reading German with Meg. The song Jo first hears Mr. Bhaer humming is the same song she will ask him to sing much later, when he visits her house, and looks at her plaintively, imbuing the song with new meaning.
When Jo returns from New York, her focus is on Beth. Jo is the first to foreshadow Laurie marrying Amy, which helps convince the reader that it is the right choice, a difficult argument for Alcott. Unfortunately, Jo mistakenly gives Laurie hope, encouraging him to work hard and earn the affections of a modest girl - meaning Beth, though Jo thinks she means herself. This case of dramatic irony brings the reader in on Alcott's secret and helps prepare them. Jo and Marmee's conversation about Laurie also gives the reader insight into why Jo should not marry Laurie, and foreshadows Jo's response to Laurie's proposal.