Chapter 37 New Impressions
At Christmas, Laurie comes to Nice to see Amy. They are delighted to have reminders of home. Amy feels often that she ought to go home to see Beth, but her family says stay. Laurie and Amy gather new impressions of each other after a year apart. Both feel the other have grown from children into young adults. Amy, who does not know about Laurie's proposal and Jo's rejection, finds Laurie a bit indifferent and almost blasé. Laurie finds Amy an elegant and graceful young woman, but maintaining her native spirit.
Amy invites Laurie to a Christmas ball that evening, and arranges herself quite nicely to make a good impression on the gentleman. Laurie does admire and compliment her, but she encourages him to be blunt and natural, like they were at home. Laurie's casual attitude toward her frustrates Amy, who is in high demand by other gentlemen. Watching her dance, lively and properly, Laurie grows in admiration, and is much more attentive when she returns. He is impressed that she has made so much of her opportunity to live and travel overseas. He signs up for all of the remaining dances, and the two enjoy a lovely evening together.
Chapter 38 On the Shelf
With Daisy and Demi, Meg and John’s twins, come new challenges for the couple. Meg is completely absorbed in her babies for the first year of their lives, to the detriment of her happiness, John’s, and their relationship. Meg ceases to give John her attention and time, and John responds by spending more time out of the house with friends. Once Daisy and Demi start to calm down and need less of her constant care, Meg finds herself alone at home in the evenings and misses John’s company. She does not want to ask him to stay home, and so they continue, missing one another, until Marmee learns of the situation. Marmee shows Meg that in her duty to her children, she has forgotten her duty to her husband. She encourages Meg to include John in raising the children, especially Demi, drawing on her own experience with Mr. March. She encourages Meg to do more housework while Hannah attends to the babies and to take interest in the world’s affairs, since they affect her as well as any man. Meg agrees, and surprises John with a nice supper and an attentive wife. Demi tries to join the supper, and learns that John is much stricter on discipline than Meg. This is initially hard for Meg, but she learns to trust that John will be kind as well as firm. They each try to take interest in the other's concerns of politics and sewing, and agree to go out more and make home more enjoyable for all, to great success.
Chapter 39 Lazy Laurence
Laurie stays a month in Nice, rather than a week as he planned, as both he and Amy enjoy each other’s companionship. One day they go to Valrosa and Amy sketches him and decides to find out what has changed. She and worries that he has gotten into trouble gambling or loving a married woman, but Laurie assures her that he has stayed out of mischief. He asks when she will become a great artist, but Amy divulges that Rome humbled her, made her see that her talent was not genius, and so she intends to be an ornament to society. Laurie admires her new goal, and suggests that Fred Vaughn might give her an opportunity. Amy is reserved in her reply, but admits that she will marry Fred if he asks, despite not feeling strong affection for her. Laurie is surprised and disappointed, saying that Fred is not the type he would have thought Amy to like.
Amy then lectures Laurie on his indolence of late, and urges him to go to his grandfather as he says he will, and be useful. Amy tells him she despises him for his lazy selfishness, which squanders his opportunities of money, health, and good position. Amy wishes Jo were there to help her, and seeing Laurie’s reaction, realizes what they never told her at home, that Jo refused him. Laurie confirms her realization, and Amy apologizes for being unkind, though encourages him to accept defeat more resolutely, and do something to make Jo love him, or be respected, if he cannot be loved. By graduating well, Laurie showed that he could accomplish great tasks if he tries, but he just needs another motivation now. Amy concludes her lecture by showing him her sketch of him and comparing it to an earlier, rougher sketch of him years ago taming a horse—active, energetic, and full of life. The next day Amy receives a note that Laurie has gone to his grandfather, like a good boy.
Chapter 40 The Valley of the Shadow
At home, everyone does her best to make Beth’s remaining time happy. A room is set up for her with her piano and worktable and everyone’s nicest trinkets and pleasures. Beth, never idle, sits and makes gifts to drop out the window to the schoolchildren passing below. This sunny time together, with the family spending time reading and working in one room, prepares them for the hard time to come, when Beth feels pain and exhaustion. Jo sleeps on a couch in the room to be always near, feeling that nursing sweet Beth is the highest honor of her life to date. This time teaches Jo patience, duty, tenderness, and faith, and she recognizes the beauty of her sister’s simple and humble life. She composes a poem of admiration to Beth’s life and gratitude for all Beth taught her, which Beth finds to her great comfort, as her one regret was the fear that she had wasted her life and been useless. Jo says Beth will continue to be with her, in all that she has learned, and Beth asks Jo to take her place at home and be strong for Mother and Father. Jo agrees, taking up this new goal and giving up her dreams of being a great writer or traveling abroad.
Beth dies quietly and peacefully that spring, and those who loved her most are thankful that she is finally at rest.
Chapter 41 Learning to Forget
Amy’s lecture did make Laurie realize that he had been lazy and selfish. He goes to Vienna to try to earn Jo's respect, if not her love, by writing a Requiem or an opera. He finds, though, that tomboy Jo makes a difficult heroine, and instead uses memories of Amy as his model. Yet after attending an opera by Mozart, Laurie agrees with Amy that talent is not genius, becomes humble, and accepts that he will not be a great musician. Having given up his dream, he wonders what to do next. During this time, he finds himself forgetting his romantic love of Jo, feeling only a brotherly warmth toward her, despite all his sincerest intentions to love her all his life. He writes her to ask, one last time, if she will have him, and her response confirms that she never will. She urges Laurie to attend to Amy, for whom it is difficult to be far from home with Beth so sick. After finally saying goodbye to his love for Jo, Laurie begins a correspondence with Amy, who is indeed homesick, and they write to one another often. Laurie leaves Vienna and goes to Paris, hoping that Amy will ask him to visit Nice.
Amy wishes to see Laurie, but does not invite him, for Fred Vaughn has returned. Troubled by Laurie’s view of her potential engagement, and her own misgivings, Amy found herself declining Fred’s offer, to her own surprise. She enjoys writing to Laurie very much, both of them cherishing each other’s letters in ways they feel are brotherly and sisterly, but are truly romantic. Laurie is relieved to know that Fred has gone to Egypt, understanding that Amy turned him down.
Amy is in Vevey with the Carrols when she learns that Beth has died. Laurie goes to her right away, and finds her sitting in a garden, a rare chance to see Amy's tender side. Amy runs to Laurie when she sees him, and as they embrace, both feel the truth, that they love each other, but they do not speak of it. They are great comforts to each other in this sorrowful time, and Aunt Carrol discretely encourages the match. Laurie and Amy are very active in Vevey, and Amy admires the change wrought in him. Laurie feels guilty at first for replacing Jo with Amy, but he feels his new love is genuine, and waits for the time to say something. That time comes when they are rowing together on a lake, very simply and beautifully, and Amy accepts.
The theme of work is discussed in this section in Amy's lecture of Laurie. She despises him because he is lazy and wasteful with money. Laurie always struggled with indolence; indeed, laziness, and wanting to pursue music rather than work for his grandfather, and loving Jo are Laurie's three main burdens. At Amy's urging, Laurie overcomes all three challenges in this section. Amy also overcomes her selfishness in denying Fred Vaughn.
In contrast to Laurie is industrious Beth. Beth's death draws out several key themes of the book. Her own selflessness is celebrated and revered. Her self-improvement continues to the end, striving to accept death cheerfully and faithfully. Beth asks Jo to care dutifully for Mother and Father, and Jo agrees, sacrificing her own dreams and ambitions. She makes this sacrifice in part after learning the beauty of selflessness from Beth herself.
Beth's death is also the impetus to bring Laurie and Amy together. Their joining is romantic, but is also an act of making the family whole. Throughout the book, several characters refer to wanting Laurie to be officially part of their family.
The motif of flowers continues to prevalent in this section. At the Christmas Ball in Nice, Amy's use of flowers as her ornamentation makes Laurie admire her for covering "poverty with flowers." At Valrosa, Laurie pricks himself on a thorny rose and thinks of Jo, and Amy gives him smaller, cream-colored ones, butting them in his buttonhole as she has seen lovers do. Laurie at first thinks the cream roses symbolize death, which foreshadows the loss of Beth, but later associates them with Amy. In this exchange, Alcott foreshadows his proposal, choosing Amy instead of Jo. Amy continues to send Laurie pressed roses in her letters.
In Meg and John's struggles with domesticity, the themes of duty and women's rights are relevant. Meg feels John is not fulfilling his duty to her, when in fact she is the culprit. Marmee urges her to balance her duty to children and to husband. This domestic focus appears to subjugate women to the household, even if they are the rulers there, but Marmee also encourages Meg to stay interested in the world beyond the house. While Meg is not particularly able to follow politics, Marmee knows that they do affect her, as evidenced by the Civil War that took Father away.