Chapter XXXVI. Beth’s Secret

By Jessica Anderson Stroope

“…for often between ourselves and those nearest and dearest to us there exists a reserve which it is very hard to overcome.”

In the company of many who are reading this blog, I found myself drawn to Jo as a young reader of Little Women. As I traipsed the woods and ravines behind the electric substation that bordered my childhood backyard, I felt a comfortable companionship, a fellowship with Jo March. I explored alone and created worlds and got into (often imaginary) scrapes. But when I considered the future, I fancied myself to be like Beth—destined to have a glorious childhood and an early demise. Myself-as-Beth could evade well-meaning adults pestering about the future. I never admitted my Beth tendencies, but assuming death by age 19 encouraged me not to dwell on a future that seemed impossibly remote.

This dual Jo/Beth perception of self provided a freedom to be unhurried in childhood. Now, as a mother of two elementary-aged daughters, I want to protect their leisure, their time to create and play. I mourn that their outdoor adventures are not as intrepid as mine.

There are certain stories I cannot read without tears. My children smirk as I read aloud The Gardener or The Old Woman Who Named Things and cry for the fiftieth time. Chapter 36 evokes these tears every time, even as I sifted through this chapter multiple times while writing this post.

In Chapter 36, Jo uses savings from her foray into sensational writing to fund a seaside holiday for Beth and herself. The time together confirms the fears Jo has tried to brush away. Jo waits for Beth to initiate sharing as “there seemed something sacred in the silence.” After Beth sees Jo’s tears, she is able to unburden herself of what she has long known—that she is fading. Alcott invites us into Beth’s isolation and preparation. Beth values acceptance of death, a perspective which shaped my understanding of end-of-life decisions. Beth knows misplaced hope is a wearying way to fight a lost battle, and asks Jo to let go, and to enjoy the time they have left together. Jo chooses what is best for Beth. Instead of clinging to the fight, she clings to Beth.

The chapter ends with their return home, with Marmee and Father March understanding Beth’s secret without needing to be told. Jo matures into a force of stability, a daughter who provides comfort.

Beth is Jo’s favorite. With apologies to my husband and brother, my sister is mine.

Jessica Anderson Stroope lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana with her husband, two daughters, and emotionally-needy dog. By day, she works for Louisiana 4-H as the state healthy living program coordinator. By night, she reads, cooks, and wins board games. 

Image by Frank T. Merrill (1880).


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