Spoilers are going to be in this article, obviously.
Many Little Women fans read Louisa May Alcott’s popular title as young women, and while a lot of the moral lessons in that famous book are made very clear, as a young girl there was one plot that always confused the heck out of me: Beth’s death and what it was from. Thanks to the confusing history of this plotline, as Greta Gerwig’s new movie hits theaters, it is high time some of the confusion and plot points surrounding Beth's death are cleared up.
For example, we get scarlet fever mentioned in hushed tones, and while Beth seems to initially get better, years later she seems to succumb to the disease. Complicating matters further is the way Little Women is published today versus various iterations in the past. So, what exactly happens with Beth’s illness and why is there confusion?
How Does Beth Die?
In the book and the movie it is worth pointing out it is made very clear that Beth contracts scarlet fever. This happens when Marmee is tending to the March patriarch during the war and she asks sweet Beth to look in on the poor German family the girls visit near the beginning of the film to offer food and creature comforts.
Amy is sent away during the time Beth is ill, as she hasn’t had that particular fever yet, while Jo –who has – stays and tends to her sister. (This is also when Amy gets in good with Aunt March.)
Later, Beth seems to be ill again with the same thing, but she also talks about how she feels she has been slowly wasting away, noting, “It’s like the tide, Jo, when it turns, it goes slowly, but it can’t be stopped.” She’s not actively ill with a fever at that point, convoluting things a bit.
Honestly, the 2019 movie from Greta Gerwig makes this even more confusing, as moments when Beth is fighting scarlet fever the first time (and gets better) are juxtaposed with moments when she falls ill again (and dies).
What Exactly Is Scarlet Fever?
Scarlet fever is actually a Strep A infection that only affects a minor portion of people who end up with strep throat or strep skin infections. Those who get scarlet fever usually get a rash 1-2 days after the strep throat symptoms appear.
When Louisa May Alcott was writing her novel, she based Beth’s symptoms on what she saw with her own sister Lizzie Alcott, who died of scarlet fever as a young adult. The circumstances were very much the same as the book.
Lizzie contracted a fever while helping a German family. She was weakened by the incident and fever in 1856 and was never the same afterward, dying in her sleep in 1858. The famous author even reportedly wrote at the time about how her sister “put down her needle,” which is what Beth does in Little Women.
Scarlet fever does recur in real life. A recent study of 158 patients who had scarlet fever found that 16 individuals suffered from more than one episode. That may not seem like a lot, but it is 10% of people who end up contracting the disease. That study also found that the mean time between incidents was 1.02 years, while for Beth in the book, it’s mentioned as being closer to three years later, although she never seems to be fully better after her first bout with the fever.
However, death from scarlet fever itself doesn’t happen that often, anymore, thanks to those who have the disease being treated by antibiotics. At the time, death from scarlet fever was commonplace and often occurred because of complications instead of the fever itself. For example, rheumatic fever could cause heart damage and later death. Kidneys and joints could be damaged as well. Complications like these were likely what befell Beth March.
Why Beth May Not Die In Your Version Of Little Women
Originally, when Louisa May Alcott was publishing her works of fiction, the Little Women that we have come to know and love today was simply not one book. In fact a first volume, Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. The Story of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book was basically the first half of Little Women that features the part about Beth contracting scarlet fever and getting better.
The second half of Little Women we know and love today featured the adult part of the ladies’ lives. This book, Good Wives, came about after her original work did really well. Good Wives was published in 1869, according to Book Riot, and that is the portion of the book in which Beth’s death from scarlet fever occurs. It’s also the portion of the book that includes the Laurie/Amy/Jo entanglement and Mr. Bhaer.
American movies and American editions of Louisa May Alcott’s books contain both stories –the young and the adult versions of the March family. However, this isn’t true everywhere. In the U.K. and elsewhere, the two volumes are often still separated, which is why some people tend to think Beth gets better in Little Women; they simply haven’t gotten to the hard part of Good Wives.
Muddling things further is the fact that Louisa May Alcott wrote other stories featuring the March family. So, there are the two volumes encompassing Little Women, then there are two more books, Little Men about Plumfield and Jo’s Boys, a sequel to Little Men. There’s a lot more to the story than most Little Women movies ever show us.
As Greta Gerwig’s 2019 version of Little Women hits theaters, we hope, Dear Reader, that this small article will have helped to clear up any confusion and to explain the full and tragic history behind what happens to Beth.