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It is June 1, and all four sisters are ready for some summer vacation. The Kings, the family for whom Meg works as a governess, are going out of town, and so is Aunt March, so Jo and Meg are both free.
Meg's plan for her vacation is to laze around and have some down time. Jo has a stack of books she wants to read.
Beth and Amy are home-schooled, but they decide to take a break from their studies while Jo and Meg are on vacation. Beth wants to learn some new music and make clothes for her dolls.
The girls ask their mother if it's OK for them to take a break from their daily duties and enjoy their summer vacation. Marmee tells them they can try it for a week as an experiment, but she thinks they'll get tired of all play and no work.
The next day, the girls all do whatever they want instead of their chores and housework. Meg gets up late, reads and sits around, then goes shopping and wastes money. Beth plays with her doll collection and the clothes she makes for them, makes a big mess, and doesn't clean it up. Jo sits in a tree and reads and gives herself a headache. Amy goes for a walk to go sketching and gets soaked in the rain.
In the evening, the girls agree that the day has been great, although it has felt really long. Nobody will admit to being bored or unhappy, and they tell their mother that the "experiment" is working well.
Mrs. March smiles to herself and doesn't say anything. She and Hannah do the housework that the girls are neglecting, and she leaves the girls to learn their lesson on their own.
The girls quickly get tired of doing "all play and no work." In fact, Beth keeps forgetting to be lazy and does some work, so she actually starts to feel better. But Jo reads until her eyes ache and fights with Laurie; Meg ends up ruining some of her best clothes by making little alterations to them and trying to make them fashionable; and Amy, left to herself, is bored and lonely.
On Friday night, the girls are each secretly glad that the experiment is almost over. Mrs. March resolves to really give the girls a taste of their own medicine on the last day. She gives Hannah Saturday off.
On Saturday morning, Mrs. March stays in her room and says that she is very tired. She leaves the girls to fend for themselves.
The girls, who are used to relying on their mother for everything, are very surprised, but they're also relieved to have something to do. However, they quickly learn that the housekeeping is difficult and requires a lot of skills that they haven't mastered.
The sisters make breakfast for their mother, but they're not very good cooks and they ruin almost everything. Mrs. March laughs to herself privately about their failure – she's already put aside a nicer breakfast for herself.
Jo takes over the cooking from Meg. She decides to invite Laurie over for dinner to apologize for quarreling with him earlier in the week. (Historical Context Note: "dinner" doesn't mean the evening meal in this case – it means the midday meal, what we would call "lunch.")
Meg isn't sure that they're up to having company, but Jo is pretty confident that she can make the meal. She plans to have corned beef and potatoes, lobster and asparagus, salad, blancmange and strawberries, and coffee. It's not an ambitious menu or anything!
Meg reminds Jo that the only things she knows how to make are gingerbread and molasses candy. Jo is hurt by Meg's lack of confidence.
Jo asks for her mother's permission and input on the meal. Mrs. March tells her to do whatever she wants; she's planning to have dinner (read: lunch) out with friends and to spend the day amusing herself, the way the girls have been doing.
When Jo goes back downstairs, she finds Beth crying. Beth has forgotten to feed her pet canary, Pip, for several days, and the bird is dead!
Jo tries to comfort Beth and says they'll have a funeral for Pip later. She leaves Meg and Amy to comfort Beth and goes back to the kitchen.
Jo rekindles the fire in the oven, which has gone out. While the stove heats, she goes downtown and buys food. She's not very experienced at choosing it, so she gets things that aren't very good.
When Jo gets home, she discovers that Meg has forgotten about some loaves of bread that were rising on the hearth. She storms into the parlor to ask Meg if the bread has risen enough, since it's running over the edges of the pans. Meg, who is entertaining her friend Sallie, is embarrassed when Jo comes in covered in flour.
While Jo is doing the cooking, Mrs. March comes downstairs and checks on how everything is going. She comforts Beth a little bit, and then she leaves for the evening. The girls feel helpless without her.
Just after Mrs. March leaves, Miss Crocker appears and says that she is coming to dinner. (Again, by dinner, we mean lunch.) Miss Crocker is an old, unmarried friend of the family. They've been taught to be kind to her, but she's gossipy and rude.
Meg entertains Miss Crocker while Jo tries to make the meal. Almost everything is ruined or spoiled in some way: the potatoes are underdone, the asparagus is overdone, the bread is burned, the blancmange is lumpy, and she doesn't know how to get the lobster meat out of the shell.
Finally Jo serves the meal to her sisters, Laurie, and Miss Crocker. She feels embarrassed and disheartened and is worried about what they're going to think – and say!
As each course goes around the table, the guests try it, and then leave it on their plates. Jo keeps blushing and feeling very embarrassed. Laurie tries to be very chatty and friendly to make everyone more comfortable.
Finally, they reach the last part of the meal, which is strawberries and cream. Jo feels relieved because she thinks this at least will be OK, but then it turns out the cream is sour and she's sprinkled the fruit with salt instead of sugar!
Jo is about to cry, but then she catches Laurie's eye, and they burst out laughing. Soon everyone is laughing, including sour Miss Crocker. The meal ends happily after all as they eat bread, butter, and olives.
Miss Crocker goes home. The girls attend the "funeral" for Beth's canary, Pip.
In the afternoon, the girls busy themselves by making the house nice. Beth feels calmer after making the beds; Meg and Jo clean up after the disastrous meal; and Laurie takes Amy out for a drive in his carriage to get her out of the way and cheer her up.
When Mrs. March comes home, she finds that the girls have abandoned their "experiment" and decided to balance play with work after all.
At the end of the day, the girls talk about what a bad day they've had and how much they missed their mother.
Marmee comes in and talks to the girls about their day. They agree with her that it's better to have a few chores and tasks in order to contribute to a nice home for everyone, and that staying busy feels better anyway.
Each of the girls resolves to focus on a specific task that is in front of her – Jo is going to learn basic cooking, Meg is going to make some new shirts for her father, Beth is going to work harder at her home-schooling lessons, and Amy (who is, after all, pretty young at this point) says that she will learn the parts of speech and how to make buttonholes.
Mrs. March says that she is satisfied now that the girls understand the value of work.