The influential 19th century novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott expresses didactic tendencies, as well as qualities of sentimentalism, allowing it to be a compelling read for adolescent audiences. Following the story of the March sisters, readers track the growth and maturity of Alcott’s characters. Our first experience of the transition into adulthood being the oldest March sister, Meg. In this paper, we will study the text of Meg’s early stages of her marriage to Mr. Brooke to see her transition into the adult world catalyzed by her own marriage which is used as a showcase of her maturity and growth, leading to her becoming a mother, the ultimate sign of her entering adulthood.
As we are told throughout the novel, one of Meg’s more definitive qualities is one of vanity and materialism, supported by her wish to marry into a wealthy family and name. However, as she falls in love with the poor, orphaned Mr. Brooke, Meg chooses love over financial status, and enters her marriage in such a way, described on her wedding day as such: “Neither silk, lace, nor orange flowers would she have. ‘I don’t want to look strange or fixed up today,’ she said. ‘I don’t want a fashionable wedding, but only those about me whom I love, and to them I wish to look and be my familiar self’” (p. 244). In this text, we see that Meg actively denies the signs of wealth in her marriage to John Brooke, showing the audience that she has found joy in her marriage to Mr. Brooke, rather than in her marriage into a social status. By Meg stating that she wants to remain her “familiar self”, it relates the readers back to the Moffat party, she attended earlier in the novel, in which Meg allows the Moffat’s to dress her up like a doll. During the experience, Meg shares that she is too “ afraid to go down, [she] feel[s] so queer and stiff and half-dressed,” and told that she “[doesn’t] look a bit like [her]self…” (p. 93). This contrast of experiences by physical appearance is monumental in showing Meg’s growth in maturity and acceptance to who she is.
Meg’s maturity is also shown in her qualities of determination and hard-work that is shown by her making her own wedding gown, “…sewing into it the tender hopes and innocent romances of a girlish heart” (p. 244). She has begun to take self-pride in her work and enjoys the simplistic instead of the materialistic. By mixing in these traits, Alcott shows us that Meg is changing herself in order to succeed in this marriage, forsaking comfort and instead encourages work ethic and a simple lifestyle. However, noting the quote above, Alcott chooses an interesting diction, ending her statement with “romances of a girlish heart”, which reminds the audience that Meg is still a young girl with aspirations and wishes that may not always coincide with her situation. As we are introduced to Meg and John Brooke’s marriage life, Alcott acknowledges the hard-work continued in their home, saying that Meg “began her married life with the determination to be a model housekeeper” and “brought so much love, energy, and cheerfulness to the work that she could not but succeed” (p. 267). So rather than Meg temporarily entering this resolve, she continues to make an effort in the domestic responsibilities she has. Alcott humorously adds in bits and pieces of bitterness in, saying:“John grew dyspeptic after a course of dainty dishes and ungratefully demanded plain fare. As for buttons, she soon learned to wonder where they went, to shake her head over the carelessness of men, and to threaten to make him sew them on himself, and to see if his work would stand impatient tugs and clumsy fingers any better than hers.They were happy” (p. 267).
The juxtaposition in the phrasing and overall message seems off-putting, with an extensive list of the clashes met between Meg and Mr. Brooke, creating a long account of the interactions between the two, only to begin the next paragraph with the blatant, non-specific, “They were happy”, almost purposefully putting an ironic twist on Meg and John’s marriage, as if they were in ignorant bliss of their own troubles. Both Meg and John appear to have this child-like innocence in regards to their own marriage, seemingly blind to their tiffs between each other.Alcott describes the couple, “At first they played keep-house, and frolicked over it like children; then John took steadily to business, feeling the cares of the head of a family upon his shoulders; and Meg laid by her cambric wrappers, put on a big apron, and fell to work, as before said with more energy than discretion” (p. 267). This quote reveals information regarding Meg’s transgression into adulthood, telling us that both her and Mr. Brooke came into the marriage with a immaturity, looking at their new life and family as a child’s game. However, we are told that John grows into the custom of being the head of the house, taking to it “steadily”. In comparison, if we look at Meg’s description, we are told that Meg continues to go to work in the household, with “more energy than discretion”, implying that Meg, while performing her chores dutifully, is performing them with an excitement. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if we read into the chosen diction, one may analyze saying that Meg is still looking at this with a childlike perception, excited to play this part, rather than settling into the role, unlike John, who takes to his responsibilities “steadily”.
Overall, looking at the collective information so far, we see that Meg is actively trying to accept her situation and perform her responsibilities as a wife, without the luxuries she had wished for as a child. However, with each example, we see hints of immaturity peeking out of Meg, showing that as much as she loves Mr. Brooke and her life with him, she still retains some of that childish disposition. This leads into the discussion of what appears to be the climax of Meg’s “coming-of-age”, in which Meg comes to certain major resolves. The first situation we will discuss is Meg in attempts to continue her duties as a loving housewife, failing to make jelly, and overall, her responsibility to provide dinner for her husband and his guest. This is the first circumstance we see between Meg and John that is an openly described conflict. This outburst, while justified on both parts, doesn’t tell us anything of Meg or John’s growth, but the resolve made between the two is what shows us one of Meg’s largest steps into adulthood.With both Meg and John fuming about their fight regarding the jelly, Meg enters a process of penitence, where she begins to realize there are things she will have to sacrifice in her marriage, such as her pride. The beginning of her thought process beginning with the idea that “married life is very trying, and does need infinite patience as well as love, as Mother says” (p. 273). Prior to this tiff, Meg was addressing her marriage with an excitement and positivity that could appear blind-sighted. Here, she begins to realize marriage is actual work, and requires her to approach it as a job rather than a game.
With the advice coming from her mother, Meg begins to remember the other advice given to her by Marmee, warning her that John, despite his positive qualities, does have certain faults, and that as part of her partnership to him, Meg has to learn “not to wake his anger, against yourself, for peace and happiness depend on keeping his respect. Watch yourself, be the first to ask pardon if you both err, and guard against the little piques, misunderstandings, and hasty words that often pave the way for bitter sorrow and regret” (p. 273). Despite the double-standard, this makes Meg begin to analyze her her part in the argument between the two, and what she might have done wrong. This is a sign in itself that Meg is looking past herself and seeing how her actions might have affected someone else. The last part of this quote is particularly influential to Meg’s situation, warning her that the clashes between her and John, if not resolved, can lead to a marriage of “bitter sorrow and regret”. Wanting to remedy the conflict between her and Mr. Brooke, she makes the first move to reconciliation. By Meg making this conscious decision to apologize to John, she recognizes her wrong, “her own hasty speeches sounded both silly and unkind, and she recalled them, her own anger looking childish now” (p. 273). Meg sees her immaturity in hindsight, showing that she does see her own faults, allowing her to make steps to fix them. Her first step in altering her immaturity, is by the attempt to make things right with her husband: “She glanced at him with tears in her eyes, but he did not see them; she put down her work and got up, thinking “I will be the first to say ‘Forgive me’” but he did not seem to hear her; she went very slowly across the room, for pride was hard to swallow, and stood by him, but he did not turn his head. For a minute she felt as if she really couldn’t do it; then came the thought, “This is the beginning, I’ll do my part, and have nothing to reproach myself with,” and stooping down, she softly kissed her husband on the forehead.” (p. 273) With Meg making the decision to be the first to overcome her pride and make things right with her husband, showing that she accepts responsibility for her actions, showing that she is now beginning to accept the part of the wife as a lifestyle, rather than as a game. While Meg’s growth during the jelly incident is extremely noticeable, it is not the end of her transition into becoming an adult. As we are reminded throughout the novel, Meg’s true faults lie towards her vanity and longing to live a luxurious life, thus making her marriage to Mr. Brooke a test to see whether she fulfilled Marmee’s wish expressed earlier in the novel saying, “Money is a needful and precious thing, –and, when well used, a noble thing, –but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for. I’d rather see you poor men’s wives, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.” (p. 99-100). Meg’s true challenge is to give up her dream of wealthy living, and is shown in Alcott’s last account of Meg’s marriage life.
Alcott introduces us to the next challenge Meg must face by bringing a reappearing subject back into Meg’s life, which is her childhood friend Sallie, who married into the wealthy Moffat family. This immediately repositions Meg back into the situation she found herself in as a child, the poorest in her friend group, often the subject of pity and condescendence. She actively disliked being pitied due to her financial status, and comforted herself by “buying pretty things, so that Sallie needn’t think she had to economize. She always felt wicked after it, for the pretty things were seldom necessaries; but when they cost so little, it wasn’t worth worrying about, so the trifles increased unconsciously, and in the shopping excursions she was no longer a passive looker-on.” (p. 274). However, Meg hides this from Mr. Brooke, who is the breadwinner of the family, and from whom she is taking the money from. Up until this point, she had been asked by Mr. Brooke to keep track of how much she was buying, and to remember that she was a “poor man’s wife”, which she had followed dutifully until her rekindling of the friendship with Sallie Moffat (p.274). In Meg’s pettiness, she betray’s Mr. Brooke’s trust, with these shopping excursions leading to a climax of Meg impulsively buying a new silk dress, costing her fifty dollars of her and Mr. Brooke’s money. This purchase results in emotions of guilt and remorse on Meg’s part, the dress a physical reminder, “look[ing] less silvery now, didn’t become her, after all, and the words “fifty dollars” seemed stamped like a pattern down each breadth” (p. 275). Later in the night, as her and John looked through their pocketbooks and expenses, Meg confesses her extravagance, showing him her purchases leading up to the silk dress. Meg tells John, “I try to be contented, but it is hard, and I’m tired of being poor”, showing that she, despite all of her progress and love for Mr. Brooke, still desires the lifestyle of the Moffats (p. 277). This interaction between the two leave Meg feeling guilty and remorseful, particularly when finding that John had countermanded an order for a new coat, which he could no longer afford. However, Meg found herself in an opportunity of redemption when the next day, she asked Sallie to buy the silk dress from her as a favor, and bought the coat John had wanted with the money from the sale (p. 278). By doing this, Meg puts the wants of someone else in front of her own, finally teaching her there are things more important than luxury. Immediately after the reconciliation of Meg and John from the silk dress scenario, we are sent into a new scene in which Meg becomes a mother. By directly switching from the first scenario into the next, we see that there can be some correlation between Meg accepting responsibility and adulthood, and in becoming a mother.
Through these many circumstances Meg addresses each of her faults, growing more every time, until she has conquered her biggest faults, vanity and luxury. In doing this, Alcott indirectly sets up a parallel between Marmee and Meg, making Meg capable of teaching her children valuable lessons, having learned them herself. This is also shown in Meg naming her own daughter Margaret, after herself, making Meg a ‘next generation’ Marmee (p. 280).