Chapter XXXVIII. On the Shelf

By Christine Doyle

In Chapter 38, Alcott returns to Meg’s story after a ten-chapter hiatus. The last time we saw Meg, she had survived a difficult adjustment to being a poor man’s wife and had just given birth to twins Daisy and Demi. Three immediately preceding hyper-dramatic chapters (Jo refusing Laurie, Beth acknowledging her impending death, Laurie and Amy reuniting) provide extra emphasis to Meg’s exhaustion and despondency after a year of being overwhelmed with child care. After an astute cultural observation about how European women are less free while single but more so once they marry, while for American women it is just the opposite, the chapter turns to Meg’s feelings of seclusion and separation from all but the most mundane affairs of house and baby care. Husband John, meanwhile, feels ignored and starts spending more and more time away from home with his good friends the Scotts, who are childless.

This chapter about boredom is striking to me for several reasons. First, when I re-read Little Women for the first time in many years as a 35-year-old graduate student, I had no memory of its being part of the novel. I even pulled out my childhood copy (a gift when I was 12) to see if perhaps mine was an abridged version, or maybe only Part I. It wasn’t. The chapter was always there; I just hadn’t noticed it. I also wondered: how did the unmarried Louisa know about the profound changes to a marriage that children engender? Of course, a writer needn’t personally experience everything she writes about, and her sister Anna did have two children close in age. Still, what remarkable insights!

What is most remarkable to me, though, is Marmee’s advice in this chapter. (In the earlier chapter, Meg was able to figure things out and patch up her relationship with John by just remembering things Marmee had told her; this time Marmee actually gets involved.) Marmee observes, “This is just the time. . . when young married people are apt to grow apart, and the very time when they ought to be most together,” and urges Meg, “don’t shut him out of the nursery, but teach him how to help in it. His place is there as well as yours.” In 1869, she makes a pitch for co-parenting! She tells Meg to accept help at home, get more exercise and go out and enjoy herself! She further encourages her to nurture her marital relationship, and when Meg begins to (reluctantly) take an interest in the politics that occupy John, it gets results; he (awkwardly) reciprocates by taking an interest in the bonnet she’s making. The “division of labor” that ensues, though in many ways still traditional, helps to re-constitute their loving relationship and make their home “a cheerful place, full of happiness,” once again. As is true of many aspects of Little Women, this movement toward egalitarian marriage seems a century ahead of its time!

Christine Doyle is a Professor of English at Central Connecticut State University and author of Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Brontë: Transatlantic Translations (University of Tennessee Press, 2000) – and a mother of three who now knows what Alcott was talking about in this chapter.


Image: Dan Russell


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