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



Chapter XXVIII. Domestic Experiences

By Elise Barker

In “Domestic Experiences,” Alcott assures us, “Meg began her married life with the determination to be a model housekeeper,” attempting numerous household experiments in her idyllic “Dove-cote.” The domestic experience that stays with me, even after years have passed between readings, is when Meg’s jelly wouldn’t jell–which is why I always refused to try to make my own preserves. I’ve learned to bake my own bread, sew my own clothing, and garden my own produce, but preserves? No. If Meg couldn’t do it, how could I?

For the 150th anniversary of Little Women, I decided to try. First I attempted to acquire currants (the fruit from Meg’s garden), but none could be had in Idaho in the middle of October. So, I bought eight pounds of persimmons, all the while imagining “nice little jars [that] would look so well on the top shelf.” The persimmons sat on my countertop until after I submitted my students’ final grades, did the laundry, wrapped some Christmas gifts, and slept a solid ten hours.

When I finally pulled the first persimmon out of the bowl, the top popped off, revealing a wriggling maggot. The persimmons had dissolved into sludge.

Determined not to fail, the next day I decided to make simple apple butter, having done it before. The apple butter itself was easy. But I stared down the barrel of the canning task, trembling.

As I prepared to submerge my jars into boiling water, my husband, Chris, stopped me. “Are you sure you are supposed to screw those lids on?” he asked. “I thought the hot air needed to escape, to make a vacuum.”

Chris is an engineer, so I doubted myself, despite having examined the instructions carefully. “Ok, I’ll loosen the lids,” I said, ready to finish this project so long held in expectation.

When I checked the jars, apple butter had seeped from the lids. Close to tears, I pictured “Mrs. Brooke, with her apron over her head, sobbing dismally.”

Chris came and looked over my shoulder. “Hmm… I guess I was wrong. I’m sorry.”

At first, all I noticed was his flippancy. Then I remembered that although the jelly that never jelled caused Meg and John’s first major marital dispute, it also helped them learn to forgive one another by overcoming their childish pride. Thinking of this, I noticed Chris’s quick apology. I was able to shake my mounting anger.

“It’s ok. I can try again tomorrow.”

“Why do you want to do this so badly?” he asked.

“To understand Meg a little better. To understand Alcott better. We’ll see tomorrow. For now, I need to get out of the kitchen.”

“Domestic Experiences” is one of three chapters that show Amy, Jo, and Meg’s progress within their respective callings to art, literature, and domesticity. Growing up in a feminist household, I couldn’t understand why Meg’s domestic ambitions would be elevated to the same level as Amy’s art and Jo’s literature, never mind that my own mother was a model stay-at-home mom by calling. Now a wife and mother myself, struggling to create a cozy and enriching home for my family while also trying to build a career outside the home, I see this chapter as an artistic choice on Alcott’s part, not just lip-service to the expectations of Victorian womanhood.

The next day, as I checked the tight seals on my nice little jars, I smiled. The challenges of 1868 often seem remote from the realities of today, but my experiment proved the continued relevance of Little Women. The chapter on Meg’s calling to domesticity asserts that marriage is indeed an art form every bit as difficult as Jo and Amy’s. It requires practice, failure, humility, and creativity.

Elise Barker is an Adjunct Instructor of English at Idaho State University. She is currently planning the third year of an intensive hands-on Hogwarts Summer Camp of Witchcraft and Wizardry for kids ages eleven to seventeen. This January, her children are featured on the cover of IDAHO Magazine for an article she wrote titled, “Just Breathe: Zen and the Art of Hiking with Kids.” She hosts a blog, Taking My Own Freshman Composition Class, about her experiences writing all assignments alongside her composition students:


Chapter XXV. The First Wedding

By Elizabeth Schroll

As a recent bride, I am familiar with the numerous preparations involved in planning the day Alcott describes as “the sweetest chapter in the romance of womanhood,” not to mention the many emotions this major life change elicits for the happy couple and their loved ones. However, I found the prospect of examining the chapter devoted to Meg’s wedding day daunting. With her love of frills and the boring (to my younger self) John Brooke, Meg never interested me. I have more of a Beth personality—shy but passionate about family and cats—with (I hope) a dash of Jo’s flair and (I pretend) Amy’s elegance. Rereading Alcott’s novel gave me new perspective on Meg. She still isn’t my favorite, but she deserves her fair share of attention. Judging by the narrator’s approving descriptions, I’m not alone in this assessment.

When readers are introduced to Meg, she is complaining about being “poor.” This impression is colored by the narrator’s explanation that Meg is “rather vain” about her pretty hands (ch. 1) but that “in spite of her small vanities, Margaret had a sweet and pious nature” (ch. 2). As the narrative unfolds, we see Meg moving beyond her little vanities and learning life lessons essential to a successful marriage—putting others before self, working toward common goals, and valuing what truly matters, to name a few.

When Meg and Jo attend a New Year’s Eve party, Meg unwisely wears shoes that are lovely but too small. The narrator notes this vanity and judges Meg for it: “Meg’s high-heeled slippers were very tight and hurt her, though she would not own it . . . which was not exactly comfortable; but, dear me, let us be elegant or die!” (ch. 3). Lovingly scolding Meg for letting vanity trump prudence, the narrator also reveals that enjoying life depends on your state of mind rather than your bank account. Meg is not destined to a life devoid of fun, if she can learn to be content with what she has.

Spending two weeks with her rich friend Annie Moffat is a litmus test of Meg’s character. Ironically, the empty feeling this experience gives Meg makes her more content with her life, splendid though it is not. She learns, too, that dressing up as someone she isn’t does no one any favors, least of all herself.

When asked to describe her dearest castle in the air, Meg identifies the wealthy lifestyle she viewed at Annie Moffat’s: “a lovely house” with “luxurious things” and “plenty of servants” (ch. 13). By the time John offers Meg a much different vision of happiness—a small home filled with love and the happiness borne of earning a living—Meg has changed her tune. When their wedding day dawns, Meg has learned to value this life so unlike her youthful daydreams. That the narrator approves is evident in her description of Meg: “all that was best and sweetest in heart and soul seemed to bloom into her face that day, making it fair and tender, with a charm more beautiful than beauty.” Rather than wearing shoes that are too small or a dress that doesn’t suit her, Meg declares: “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.” Furthermore, she is “too happy to care what anyone says or thinks” about her wedding decisions. Oho! Is this the same Meg who once loved finery and cared so much for others’ opinions that she’d risk spraining an ankle to achieve approbation?

If so, she deserves credit. Having just planned a wedding, I am well aware of the expectations placed on the bride to do things a certain way on that special day, and I admire those who ignore such expectations (well-intentioned as they may have been) to honor their own values. The narrator reveals similar pride in Meg’s wedding decisions: she describes guests as “enjoying the sunshine without and within” and admits, “It wasn’t at all the thing, I’m afraid, but the minute she was fairly married, Meg cried, ‘The first kiss for Marmee!’ and, turning, gave it with her heart on her lips.” Rather than conforming to societal pressures, Meg manages to do what feels natural on her wedding day, honoring those she loves and demonstrating that her hard-won lessons about happiness were more fulfilling than the fleeting niceties she’d once aspired to attain.

Elizabeth Schroll has an M.A. in English from Kansas State University. She resides in Colorado with her husband—and soon, much to her excitement, a cat—and copy-edits books for NavPress. When she isn’t working, Elizabeth can usually be found reading, singing, hiking, or engaged in sundry other activities that involve experiencing the beautiful Colorado sunshine and scenery firsthand.


Still from Little Women (1994), directed by Gillian Armstrong.

Chapter XXIV. Gossip

By Elaine Showalter

Chapter 24, “Gossip,” is the first chapter of a sequel that Alcott didn’t intend to write. After the huge success of Little Women, Alcott’s publisher Thomas Niles asked her to go on with the story. She grumbled in her journal, “Girls write to ask who the little women will marry, as if that was the only end of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone” (167). But on November 1 she buckled down to write a chapter a day, and Part II came out in April 1869. In the U.S., the two parts were combined in 1881 into a single volume, but in Great Britain, Part II was published separately under titles Alcott would not have liked, including Little Women Wedded (Sampson Low, 1872), Little Women Married (Sampson Low, 1873), Nice Wives (Weldon & Co., 1875), and finally, Good Wives (Nisbet, 1895).

Part II begins in June 1865, after the end of the Civil War, and the day before Meg’s wedding to John Brooke. Alcott has to bring readers up to date “with a little gossip about the Marches,” implying that the anonymous omniscient narrator is a woman. But while Chapter 1 begins with Jo grumbling, Chapter 24 begins with five and half pages of sentimental, pious, and didactic narrative. Mr. March is back home, and the narrator devotes three paragraphs to praising him as the sage in the study, “the head of the family,” and the “household conscience, anchor, and comforter.”

Has patriarchy returned to tame and repress the spirited March women? Marmee is planning Meg’s wedding. John Brooke, “manfully” wounded in the war, has turned down generous offers of good jobs from rich Mr. Lawrence, and insists on taking up the humble office of “under book-keeper,” and earning an “honest well-earned salary.” Meg is preparing to be to become his humble, womanly wife, and their marital home, the Dovecote, is described in Dickensian diminutives: tiny, little, small, narrow, cosy; indeed a “baby-house,” not just a nursery to come, but a doll’s house. At this point, the narrator seems to be making the March women ominously small. But Alcott’s humor breaks through, thankfully, when she describes the would-be fountain Meg dreams of having represented in the present “by a weather-beaten urn, very like a dilapidated slop-bowl.”

It’s a relief when Laurie, nicknamed “Toodles” by Jo, for a character in a popular play who loves to shop at auction, gets back from college laden with ridiculous wedding gifts. His argument with Jo about his clothes and behavior breaks the preachy narrative tone and re-opens the question of whether Jo will marry, and if so, whether she will marry him. In the last sentence, Laurie whistles, and ominously predicts, “Mark my words, Jo, you’ll go next.” That’s a cliff-hanger, but Laurie is always the last one to figure Jo out.

Work Cited

The Journals of Louisa May Alcott, ed. Joel Myerson and Daniel Shealy, U of Georgia P, 1997.

Elaine Showalter is Professor Emerita of English at Princeton University. She is the editor of Alternative Alcott (1988), and the Library of America edition of Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys.

WeddedGood Wives.Purple


XXIII. Aunt March Settles the Question

By Elizabeth Lennox Keyser

Like Dee Anne Anderson, who blogged about the “Vanity Fair” chapter, I as a pre-teen identified with Meg, not Jo. As the eldest of three sisters I saw myself, like Meg, as the “grown-up in the room,” above the squabbles of my younger siblings. And, growing up in the 1950s, I could not envision for myself a career other than marriage and motherhood. Thus the “Vanity Fair” chapter, this one, and, in Part II, “Domestic Experiences” were among my favorites. Even Meg’s later discovery that “marriage is very trying” (part II, chapter iv) did nothing to dissuade me from constructing a “castle in the air” similar to hers.

In my teens I “graduated” from Alcott to Austen, from Little Women to Pride and Prejudice, another novel about a family of daughters. And on reading chapter 23 this time I made a fresh connection between Alcott and Austen. Although Meg has just assured Jo that she will reject John Brooke’s proposal with dignity, she is on the verge of succumbing until she detects that, despite his “beseeching” tone, he is sure of his success. While Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet (the possessor, like John, of a pair of fine dark eyes) has other reasons for rejecting Mr. Darcy’s first proposal, his complacency offends her: “she could see that he had no doubt of a favorable answer” (II, xi). Thus both Meg and Elizabeth shock their suitors by initially refusing them. Months elapse before Darcy tries again as opposed to moments in John’s case, but both are encouraged to renew their suits by the interference of aunts—in John’s case Aunt March, who feels Meg will be marrying beneath herself, and in Darcy’s his own aunt, Lady Catherine, who believes Darcy will. Both aunts threaten the girls: Aunt March threatens to disinherit Meg and predicts she will be miserable living in a cottage; Lady Catherine threatens that Darcy’s aristocratic family will shun Elizabeth. Both young women respond indignantly, refusing to promise not to enter into an engagement and asserting that the prohibited marriage would be a happy one despite any loss of economic or social standing. As a result Darcy a few days later renews his suit, admitting that his aunt’s unsuccessful interference “taught him to hope” (III, xvi). John, who overhears Meg defend him to Aunt March, proposes again immediately.

Austen wrote no sequels to Pride and Prejudice, leaving that task to innumerable modern authors, but Alcott at the end of Part I suggests that she might raise the curtain on a second act of Little Women. And in this second act Aunt March settles more questions. Her preference for the amenable Amy as opposed to the intractable Jo helps persuade Aunt Carrol to take Amy, not Jo, abroad, thus enabling the eventual courtships of Laurie and Professor Bhaer. And of course her willing of Plumfield to Jo enables the Bhaers to found their school, the site of two further sequels.

The final scene in Part I diverges from the group scenes so often depicted by illustrators of Little Women. Instead of the sisters gathered around Marmee or Beth at the piano, the characters appear in pairs: Marmee and Mr. March, Beth and old Mr. Laurence, Meg and John, Jo and Laurie. Only Amy is alone, “drawing the lovers.” Interestingly, Part II ends fifteen years later with the familiar, much loved tableau featuring Marmee and her daughters, each of whom has realized or improved upon her castle in the air.

Elizabeth Lennox Keyser, professor emerita of Hollins University, is the author of Whispers in the Dark: The Fiction of Louisa May Alcott (1993), Little Women: A Family Romance (1999), and the editor of The Portable Louisa May Alcott (2000).


Illustration by Louis Jambor (1947).

Chapter XXI. Laurie Makes Mischief, and Jo Makes Peace

By Jan Alberghene

I was nine when I first read Little Women, but I still remember pausing over Hannah’s calling Laurie the “‘interferingest chap,’” not because I disagreed with her opinion, but because it took me a few minutes to decode the unfamiliar word “interferingest.” I had to agree with Hannah. Laurie popped up in places where he had no business being: at a meeting of the Pickwick Club (where Jo was, to be fair, a co-conspirator), and later when the sisters climbed a nearby hill on a pleasant afternoon to “play pilgrims” in private as they sewed and talked. “Yes,” I thought, “Laurie was the ‘interferingest,’” and I hadn’t even reached the chapter titled “Laurie Makes Mischief, and Jo Makes Peace.”

After I finished reading chapter 21, the Laurie I liked no longer existed. Although Laurie is barely sixteen, he feels superior to his tutor Mr. Brooke, a good and conscientious man eleven years his senior. Laurie actually feels entitled to the role of confidant regarding Brooke’s feelings toward Meg March. Peeved that Brooke firmly shuts him out, Laurie seizes the opportunity to take revenge when his tutor is out of town. Posing as Mr. Brooke, Laurie sends and rescinds love letters to Meg March.

Six decades and many re-readings later, I still enjoy reading Little Women. What has changed is the depth of my admiration for the novel, which has steadily increased, despite—or perhaps largely due—to my ever-diminishing regard for Theodore, a.k.a. “Laurie” and “Teddy,” Laurence. He doesn’t age well in terms of his becoming more mature during the year that passes in Part I of Little Women. Neither has he aged well outside the novel, in the 150 years since its initial publication.

I write this conscious of the critical misinterpretations that can result from reading a novel in isolation from the milieu in which it was written. I’m even more conscious of the mistakes that can arise from interpreting a chapter in isolation from the rest of the novel’s text. Interpreting Laurie’s “mischief” in chapter 21 as egregiously callous is only reinforced, however, by close reading of the chapters that precede his “mischief.” And it isn’t ahistorical to assume that a contemporary seventeen-year-old young woman would feel pain and mortification akin to what Meg experiences.

Laurie’s comportment in chapter 21 is particularly striking because intrusive behavior aside, he’s a good friend to all the March women and downright heroic when he saves Amy from drowning (ch. 8). Laurie’s a complex character, no mere foil, a constant presence reminding readers just who holds power in 19th century America: men, all men, especially rich men.

The space devoted to Meg, Marmee, and Jo in chapter 21 can obscure the fact that Laurie’s “mischief” is directed toward his tutor, a poor man who has to earn his living by teaching a rich entitled brat who charms gentlewomen but throws tantrums at other men, his tutor and his grandfather. Laurie isn’t trying to hurt Meg, but he does something far worse: ignore her very existence in his plot to show Mr. Brooke who is boss. Meg is just collateral damage in a skirmish fought by a boy against a man who is not even aware this particular war is on.

The three women participate in the cover-up of Laurie’s emotional violence. Jo quickly realizes that Laurie, not his tutor, wrote the notes attributed to Brooke and has violated Meg’s privacy by reading and keeping his replies. Jo and Marmee quickly turn their attention to damage control.

Marmee spends a half hour with Laurie that ensures the incident is contained; Meg must not suffer further embarrassment by Laurie’s telling anyone what he did. Jo smooths over Mr. Laurence’s anger at Laurie’s consequent refusal to confess. Most tellingly, Jo also calms Laurie’s outrage at being shaken by his grandfather. The very mild physical reprimand isn’t what angers Laurie. His fury stems from a man’s (regardless of who and how old the man) shaking him. No matter how much time Laurie spends with Jo, her sisters, or Marmee, Laurie lives in a man’s world. And so do the women, whether grown or “Little.”

Jan Alberghene is Professor Emerita of English Studies at Fitchburg State University and the co-editor, with Beverly Lyon Clark, of Little Women and the Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays (1999).


Christian Bale as Laurie, Little Women (1994).

Chapter XII. Camp Laurence

By A. Waller Hastings

Like many of the chapters of Little Women, chapter 12 – “Camp Laurence” – could be a self-contained short story, moving along a trajectory from the arrival of invitations to the picnic to a satisfactory day’s end, when Mr. Brooke responds to the British Kate’s observation that “American girls are very nice when one knows them” with the comment “I quite agree with you.” What more is needed?

The first half of the book, covering a year in the March family’s lives while Father is away at the war, is constructed as a series of such episodes. If chapter 12 could function independently, though, it also fits into the overall arc of the novel, in two ways. First, it offers additional evidence about the characters and romantic attachments of several characters. And second, it is a rare chapter that makes explicit, if satirical, reference to the war itself.

I first noted this chapter a few years ago when exploring the degree to which the Civil War plays an explicit role in Volume One of Little Women. Although Laurie’s “jolly time” games and picnic are not all that different from what might occur just as well in peacetime, he presents it as a kind of military exercise. The picnic site is designated “Camp Laurence” and every participant is assigned a military-termed role. During the croquet game, the American contingent “contested every inch of the ground as strongly as if the spirit of ’76 inspired them,” and disputes about the game are called “skirmishes.” In the mock-military company, Brooke is named as commander-in-chief; and he is the one member of the party who will actually go on to serve in the army.

When Meg turns to Brooke to ask about Laurie’s future (and by extension, his own), he says “as soon as he is off I shall turn soldier,” an aspiration of which she strongly approves: “I should think every young man would want to go, though it is hard for the mothers and sisters, who stay at home.” His bitter reflection that he lacks anyone to miss him then gives her an opportunity to state obliquely that she – and the other Marches, of course – “should all be very sorry to have any harm happen to you.” Thus more hints are dropped of the growing attachment of the couple, and add weight to Brooke’s closing remark.

Generations of readers have lamented that Jo does not end up marrying Laurie, but despite the close friendship the two share, there is little here to suggest that Jo, at least, has any romantic notions about her neighbor. She appears oblivious to any such possibilities, most notably in her segment of the “Rigmarole” storytelling that follows the group’s lunch.

Brooke starts off seriously, establishing a poor knight (himself) searching for a “certain beautiful face” (Meg’s) to be found in a group of captive princesses (the other March girls). As each member of the party takes up the story, it veers wildly according to the teller’s personality. Meg introduces a Gothic element: a ghost. Jo parodies the romantic tale, having a ghost threaten the knight with a snuffbox that makes him sneeze so hard his head falls off; Amy converts the narrative into a fairy tale, and Laurie tops things off by replacing the knight’s head with a cabbage. So the serious romance between Brooke and Meg is offset by the more juvenile, not to say silly, attitude toward such romance by the younger Marches and Laurie.

Professor of English at West Liberty University, where he teaches young adult literature, Wally Hastings wouldn’t be caught dead reading Little Women in his childhood. As an adult reader, he forced himself and became hooked.