Literally no one’s favorite “little woman” is Meg. This is because Meg is the most womanly of the little women, and no one actually likes women. Meg is mom jeans. Meg is minivans. Meg is Hillary Clinton.
Put differently, Meg is the little woman who was most responsible for following the rules, and also the most rewarded by the rules, and so she followed all the rules, and she came to embody the rules, which is what “womanly” women do, and so, when people think of Meg (or Hillary), they just think, “ugh, rules.” Us too. Meg isn’t our favorite either.
Little Women’s smart ambivalence about womanhood isn’t a problem; it’s maybe what’s most compelling about the novel. Everything that makes Meg appealing and popular within the world of the novel makes her unattractive and constricting to those of us without it. Alcott, in creating the indelible Jo, understood the narrative power that adheres to characters who stave off, at least for a time, womanliness. In Meg, on the other hand, who is always a woman, we see an opposite tension playing out: Jo keeps telling us how much she loves Meg, and yet Alcott, and the novel itself, gives the reader very few reasons to love her. Readers want stories, and “women,” in the terms of this book, are women to the extent that they have none — that they prevent and minimize and moralize — with rules — against the encounters that drive narrative. Stories happen when girls don’t listen to the Marmee.
(Sidebar: please note that at the beginning of Little Women the girls are 16, 15, 13, and 12, so let’s just pause a moment to give Marmee a little hug for the unspoken story of what happened between Jo and Beth, which was obviously a miscarriage. Or, a lot of fights with Father about keeping his dick in his pants, fights that she, in the long term, lost.)
Anyway, Meg. It’s hard to understand anything about her compromises when you read Little Women for the first time, in your girlhood, before you’ve wrangled with womanly compromises of your own. But if you reread Little Women right around the time you turn 40, and maybe after you’ve had some kids, when you get to the chapter that is literally about sleep training a baby, it’s like: “holy shit, are there ANY chapters in any other book in all of nineteenth-century human history that depict sleep training a baby?” Which is when you realize: THERE ARE NOT. There are so few literary representations of this thing that literally EVERY ASSHOLE PERSON put their poor mother through at some point, and here is Meg, doing that work for us, helping us understand. Adulthood: it’s a slog. And motherhood, especially the sentimentalized version, is particularly brutal because it’s a slog you are only meant to enjoy.
If you are a bit murky on Meg’s non-story storyline, that’s to be expected. When the novel opens Meg already has one foot (shod in too-tight heels) across the threshold into womanhood, defined by its relationship to marriage and reproduction and against individual expression. The first book ends with Father’s return and Meg’s “abject submission,” as Jo says, to John Brooke’s offer of marriage.
But let’s remember, when we consider Meg: submission is only part of what she is after. In the scenes where she decides whether or not to accept John, the novel describes her as being “possessed” by the “love of power” and “coquetry;” as being governed by a “spice of perversity.” And her final decision is powered not by visions of marital bliss lived out within a cozy “dovecote” of a home, but rather by a “spirit of opposition” to her aunt who has assured Meg that she will not leave her any money should she marry John. There are so many people in bed with Meg and John — Laurie, Aunt March, Jo — that the novel makes it impossible to see marriage as simply a submission to a man. Instead, Meg’s woman’s work is to balance her own competing drives with the loving emotions that, as Lara says, has been “manufactured only for export.”
What we learn through Meg’s oppositional experience of romantic love, is not that Meg is “really” empowered or rebellious, but that those categories — so important to Jo, and also to many readers — simply don’t, under patriarchy, work as ways to understand women’s interior life, or even as ways to understand anything at all. Conventionality is not the opposite of anarchic emotional experience. Anarchy travels along in every minivan.
So, Meg marries John Brooke. Reader, we would like to posit a theory: there is no more loathsome character anywhere than John Fucking Brooke.
This is a bold claim — is he actually worse than Gilbert Osmond, or even Lawrence Selden? — but really it might be true, because Alcott is fantastically transparent about how insidiously damaging it can be to have a life partner show up, all well-rested, and “reasonable” in the face of a domesticity-addled mind. The double punch of John’s affection for Meg’s womanliness and his insistence on taking every opportunity to belittle that womanliness is more than anyone should have to bear. But Little Women might be best read as a guide book to the “best bad choices” available to women hoping to accrue a little approval or even just survive, and one of those bad choices is to absorb masculine condescension and annoyance and reflect both back, smilingly, as guidance and gift.
Importantly, it’s not just John who, in Little Women, dismisses Meg’s form of femininity; Meg has been prepped by a lifetime of men who love a well-dressed, comely woman but have literally no idea the labor that goes into producing that woman. Meg has two important scenes in Little Women: “Meg Goes to Vanity Fair” and “Domestic Experiences” (better known as the Jelly chapter.) Meg starts to make sense as a character, a character profoundly expressing the anarchy of inner life, when you realize that: these two scenes are the same. They are the pre- and post- nuptial scenes of womanly life, and both of them are fundamentally scenes by which sweetness emerges out of violent, even chemical, constriction.
First, the pre-nuptial. In Book 1, Meg goes to visit her rich, fashionable friends, and the chapter gives us a glimpse not just of the labor that goes into producing a marriageable woman (“crimped and curled” “polished” and “touched”) but also, importantly, the structure that holds it all up. Meg gets laced into a corset “so tight she could hardly breathe” and feels like “her ‘fun’ had really begun at last, for the mirror had plainly told her that she was ‘a little beauty’.”
It’s easy to see a corset that restricts breath as a punishment, but Meg is not actually punished by the corset itself. Instead, Meg is punished by the pleasure she takes in being laced into it, and in the beauty that results. She’s punished for trying to follow the rules of beauty — for making them visible.
When she runs into Laurie at the ball, he is put off by her glamorous appearance and tells her “I don’t like fuss and feathers.” This from the man who will later be brought to his knees by Amy’s wonderful execution wearing her skirts of “illusion.” Illusion is obviously the perfect figure for what domestic femininity is meant to be, and probably why Amy succeeds most of all and why many hate her for it: the men in Little Women want to continually reap the benefits of the structures of reproductive marital patriarchy but want also to have no idea about the construction of those structures.
And so Meg learns. She learns that taking her own pleasure in producing something beautiful to consume is shameful. At the ball, she overhears an elderly man disparage her to a friend: “They are making a fool of that little girl; I wanted you to see her, but they have spoiled her entirely; she’s nothing but a doll tonight.” Bracketing for a minute the fact that it occurs to no one in this scene that these two old men gawking at a sixteen year old might, themselves, be possible objects of our judgement, let’s consider their criticism of her: that she is “spoiled,” like food gone off. Spoiled — as though what she was before was natural, or fresh, when, really, what she was “before” was a young person hourly engaged with learning how to suppress all of her ugly feelings — anger, jealousy, irritation — in the process of learning how to be something those in the book might call a “natural woman.”
Meg, in this scene, is a heartbreak: “I wish I’d been sensible and worn my own things, then I should not have disgusted other people, or felt so uncomfortable or ashamed myself.” Meg, there in her “tight dress [which] gave her an uncomfortably brilliant color” has “spoiled” and “disgusted” other people; she has not been properly preserved; she’s become bad food.
Which brings us, of course, to Meg’s postnuptial attempt to follow the recipe of femininity, the moment when Meg speaks the most tragic line of all domestic realism: “The — the jelly won’t jell and I don’t know what to do!”
Let’s briefly call to mind some details: Meg has repeatedly offered to host John and his work friends as guests, and then when he finally shows up one afternoon with some bro having given her zero notice, it happens to be on the day when she is making jelly, which John Brooke “forgot.” Have you made jelly? You don’t forget it: standing over a hot boiler or steamer, dealing with a very sticky (and expensive) syrupy mess while some weird hard-to-predict chemistry happens with pectin. In Meg’s case, the chemistry isn’t working: “she reboiled, resugared, and restrained, and that dreadful stuff wouldn’t ‘jell.’”
Have you ever read a more wrenching sentence about failed femininity?
Little Women makes a little bit light of Meg’s anguish at the fact that “the jelly won’t jell,” because taking a light and breezy tone towards the deep wells of womanly distress is what the novel does best and a lot of why we love it — this “breezy tone,” of course, is necessary to disguise the real service the novel provides to young lady readers, which is cluing them in to the fact that the labor of domestic life is a shit show, all the way down. Making jelly is about breaking individual cells, the walls of the fruit, and recreating from these structured individual segments a glistening whole. It’s like making a family. It is a fragile dangerous process, an attempt to make the anarchy of multiple people’s clashing bodies and minds into something sustainable, and lasting, and even sweet.
Jelly is useless, but also the very foundation of domesticity: bounty lovingly and carefully transmuted into a new form that keeps. You, woman, making jelly, are literally a wizard, taking control of seasonal time, plucking fruit from vines with thorns, and performing complicated rites in order to give the non-material — love, care, pleasure — material and extravagant, “brilliant” form, like Meg in her laced-up dress. Meg understands that the unjelled jelly is an indication about how fragile the magic undergirding American domestic experience is. At any moment, based as it is on a fragile dance of knowing and not knowing and smiling and belittling, it might cease to cling together, and then where would we be?
Anyway, John Brooke, villain, certainly fails to see the unjelled jelly as a deep metaphysical travesty, but we assure that is what it is. In the face of Meg’s realization, he laughs. John Fucking Brooke fucking laughs. He laughs at her in front of his friend! Two men judging her labor, like the two men judging her at her at the ball, for making the labor that goes into domestic femininity visible, and for her clear investment, because she cares.
Meg still isn’t our favorite. But what we see through Meg is the process by which women become people who are the opposite of stories. Meg’s interests, and many of her scenes, dramatize how the narratives within which she might have become a more interesting or driven or passionate human are actively shut down by others laughing at her and shaming her. Meg reacts to this shame, as most of us would, by retreating from her own stories, taking from them not the more extravagant possibilities of womanhood but rather the safer, less shameful, plain ones: no more corsets for Meg, only mom jeans. (The whole point of mom jeans, of course, is that, when you wear them, nothing happens: nothing to the person wearing them, and nothing to the person looking at them.)
The fact that Meg is no one’s standout favorite is not her problem. It’s ours. It means, maybe, that she is in fact succeeding at her wizardry. We are, a little bit, under her spell: to the extent that she seems to us dull, she is in fact concealing from all of us — from John Brooke, from Alcott, from readers — the anarchy-smoothing magic that she, as a woman, everyday performs.