Meg begins married life determined to be a model housekeeper. Her initial efforts are overzealous – in one phase, she goes through a cooking mania that leaves Mr. Brooke with indigestion, and in another she becomes overly frugal, leaving her husband to eat very scanty meals.
Women in the 19th century were expected to stay at home and master the wifely arts of cooking and housekeeping. The following chapter will offer an object lesson in the merits of simplicity in keeping house.
Meg then takes a notion to fill her pantry with homemade currant preserves. She has her husband order canning supplies, currents, and sugar, and once they arrive she sets out to make the jam. Meg quickly discovers that, while she’d witnessed Hannah making jam numerous times, she didn’t realize it was quite so tricky. Her kitchen quickly becomes a mess, and Meg is frustrated when the preserves won’t set.
Meg and Mr. Brooke aren’t wealthy enough to hire a servant to do the cooking, so Meg’s duty as a woman is to take care of the household chores herself. Meg wishes to be the ideal 19th century wife: a beautiful, cheerful woman who nonetheless is also capable of culinary magic.
Mr. Brooke, meanwhile, decides to bring a friend home for supper – something Meg had always encouraged him to do. Upon returning home with his friend, he’s shocked to discover the kitchen in disarray, supper unmade, and his wife in a foul mood. He comforts Meg and inadvertently insults her with a joke about the failed jam. Meg huffily sends him and his friend out of the house.
Because she didn’t keep things simple, Meg has failed on all fronts to be the cheerful, ideal woman she hoped she would be. Mr. Brooke, although he feels sorry for her, nonetheless expects her to fulfill her wifely duties: to provide delicious meals, to keep a clean house, and to be a cheerful hostess.
That night, when Mr. Brooke returns home, Meg gives Mr. Brooke the cold shoulder until she recalls some advice Mrs. March had given her regarding Mr. Brooke: “Watch yourself, be the first to ask pardon if you both err…” She goes to her husband and begs his pardon, and the two are able to laugh about the whole incident.
Meg thus learns a lesson about being a good wife: you mustn’t let your silly feminine moods and foibles (i.e. the jam experiment) get in the way of making your husband happy.
A few months later, in the autumn, Meg renews her friendship with Sallie Moffat. Meg quickly grows envious of Sallie’s ability to buy clothing and trifles on a whim. While shopping with Sallie one day, Meg splurges on a fifty-dollar silk dress. When she brings it home, she realizes that the dress isn’t as lovely as she hoped, and that she’s made a mistake.
The Marches inhabit a borderline space between classes: they have the wealth of a working class family, but the breeding and connections of a wealthy family. Because she’s able to move in wealthier circles, Meg is able to feel more keenly her desire for the material wealth of the upper classes - hence her continued battle with the desire for fancy clothing.
At the end of the week, when she and Mr. Brooke are going over their budget, Meg confesses to buying the dress. Mr. Brooke is bewildered and disappointed. Meg apologizes, but also bitterly admits that she is tired of being poor. Mr. Brooke forgives Meg, but it’s clear that she has hurt him.
Because Meg is a housewife, she is essentially powerless to change her monetary circumstances except through appealing to her husband. Her inability to accept her circumstances is a wifely failing (she should support her husband at all times).
One week later, Mr. Brooke reveals that he’s cancelled the order for his new winter coat, given that he can no longer afford it. Meg weeps bitterly, and the two end up having a long discussion that helps Meg to “love her husband better for his poverty, because it seemed to have made a man of him….”
Is Mr. Brooke playing up his martyrdom a bit in this scene? Possibly. He is able to do this because Meg isn’t being a subservient wife, and he knows that she’ll feel guilty. Alcott once again pushes the idea that poverty actually breeds virtue.
The next day, Meg goes to Sallie and asks her to buy the dress from her as a favor; Sallie obliges. Meg then orders Mr. Brooke a new greatcoat – when it arrives and he tries it on, she asks him “how he liked her new silk gown.”
Meg exhibits that she’s learning to be a devoted wife – sacrificing her own happiness for her husband’s.
The following summer, Meg experiences “the deepest and tenderest” experience “of a woman’s life:” she gives birth to twins, a girl and a boy, nicknamed Daisy and Demi.
In the patriarchal 19th century, it was understood that the greatest thing a woman could do was become a mother.