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Little Women: Why Is Meg’s First Kiss Given To Marmee?

A screenshot of John and Meg at their wedding taken from the BBC's 2017 production of Little Women

Screen shot from Little Women, copyright © 2017 BBC.

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. During the next fifteen minutes she looked more like a rose than ever, for everyone availed themselves of their privileges to the fullest extent, from Mr. Laurence to old Hannah, who, adorned with a headdress fearfully and wonderfully made, fell upon her in the hall, crying with a sob and a chuckle, “Bless you, deary, a hundred times! The cake ain’t hurt a mite, and everything looks lovely.” (Alcott, Chapter 25)

This scene in Little Women Part Two (Good Wives) wherein Meg marries John is one that balances the continuation of the story – it gets you right back into it after what, at the time of publication, had been a gap of three months1 – and a new beginning – the sisters are starting to come into adulthood, and they are getting married just as Alcott’s readers wanted and Alcott half wanted (she wanted Jo to remain single).

The scene is also distinctly uncomfortable – albeit that it’s prefaced with an apology. As we can see from the extract above, after Meg and John have made their vows, Meg gives her first kiss to Marmee. How John felt about this is anyone’s guess – and whether Meg kissed him after kissing Marmee we’ll never know.

It is all contained in one sentence, a very brief interlude. Likely readers accepted it – Alcott’s apology tries to mitigate any criticism before the fact. But regardless, the scene is… icky, particularly as Meg doesn’t just kiss Marmee but ‘gave it with her heart on her lips’, rather as she ought to be kissing John. An act that signals the confirmation and the beginning of a romantic union is effectively changed, pushed aside by one of the two people it affects the most.

So why does it happen? There are a few book-related and Alcott-related reasons to consider. Looking at the novel first, at both parts in their entirety, we see that for all four sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy – Marmee comes first. This is evident from the first scenes, wherein Marmee returns home to a great reception – the sisters have been thinking about how they will spend their money and decide to buy Christmas presents for their mother. When she arrives home and there’s a letter from their father – he’s a member of the clergy during the American Civil War – they all gather around her in positions of affection to hear her read it. It’s incredibly sweet, a sign of a loving family, and in many ways that’s ‘just’ what the book is about. It’s also, perhaps, influenced by the absence of the father, how it has affected everyone and pulled them closer together. But one thing it definitely is is a sign of the domesticity to come.

Looking at the wedding, Marmee coming first for the sisters is evidenced by the first kiss. Unfortunately for John, he’s a bit player on his wedding day. Sarah Rivas touches on the scene in her article, Defining Nineteeth-Century Womanhood: The Cult of Marmee and Little Women (2014). Rivas looks at Marmee’s influence as a whole, and points out something about Jo that we can apply to Meg’s first kiss. She discusses a passage that is included in the novel later on; Jo says, in response to Marmee telling her to wait ‘until the best lover of all’ comes along, that ‘mothers are the best lovers in the world’ (Alcott, Chapter 42). This passage comes as Jo is struggling with the idea of being in a relationship with Laurie. Jo’s response, says Rivas, indicates that ‘though Jo is interested in a romantic relationship, her interest does not supersede her adoration and reverence for her mother’ (Rivas, p.55). It’s certainly a response that’s edging towards being irrelevant to the subject at hand – out of context, one might consider Jo to be much younger than she really is.

We can presume that Meg feels the same way as Jo, this ‘adoration and reverence’ that Rivas notes. Meg’s action, kissing Marmee instead of her husband, is an action to match Jo’s words. As Rivas says, the kiss ‘illustrates only one of several incidents in the text in which Marmee is equated with a male lover’ (ibid.). Jo’s response to her mother certainly suggests the value of Rivas’ statement, and the descriptions and dialogues of and about Marmee take this further.

Given what we know about the book in relation to the author – both parts of the novel are largely autobiographical; Jo is Alcott and the sisters her own – should we assume that the happily single Alcott’s rebellion against a marriage for her fictional counterpart plays a role in Meg’s action? It’s possible, but if so it is in terms of the overall context rather than specific to Meg. If we look at Jo as Alcott then she could have extended her thoughts towards Meg but it’s unlikely – Meg is based on Anna Alcott, who likewise married a man called John, and thus the writer was likely happy to include the wedding in her book.

But even if the rebellion against marriage doesn’t play a role in Meg’s first kiss, Alcott’s family life in general does. Alcott was interested in including a lot of domesticity in her book, as is apparent in the text, and it matched her world. She had a reverence for her family. This is where all the love for Marmee comes into the Alcott-related reason for the kiss. A look at Alcott’s diaries, collected by Ednah Cheney, shows just how well the fiction matches the reality, extremely positive language and even the occasional use of ‘kiss’ in entries and letters about and to family.

Affection was important, and no more to the rest of the family than to Alcott. There are examples aplenty so we will stick to those that include kisses. Here is one from 1843, when Alcott was ten and the family were living at Fruitlands, a fairly short-lived attempt at a utopian community that was formed by the Transcendentalist society they were members of:

October 8th.– When I woke up, the first thought I got was, “It’s Mother’s birthday: I must be very good.” I ran and wished her a happy birthday, and gave her my kiss. After breakfast we gave her our presents. I had a moss cross and a piece of poetry for her (Cheney, 1898, p.37).

Two years later she wrote a poem for her mother. We have this as well as the text of the letter her mother sent in return:

Dearest Mother,-I have tried to be more contented, and I think I have been more so. I have been thinking about my little room, which I suppose I never shall have. I should want to be there about all the time, and I should go there and sing and think.

But I’ll be contented
With what I have got;
Of folly repented,
Then sweet is my lot.

From your trying daughter,
Louy. (ibid., p.46)

My dear Louisa,-Your note gave me so much delight that I cannot close my eyes without first thanking you, dear, for making me so happy, and blessing God who gave you this tender love for your mother.

I have observed all day your patience with baby, your obedience to me, and your kindness to all.

Go on “trying,” my child; God will give you strength and courage, and help you fill each day with words and deeds of love. I shall lay this on your pillow, put a warm kiss on your lips, and say a little prayer over you in your sleep.

Mother (ibid.).

Considering Alcott’s age here, we can only use these extracts to help illustrate the sense of family and the values of those Alcott was growing up amongst rather than as an absolute reason for Meg’s action, but that in itself is very telling. Most telling, however, and most useful in our case, is the following extract from Alcott’s journal, written in May 1860 when the writer was twenty-eight. Interestingly, it’s titled ‘Meg’s wedding’:

The dear girl was married on the 23d, the same day as Mother’s wedding. A lovely day; the house full of sunshine, flowers, friends, and happiness. Uncle S. J. May married them, with no fuss, but much love; and we all stood round her. She in her silver-gray silk, with lilies of the valley (John’s flower) in her bosom and hair. We in gray thin stuff and roses,–sackcloth, I called it, and ashes of roses; for I mourn the loss of my Nan, and am not comforted. We have had a little feast, sent by good Mrs. Judge Shaw; then the old 122 folks danced round the bridal pair on the lawn in the German fashion, making a pretty picture to remember, under our Revolutionary elm.

Then, with tears and kisses, our dear girl, in her little white bonnet, went happily away with her good John; and we ended our first wedding. Mr. Emerson kissed her; and I thought that honor would make even matrimony endurable, for he is the god of my idolatry, and has been for years (ibid. pp.121-122).

From this we can see that as much as Alcott may have been happy for her sister on the occasion of her marriage, she was also filled with a sense of loss – her sister was leaving the family to set up home with her husband. There is no mention of the first kiss, but there is the mention of the fact that Anna was getting married on her parents’ wedding anniversary. That this is mentioned is a further sign of the Alcott family life and values.

The kiss that is mentioned is that given to Anna by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was a close friend of the family. But it is not the fact of the kiss itself that is poignant here, but the remainder of what Alcott says about him, that he is ‘the god of my idolatry’. Alcott is comforted by Emerson’s gesture to her sister; she looks at the situation with something that resembles a crush. Alcott doesn’t want to marry, but if being a bride meant being kissed by Emerson – not as the bridegroom, though her words edge towards that idea – she might well be happy. It says a lot about how she felt about him.

Alcott didn’t mince her words – she really did see Emerson in a particularly brilliant light. As editor of Alcott’s journals and letters, Ednah Cheney adds her own commentary to the collection. Here is a paragraph from a letter Alcott wrote to a friend followed by a paragraph from Cheney’s commentary on it. The letter was written later in Alcott’s life about a time during her fifteenth year:

Not till many years later did I tell my Goethe of this early romance and the part he played in it. He was much amused, and begged for his letters, kindly saying he felt honored to be so worshipped. The letters were burnt long ago, but Emerson remained my “Master” while he lived, doing more for me,–as for many another,–than he knew, by the simple beauty of his life, the truth and wisdom of his books, the example of a great, good man, untempted and unspoiled by the world which he made better while in it, and left richer and nobler when he went.

[…]

Miss Alcott was safe in choosing her idol. Worship of Emerson could only refine and elevate her thoughts, and her intimate acquaintance with his beautiful home chastened her idolatry into pure reverent friendship which never failed her. She kept her worship to herself, and never sent him the letters in which she poured out the longings and raptures which filled her girlish heart (ibid. p.345).

This ‘worship’ of Emerson, particularly when combined with the journal entry about Anna’s marriage, is something that brings us back to Rivas’ concept of the cult of Marmee, and the opinion, which Rivas includes, of the critics Gregory K Eiselein and Anne Phillips who call Marmee an ‘omnipotent presence’ (Rivas, p.54). As well as the statement about Marmee being equated to a male lover, there is another from Rivas which is particularly relevant here: ‘throughout the novel, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy do not seem to question Marmee’s goodness, wisdom, or absolute authority’ (ibid., p.55).

It is in this way that Alcott’s worship of Emerson and her love for her mother intersect: her idol kissed her sister after her wedding, and it had a great impact on the way she, Alcott, saw the concept of marriage – or, at least, a wedding – if only for a moment. In her novel, closely following reality, Alcott replaces her idol with Marmee, who receives the adoration and reverence from Meg that we can see Alcott feeling for Emerson, an emotion only heightened by the way she’s included her mother, too. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that Alcott actively replaced Emerson with Marmee, but the same emotions hold forth in the fiction as they did in reality. And if Anna felt similarly about her mother as did her sister, then perhaps this is why Alcott felt comfortable writing the wedding scene in her novel in the way she so chose.

It is incredibly interesting that Alcott prefaces her scene with a note about the inappropriate nature of what Meg is about to do; it suggests that she knew it might not be well-received but that she wanted to do it regardless, and with so much passion. Perhaps Alcott knew her family might read it and wonder why she’d written it, or perhaps it really did happen with Anna and thus was included. Whatever the reason, it shows that she realised it wasn’t the best idea in the book, and that the idea went too far away from what she knew. Perhaps it is where the real domesticity meets the perfect, utopian domesticity that was a part of her world.

Footnotes

1 Part one was published in September 1868 and part two three months later.

Book References

Alcott, Louisa May (1869) Good Wives, Roberts Brothers, Boston
Cheney, Ednah D (ed.) (1898) Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, And Journals, Roberts Brothers, Boston

Article References

Rivas, Sarah (2014) Defining Nineteeth-Century Womanhood – The Cult of Marmee and Little Women, Scientia et Humanitas, Vol 4, pp. 53-64

 
 

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