Jo has trouble keeping secret the potential courtship between Meg and Mr. Brooke. Laurie tries to get the secret out of Jo and grows annoyed when he cannot. In the meantime, Meg receives a letter allegedly from Mr. Brooke declaring his love. She answers it before Jo gets a chance to tell her that Laurie probably wrote it. The reply from Mr. Brooke says that he has never written a love letter. Jo says that she thinks Laurie wrote this letter and the earlier one with the glove. Sure enough, Laurie comes over, confesses, and apologizes. Meg and Jo tell him never to reveal the story to anyone. Laurie leaves, and Jo decides to let him know that she is not angry with him. She goes over to the Laurence house, where Laurie is in a terrible mood. His grandfather has demanded to know what is bothering Laurie; Laurie has refused to tell him, and they have quarreled. Upset, Laurie tells Jo he wants to run away. In order to help, Jo explains Laurie’s actions to his grandfather, who writes a note of apology to his grandson.
Christmas arrives and everyone is very merry. Laurie and Jo make a snowwoman for Beth, and everyone else gets lovely presents too. The Laurences and Mr. Brooke surprise the family by bringing Mr. March home for Christmas. They have a very joyful time, and Mr. March tells the girls how much each of them has grown up. Jo is upset, however, because she can feel Meg slipping away from the family in her preoccupation with Mr. Brooke.
Meg becomes nervous and blushes whenever Mr. Brooke is mentioned. Her parents think that she is too young to be married, and in order to follow their wishes, she prepares a speech of rejection in case he makes advances. When Mr. Brooke comes over, she softens somewhat in his presence. Nevertheless, when he professes his love for her, she tells him she is too young. Aunt March arrives in the middle of this encounter. Mr. Brooke steps out, and Aunt March lectures Meg, telling her she should marry someone wealthy. Aunt March’s tirade makes Meg defend her right to love and marry Mr. Brooke. After Aunt March leaves, Mr. Brooke comes back into the room, confessing that he has heard Meg’s conversation. Meg says that she did not realize how much she admired Mr. Brooke until she had to defend him. He is thrilled by her realization and asks her to marry him in a few years. Meg agrees, and her parents consent. Jo is unhappy because she feels that she is losing her sister. Laurie arrives with Mr. Laurence, and they are both thrilled for the new couple. The first part of the book ends with the family gathered in the living room.
Meg does a lot of growing up in these three chapters; she falls in love and becomes engaged. Despite the outward happiness the family expresses for Meg’s impending marriage, a negative current runs beneath the surface of the affair. Jo abhors losing a sister, and often likens Meg’s love for Mr. Brooke to a disease. In Chapter 21, Jo says of Meg, “She feels it in the air—love, I mean—and she’s going very fast. She’s got most of the symptoms, is twittery and cross, don’t eat, lies awake, and mopes in corners.” In the wake of Beth’s recent recovery from grave illness, Jo’s metaphors about love as a sickness seem more serious than comical. Alcott may want her readers to draw a connection between Beth’s and Meg’s conditions; both girls are stuck in unhealthy nineteenth-century female roles. Beth is struck down by the selflessness that is encouraged in women, and Meg is struck down—at least in Jo’s opinion—by agreeing to become a typical wife.
On the other hand, when Meg agrees to marry Mr. Brooke, she demonstrates that at last she has overcome her own weakness for luxury and riches. John is not a rich man, and he will not provide Meg with the glamorous lifestyle she once coveted, but she loves him nonetheless. Alcott underlines Meg’s triumphant victory over materialism by having Aunt March object to Mr. Brooke’s poverty, and then letting us hear Meg’s passionate defense of him and her insistence that his poverty does not matter because he is a good man and they love each other.
Still, Alcott does not entirely gloss over the issue of poverty. Little Women presents a less idealized version of domesticity than many earlier novels. Her characters have real financial problems, and she suggests that Meg is being sweetly naïve to think that money will make no difference to her happiness. She suggests that the best type of marriage—as in the novels of the nineteenth-century English author Jane Austen—combines both love and money, since the conventions of nineteenth-century society make it difficult, if not impossible, for women to earn their own livings.
The end of this chapter marks the close of Part One. Part One was published on its own, and, when it was well-received, Alcott went on to write and publish Part Two. She ends this first part somewhat artificially, saying that “the curtain falls upon Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy.” By mentioning a curtain close, Alcott calls attention to the fact that the story she is presenting to us is artificial and constructed. She seems to acknowledge that her novel has grown more conventional and romantic and less real—as though we are watching a play, with characters that are obviously fictional.