The family seems complete now that Mr. March is home – still, they feel like something is missing. Meg (who seems love-struck) is an object of scrutiny, and Jo shakes her fist at the umbrella Mr. Brooke happened to leave at their house.
The umbrella, which will return again at the end of Part 2, symbolizes male protectiveness. The subtext here is that one thing needs to be solved: the question of whether Meg will be married off to Mr. Brooke.
Jo mentions to Meg that she doesn’t seem like her old self, and asks her how she’d respond to a proposal of marriage from Mr. Brooke. Meg coolly replies that she would calmly inform Mr. Brooke that she is too young “at present, so please say no more, but let us be friends as we were.”
Although Jo can see that Meg is in the throes of lovesickness, she has hope that Meg will reject an offer of marriage (as Jo still sees marriage as a threat to her togetherness with her sisters). Meg’s cool response reflects her desire to be virtuous.
Mr. Brooke arrives to collect his umbrella just as Meg finishes her speech. Jo, flustered, tells Mr. Brook that she’ll fetch it and jumbles her words, mixing up her father and the umbrella: “It’s very well, he’s in the rack. I’ll get him, and tell it you are here.”
Given that the umbrella can be seen as symbolizing male protection, it’s unsurprising that she’s confused it (in speaking, anyway) with Mr. Brooke, a protective father figure.
Meg and Mr. Brooke are left alone. Mr. Brooke confesses his love to Meg, and asks her if she feels the same. Meg’s mind goes blank, and she replies that she doesn’t know. “Will you try and find out?” Mr. Brooke asks. “I want to know so much, for I can’t go to work with any heart until I learn whether I am to have my reward in the end…” He begs her, and Meg suddenly becomes aware of her power to snub Mr. Brooke. She recalls Annie Moffat’s “lessons in coquetry,” and petulantly dismisses him. Mr. Brooke is shattered.
Interestingly, in referring to Meg’s love as a “reward,” Mr. Brooke sounds awfully similar to Amy with regards to her turquoise ring. Talk like this wasn’t uncommon in the 19th century, when the role of women dictated that, especially when married, they were by and large a man’s property. Meg’s relapse into bad Moffat behavior offers a lesson in the “wrong kind” of flirtation: one that’s teasing and insincere.
Aunt March suddenly enters the room, and Mr. Brooke slips away. Aunt March realizes that Mr. Brooke is Meg’s suitor, and decides to give Meg a piece of her mind. She informs Meg that it is her duty “to make a rich match,” and that if Meg marries Mr. Brooke she’ll never see a penny of her inheritance. Aunt March then goes on to insinuate that Mr. Brooke wants to marry Meg because she has rich relations. Meg is incensed, and she retorts that Mr. Brooke isn’t marrying her for money, and that she wishes to be with him because he loves her.
Alcott often trots Aunt March into a scene when some moral lesson needs to be imparted to the March girls – hence her abrupt (and somewhat unbelievable) appearance in this scene. Given that Meg isn’t afraid to be poor, and given that she isn’t afraid to work for a living, she is thus able to make what Alcott would consider to be the virtuous choice in this scene.
Aunt March storms out. Mr. Brooke rushes in and confesses that he overheard the whole conversation. Meg forgets her coquetry and tells Mr. Brooke that he should stay with her. Jo enters and is dismayed to find Meg sitting in Mr. Brooke’s lap. Jo rushes upstairs and tells her parents that Mr. Brooke is “behaving dreadfully, and Meg likes it!”
During this time, a declaration of love was as good as saying you were engaged to be married. Jo’s horror at Meg’s betrothal is supposed to be read as comic. Readers in the 19th century were of the belief that getting betrothed was the best thing a woman could do, and so Jo’s alarm would be seen as an overreaction.
The Marches (with the exception of Jo), Mr. Laurence, and Laurie are overjoyed by the news that Mr. Brooke and Meg are in love. Jo confides in Laurie that she feels like she’s lost her dearest friend. Laurie tells her to cheer up and see how happy her family is. Indeed, they are all in a state of bliss. The entire family has gathered in the parlor, and it is a pretty picture. Mr. and Mrs. March are “quietly reliving” the early days of their love through Meg, Amy draws the new couple, and Beth sits chatting with Mr. Laurence. Meanwhile, Jo and Laurie sit on the couch together, and they consider their image in the “long glass which reflected them both.”
The marriage of a daughter was a big event in 19th century families – it signaled the shift from the daughter’s girlhood into wifedom and motherhood. Even though gender-bending Jo is championed in Little Women, it’s telling that the climax of Part I (the original end of the book) comes when Meg is engaged to be married. The finest thing Meg can accomplish – that any of the March girls can accomplish, it seems – is to become engaged. In looking in the mirror, Jo and Laurie reflect on who they might become; this scene foreshadows their dynamic in Part II.