The King children are sick with the measles, leaving Meg free to spend two weeks with her new friend Annie Moffat, whom she met at the New Year’s Eve dance. Mrs. March has given Meg a few dainty accessories to wear from the “treasure chest” (a trunk full of nice things from the family’s former well-to-do days), but Meg still worries that she will look shabby compared to the wealthy Moffats. Beth observes that Meg had previously said she would simply be happy to accompany the Moffats, and Meg agrees that she shouldn’t fret over clothing.
The chapter opens with a scenario that sets the odds against Meg being able to stay on the straight and narrow Christian path of morality: her idleness will be a breeding ground for sinful thoughts, and the wealth of the Moffat family is already tempting her away from simplicity and natural beauty. Meg’s worry about clothing is an expression of insecurity about her own femininity and attractiveness.
The Moffats are quite fashionable, and “simple Meg” has trouble fitting in. Meg observes that the Moffats aren’t very intelligent or cultivated, but still she envies their splendid things. The Moffats treat Meg like a pet and take to calling her Daisy.
Alcott again underscores Meg’s simplicity in this scene, juxtaposing it with the frivolous glitz and glamour of the Moffats. The notion that flowers embody simple, natural beauty is embodied in Meg’s floral nickname.
On the evening of the first party (a small affair), Meg realizes that she will have to wear the dress she’d been saving for the big party at the end of her visit: a much-mended tarlatan that looks shabby compared to Annie’s. As she prepares for the party, a box of roses is delivered. They’re from Laurie, accompanied by a note from Mrs. March. Meg uses the flowers to decorate her dress and hair, offers bouquets to the Moffats, and tucks the note from Mrs. March in her pocket as a “talisman” against “envy, vanity, and false pride.”
Meg’s desire to both embody a fashionable image of femininity and fit into a higher social class lead her to give into the sins of vanity, greed, and envy. Her mother’s loving gift of flowers symbolizes a more virtuous path: natural, simple beauty. Flowers are often worn in Little Women as a means of transcending social class (inexpensive adornments). They are the ideal accessories for those who strive to be natural and simple.
Meg enjoys herself at the party. She receives three compliments, including one from the Moffats’ friend Major Lincoln, who calls Meg “the fresh little girl with the beautiful eyes.” While at the party, Meg overhears two unknown women (presumably two of the Moffat women) gossiping about her. The women speculate that Mrs. March is planning on marrying Meg off to Laurie, given that he’s rich. They also pity Meg her shabby clothing, and wonder if they’ll get the chance to dress Meg up in “style.” Meg’s faith in her mother and her innocent friendship with Laurie are shaken by this speech, and she sheds a few tears on her pillow that night.
Meg’s simple, genuine appearance is rewarded with the patriarchal blessing of Major Lincoln; in the traditional patriarchal world of 19th century America, male approval of a woman’s appearance was a reflection of her value. Meg’s simple beauty thus becomes a form of social currency. This may explain the catty behavior of the Moffats, who possibly feel threatened by Meg’s power. Their gossip about Meg’s sisterly love of Laurie is used to undermine Meg’s feelings of worth.
The next day, Meg learns that the Moffats are inviting Laurie to the big party that week. Meg rebuffs their attempts to insinuate that she’s romantically interested in Laurie, and the Moffats snootily tease Meg for her innocence. When Thursday arrives, the Moffats insist on dolling Meg up – they put her in a tight, low-cut dress, paint her face, and tie earrings to her ears with pink silk.
The Moffats’ ideals regarding love, beauty, and feminine ideals stand in stark contrast to the March family’s Christian morality. They attempt to initiate Meg into the world of vanity and flirtation by making her appear fashionable and flirtatious. Ironically, their attempt to make Meg look richer simultaneously works to “cheapen” Meg, at least in terms of her value as a woman.
Meg makes quite a sensation at the party. Young men flock to her, and wealthy old folks gossip about her. Meg is shocked to see Laurie – she didn’t think he’d come to the party – and Laurie tells Meg that he doesn’t like the way she’s dressed. “I don’t like fuss and feathers,” he says. Meg scoffs at his comment, but can’t shake it off. Meg overhears Major Lincoln commenting that the Moffats “have made a fool” of her. “She’s nothing but a doll tonight,” he says. Meg steadfastly assumes the droll airs of a fashionable young lady, but secretly regrets her decision to give in to the Moffats.
The second party scene offers a counterpoint to the first. Meg receives a good deal of positive attention in this scene, but it’s the wrong kind of approval. The approval she receives in this scene is sexualized and frivolous; compare this to the fatherly (or perhaps Godly) approval of Major Lincoln earlier in the chapter. The novel depicts Meg here as dabbling in the wrong kind of love, the wrong kind of beauty, and the wrong kind of femininity.
Meg returns home and is relieved that she can just be herself again. She confesses to Mrs. March that she allowed herself to give in to her vanity at the Moffats’ party, and that she overheard gossip that Mrs. March wanted Meg to marry Laurie. Mrs. March admits that she does have “plans” for her daughters, but that her plans involve making sure her daughters are “beautiful, accomplished, and good-“ not married to rich men. “Better to be happy old maids than unhappy wives, or unmaidenly girls, running about to find husbands,” Mrs. March says.
Mrs. March’s speech at the end of this chapter offers a (mildly) feminist counterargument to the patriarchal idea that a woman’s worth is directly tied to her ability to “marry well.” Her indication that being an old maid (that is, an unmarried woman) might be more valuable than being married stands in stark contrast to the patriarchal ideals of the 19th century.