When Maggie arrives, Lucy tells her all about Stephen, blushingly observing that he is very handsome. There is a stark contrast between the two women: Maggie is tall and very plainly dressed, while Lucy is slight and wears fashionable silks. Maggie’s life teaching at a boarding school has been very dreary, but Lucy promises to put her on a “discipline of pleasure” during her visit, which she promises will involve much music and merriment. She begins by giving Maggie one of her brooches. Maggie laughs at how much Lucy enjoys making other people happy.
When they were children, Lucy and Maggie exemplified very different models of femininity. Lucy was known for being obedient, docile, and pretty, whereas Maggie was considered “naughty” and rebellious. In adulthood, Lucy has continued to adhere to convention in her dress and appearance. Maggie, on the other hand, eschews the fashionable silks worn by the ladies in the neighborhood and wears strikingly plain clothes.
Lucy mentions that Philip Wakem sometimes comes to sing with them. Maggie tells her that she always liked Philip and has no objection to seeing him. Just then, Stephen arrives. He is shocked at Maggie’s appearance, since Lucy had made him expect a short blonde girl. As they make their introductions, Maggie and Stephen are obviously attracted to each other. Stephen tries to change the subject, bringing up the upcoming charity bazaar. All the ladies in town have been sewing “fancy-work” to sell at their stalls. Maggie admits quietly that she can only do plain sewing, since that was the work she did to earn extra money for her family. Lucy is embarrassed at this admission, but Stephen is fascinated. It gives “greater piquancy,” or power, to her beauty, and makes Maggie seem unlike other women he’s known.
Stephen is attracted to Maggie not just because of her beauty, but because of her various differences from the other women of St. Ogg’s. For one, she wears plain clothes and is unusually tall for a woman. For another, she freely admits to her poverty and to her need to support her family financially. All these characteristics indicate that Maggie is unconcerned with social convention, which sets her apart from other women and thus appealing to Stephen. Paradoxically, Stephen is attracted to Lucy precisely because she is conventional—even as his powerful connection with Maggie is based on her rejection of those social roles.
Stephen, Maggie, and Lucy discuss Dr. Kenn, the local vicar, a very pious man who gives away two-thirds of his income. Maggie thinks that this is “wonderful.” They then discuss literature. Stephen thinks that “it is always pleasant to improve the minds of ladies by talking to them at ease on subjects of which they know nothing,” and so proceeds to give them a long explanation of a recent theological treatise. Fascinated by this, Maggie then lays down her sewing and gives Stephen her full attention. Stephen is very affected by Maggie’s intense gaze, but Lucy doesn’t notice and is simply pleased that Stephen is proving how clever he is.
Stephen and Lucy seem to think Dr. Kenn is rather eccentric for giving away all his money, while Maggie thinks he is “wonderful”—demonstrating once again her unusual levels of compassion and sympathy for others. Stephen’s way of interacting the women on intellectual subjects suggests that he enjoys regarding women as his intellectual inferiors. Lucy seems perfectly comfortable with considering Stephen cleverer than herself. Maggie, on the other hand, seems intensely engaged in this discussion, demonstrating her passion for knowledge and learning.
Stephen proposes that they all go take a boat on the river, secretly hoping that this will allow him to touch Maggie’s hand. The narrator denies that Stephen has fallen in love with Maggie at first sight, but admits that her touch was not “entirely indifferent” to him. For her part, Maggie thinks it is “very charming” to be helped out of the boat by someone taller and stronger than herself, since she has never felt that way before. Back at the house, Mrs. Pullet is horrified by Maggie’s shabby clothes and gives her one of her old dresses to wear. Mrs. Tulliver and Mrs. Pullet admire how beautiful Maggie has become, although they still lament her “brown skin.”
Maggie typically rejects conventional gender roles, both because of lack of opportunity (her family’s poverty impeded her social life) and personal preference. However, she enjoys Stephen’s courtly gesture in helping her into the boat and even submits to being dressed up by Mrs. Pullet, although she had hated those sorts of attentions when she was younger. This suggests that the appeal of conventional gender roles is not entirely lost on Maggie. Even so, however, her family still criticizes her dark complexion, marking her difference from other women.