Chapter 20 Confidential
Marmee’s delayed arrival from the train is received with great tenderness and love. After delivering Mrs. March, Laurie rushes off to tell Amy and Aunt March the news. Amy patiently and selflessly suppresses her desire to see her mother and gains praise from Laurie and Aunt March, who gives Amy the turquoise ring for being so well-behaved.
However, Marmee does come to see Amy that afternoon, to her great delight. They sit together in Amy’s little chapel and discuss Amy’s quest to be good. Marmee is at first concerned by the ring, as she thinks Amy is too young, but Amy explains that she wants to wear the ring to remind herself not to be selfish, so that she will be loved as Beth is. Marmee applauds Amy's intention, and then returns to Beth.
That evening, Jo confides in Marmee that Mr. Brooke cares for Meg and has her glove. Marmee says Mr. Brooke grew quite close to her and Father at the hospital, and that John told them honestly about his care for Meg and his plan to earn a comfortable home before asking for her hand. Marmee and Father feel that John is a good man, though poor, but that Meg is too young to be engaged. Marmee asks Jo to keep the secret from Meg until Marmee can discern Meg's feelings for John. Jo believes John will romance Meg, and things will change, and their happy life will be spoilt. When Meg comes in, Marmee speaks of John fondly, and gauging Meg’s response, decides that Meg “does not love John yet, but she will learn to.”
Chapter 21 Laurie Makes Mischief, and Jo Makes Peace
Jo tries dearly to keep her Mother’s secret, to the frustration of Meg and Laurie. Laurie, devising that the secret concerns Meg and John Brooke, plots to find out what it is. Meg receives a letter she thinks is from John, professing his love for her. Meg secretly responds that she is too young, and he must speak to her parents. John's response is surprise at Meg, disclaiming any knowledge of the first letter professing his love, and accusing Jo of playing tricks on Meg. Jo clears her name and realizes that Laurie wrote both of the notes and signed John's name. Jo runs to get Laurie, while Mrs. March tells Meg how Mr. Brooke truly feels. Meg is disenchanted with lovers at the moment, and wants only to be friends.
Mrs. March and Laurie have a private conversation, after which he apologizes sincerely to Meg and promises never to tell Mr. Brooke of the matter. Laurie looks so penitent that Jo forgives him, but does not show it, and later goes over to his house to make amends. She finds that Mr. Laurence and Laurie have fought, for Laurie refused to divulge his conversation with Mrs. March, so Mr. Laurence shook him. This infuriated Laurie, who felt that his grandfather should trust his word and not shake him like a child. Laurie refuses to go down to dinner until his grandfather apologizes, and speaks of running away with Jo to Washington to make him sorry. Jo is tempted, but realizes she has duties at home, and as a girl does not have the freedoms that Laurie does.
Jo goes to find Mr. Laurence convinces him to apologize to Laurie. She mentions that if Mr. Laurence is not careful, Laurie might impulsively run away. Jo regrets this comment immediately, seeing Mr. Laurence look at a picture of Laurie’s father, who did run away. She then makes a joke of it, and makes peace again. Nevertheless, Meg now knows of John's feelings, thus mischief was made.
Chapter 22 Pleasant Meadows
As Christmas approaches, both Beth and Mr. March are recovering nicely, and Mr. March talks of coming home soon. All of the girls have been influenced for the better by Beth’s illness, with Meg working cheerfully, Amy giving away her possessions, and Jo tenderly caring for her sister. On Christmas morning, Beth declares that she is so happy and that her life is complete except for Father’s absence. The other sisters are also happy with their Christmas presents - Undine and Sintram for Jo; a copy of Madonna and Child for Amy; and a silk dress from Mr. Laurence for Meg.
Just at that moment, Laurie announces another Christmas present for the March family, and in walks Father. Even Beth finds the strength to run to Father and embrace him, her Christmas wish fulfilled. In the excitement, Mr. Brooke kisses Meg by mistake, and Mr. March mentions later how kind and supportive Mr. Brooke has been, to Jo’s great annoyance. After dinner with the Laurences and Mr. Brooke, the March family, reunited, rests and celebrates together. They reflect on the year, a pleasant but difficult one, and Father remarks that the Pilgrims have come a long way, and their bundles will soon tumble off.
Father observes that Meg’s hands, once pretty and smooth, are now burned and hardened but beautifully so, for Meg has replaced vanity with dedication to loving and industrious housekeeping. Jo has indeed become a little woman, still strong-willed, but not wild, and caring for Beth with maternal tenderness. Beth has overcome much of her bashfulness, and all are grateful to have her safe. Amy is patient, less vain, and as dedicated to shaping her character as her clay figurines.
The evening ends with Beth recalling part of Pilgrim’s Progress where everyone comes to a beautiful meadow to rest. She sings an excerpt from the book, giving thanks for contentment and bliss.
Chapter 23 Aunt March Settles the Question
Despite the utter joy at having Father home, there is a lingering anxiety and uncertainty in the March house felt by the adults about Meg and John. Jo confronts Meg, who says that if John asks her, she will kindly ask to remain friends, as she is too young.
Just at that moment, Mr. Brooke stops by to collect his umbrella and see Mr. March. Jo flees the room, leaving Meg to make her speech. Meg starts to leave as well, but John stops her, holding her hand, and asks if she cares about him at all, as he loves her so much. Meg, forgetting her speech, simply says she does not know. He asks her to try to learn, and Meg is quite flattered, but she sees a sense of satisfaction in his eyes, as if he expects her to say yes. Thinking of Annie Moffat, Meg suddenly starts acting coquettish as other girls do, saying she is not interested and being hurtful and distant. John is deeply hurt, and Meg feels guilty, but at that moment, Aunt March comes in.
Mr. Brooke steps into the study as Aunt March quizzes the blushing Meg. Aunt March tells Meg that if she accepts the poor Mr. Brooke, Aunt March will not give them a single penny. Aunt March’s statement raises Meg’s spirit of opposition, and Meg declares that she will marry whom she likes. She then defends John, expounding on his courage, goodness, and their willingness to wait and work hard. Aunt March storms out, and John rushes in, having heard all of Meg’s remarks. He asks again if she might care for him, and once more passing up the chance to make her sensible speech, Meg agrees.
Jo returns and is shocked to find Meg sitting on John’s knee, and even more so when John kisses her and calls her “Sister Jo.” Jo runs to her parents and sends them downstairs, while she cries. Mr. Brooke eloquently argues his case, and convinces the Marches to allow the engagement, with hopes that in three years he will have a home, steady business, and can be married. Even Jo is moved by how happy Meg is, though she is devastated at losing her dear friend. She is comforted by Laurie and the sight of her family so happy.
In this concluding section of Part I, the March sisters are rewarded for their year of self-improvement. The parallels between the beginning of the novel and the end are clear. The Christmas presents the girls receive mirror their wishes in the beginning of the book. Their true reward, though, is the praise and recognition of their Father, and their own happiness at having become better people. At the end, as in the beginning, we find the family enjoying each other, but now the family has grown to include the Laurences and Mr. Brooke.
The theme of poverty is discussed in the context of Mr. Brooke's suitability for Meg. Mr. and Mrs. March support the marriage despite John's poverty, as long as he can provide basic comforts. Meg, whose castle in the air included luxurious things and "heaps of money," decides to marry a poor but good man and sacrifice any support from Aunt March to do so. In this sense, Meg rejects the dictates of society and makes, in her mind, the moral choice.
Embracing morality does not always require rejecting society, as Jo demonstrates when she refuses to run away with Laurie. Jo accepts that because she is a girl, she is resigned to to "prunes and prisms", a colloquial term meaning proper words for ladies to use and a transformation from Jo's typical embrace of slang. Jo simultaneously objects to inequality of men and women while accepting that she is a "little woman."
Alcott continues to draw on Pilgrim's Progress to enhance the meaning of the girls' journeys. In the green meadows, Christian and his companion Hopeful enjoy a respite with delight and replenish their weary spirits, but they are not yet "at their journey's end." So too, Alcott turns her readers' attention to the future with Jo and Laurie discussing what might happen in three years. She then premises the disclosure of this knowledge on the readers' reception to the book, engaging them in dialogue with the text.