Little Women is always talked about as a story about four sisters growing up. And that’s definitely what it is, but growing up doesn’t happen in a vacuum. While her position in the story is definitely downplayed, it’s hard to dispute that at the very heart of the story is Marmee, the girls’ mother.
Marmee carefully stays out of the foreground of the story for the most part, but she’s always there and always important nonetheless. The girls turn to her in times of trouble and learn from watching and consulting with her all the time.
Like the four sisters, Marmee is based on a very real person – Louisa May Alcott’s mother, Abigail May Alcott. Abba May was a brilliant woman who wrote eloquently and survived great disappointments and hardship with outward grace. She appreciated and shared many of her husband’s ideals, but she had to turn his lofty plans into tangible realities and keep his four children fed when he was off on flights of fancy. This is a thankless job at best, but Louisa seems to have seen and appreciated it. She translated the grace and ingenuity of her mother beautifully onto the page, and yet did not feel the need to hide the emotional toll it caused.
Marmee talks openly in the book about being angry at how unfair and difficult things are and yet having to keep the outward appearance of serenity through it all. I always thought that the conversation where she shares this truth with Jo was one of the most pivotal in the book. It is the moment where the otherwise idealistic story openly admits that being a woman is difficult and unfair, and when it gives Jo (and by extension, the reader) permission to be angry about it. But it also is the moment when we see clearly that as unfair and difficult as it is, and as much as we are allowed to be angry, we are not allowed to show it. You can try to change things, and should, but a woman who loses her temper visibly loses her power. And that too is unfair. But no less true for it.
Marmee’s life is as complex as those of the four girls in the foreground of the book. And even though she doesn’t call out Marmee throughout as the heart of her story, it seems clear to me that Alcott knew it. Marmee gets the last line of the book and the final scene is of her family arrayed around her thanking her for making them what they are.
“Yes, Jo, I think your harvest will be a good one,” began Mrs. March, frightening away a big black cricket that was staring Teddy out of countenance.
“Not half so good as yours, mother. Here it is, and we never can thank you enough for the patient sowing and reaping you have done,” cried Jo, with the loving impetuosity which she never could outgrow.
“I hope there will be more wheat and fewer tares every year,” said Amy softly.
“A large sheaf, but I know there’s room in your heart for it, Marmee dear,” added Meg’s tender voice.
Touched to the heart, Mrs. March could only stretch out her arms, as if to gather children and grandchildren to herself, and say, with face and voice full of motherly love, gratitude, and humility:
“Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!”Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
Indeed, with such an ending, it seems likely that Alcott knew how much her mother had shaped her and her writing and how much her story revolved around Marmee, even if she stayed demurely in the background while her four daughters shone brighter around her.
I got to thinking about Marmee and Abba May today because of this wonderful article on The New Yorker about “the Marmee Problem”.