Marmee’s legacy: the making of a mother in Little Women

By Trix Wilkins (and the wonderful children whose loving efforts furnished this post)

My husband once told me he wasn’t sure the existence of Mothers’ Day was a good idea.

Having just become a mother – of his child ­no less – I was offended.

He then explained he thought it was fitting every day to love and honor mothers, and that sometimes people forget on other days because there is “a designated day” to do so.

(Needless to say, I stopped being offended and we enjoyed the rest of our evening. I am also happy to say that I still receive treats on Mothers’ Day.)

Abbie mum

I wonder whether every girl who has ever read or watched Little Women has compared her mother to Marmee, and every mother compared herself. Marmee is an incredibly high standard, but as my own brilliant and affectionate mother has always said: there’s no other way to aim than high.

So while today is not Mother’s Day, this is for all mothers who have ever sought to love our children well, had days when we’ve failed and cried, and got up the next day to try again.

Twenty years after my first reading of Little Women, these are the things I still love about Marmee.

She’s a cheerful presence

“The first sound in the morning was her voice, as she went about the house singing like a lark; and the last sound at night was the same cheery sound…Always at the window, to nod, and smile, and wave her hand to them…The last glimpse of that motherly face was sure to affect them like sunshine.”

She is “preachy”

Marmee is undoubtedly preachy (and we all recognize a sermon when we hear it!), but I admit I quite like her style – she tells stories, sets an example, and is unafraid to let her children experience the consequences of their actions (in a safe environment, of course).

When the March sisters complain about their “burdens” (which I admit to completely sympathizing with – who doesn’t want to not have to go to work or do housework and instead read books and go out on day trips with charming friends?), Marmee tells them a “story” about four discontented girls. This sobers up her daughters, who recognize themselves as well as their richness in having each other.

She visits and comforts poorly neighbors, and her children know that “there never was such a woman for givin’ away vittles and drink, clothes and firin.’” They respect their mother for setting a generous example and are proud to take after her – and so when she asks them to give away their breakfast on Christmas morning to others less fortunate, they feel no resentment about her doing so.

Then there’s that brilliant chapter, Experiments, in which the sisters are allowed to experience the consequences of self-serving “all play and no work.” (Salt with strawberries, anyone? Having once attempted to cook dinner for my husband while we were just friends and serving what was meant to be a seafood delight that looked dangerously undercooked, I still laugh over this episode.)

Timothy flowers

She turns a potentially dangerous situation into a blessing

I’ve always been rather impressed with the way Marmee handles Laurie. Here’s a rich young handsome boy living next door to her four daughters – and had I been she, my first reaction would have been to warn them about the dangers of fraternizing with a person who might easily toy with them.

Marmee doesn’t do this. She sees Laurie’s longing for a mother and for friends, and welcomes him. She doesn’t just allow her daughters to frolic wherever and whenever they choose – but she provides an environment in which enjoyable, helpful and lasting friendships can develop.

She is also balanced. She recognizes that while Laurie is modest and kind, “he would make a fine man, if not spoilt by petting.” (A fitting warning, as Laurie Makes Mischief proves!) Good character is the standard to which her daughters are to hold men, even rich and handsome men like Laurie.

She openly shares her own weaknesses and experiences

This is my favorite scene in Little Women between Jo and Marmee. Just after Amy falls through the ice and Jo comes home in repentant tears over her anger and temper, Marmee confesses, “You think your temper is the worst in the world; but mine used to be just like it.”

“We all have our temptations…and it often takes all our lives to conquer them.”

She is unafraid to admit her need for help

She sets up the realistic expectation that while beautiful character is not the work of a moment but of a lifetime, the marring of a day does not have to last beyond it. There are consequences, certainly – but the next day is new, and the help of loved ones essential.

“He helped and comforted me, and showed me that I must try to practice all the virtues I would have my little girls possess, for I was their example. It was easier to try for your sakes than for my own; a startled or surprised look from one of you, when I spoke sharply, rebuked me more than any words could have done; and the love, respect and confidence of my children was the sweetest reward I could receive for my efforts to be the woman I would have them copy.”

Timothy collage

She shares her faith with her children

For Christmas, Marmee gifts each of the girls with a copy of the Bible to read each day. She doesn’t shy away from talking about her faith in God, as real to her as sunshine – and how her children are as free to come to Him as she, being as beloved of God as every other.

“His love and care never tire or change, can never be taken from you, but may become the source of lifelong peace, happiness and strength. Believe this heartily, and go to God with all your little cares, and hopes, and sins, and sorrows, as freely and confidingly as you come to your mother.”

She is a snob about the people with whom her daughters keep company

Marmee is very brazenly (and bravely) open about the fact she is a snob. But unlike most mothers of her class, wealth and status are not her benchmarks. These are not enough – to the great annoyance of bachelors eyeing her daughters such as Ned Moffat and the Tudors.

“Learn to know and value the praise which is worth having, and to excite the admiration of excellent people.”

She has high ambitions for her children

When Meg asks her mother whether her plans involve marrying her daughters off to rich men, Marmee reveals that her ambitions reach even further.

“I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good; to be admired, loved, and respected…I’m not ambitious for a splendid fortune, a fashionable position, or a great name for my girls. If rank and money come with love and virtue, also, I should accept them gratefully, and enjoy your good fortune; but I know, by experience, how much genuine happiness can be had in a plain little house…rich in the possession of a good man’s heart, and that is better than a fortune.”

Abbie heart

(I wish Marmee had also spoken about the possibility – probability, considering both Jo and Beth’s ambitions at this point – that her daughters might choose not to marry, and the fact that there is joy to be had in world by women who are not “in the possession of a good man’s heart.”)

She prays for her children

I love this picture of Marmee. I hadn’t noticed it in previous readings of Little Women, as by the end of this chapter my mind was usually full of the fact that Jo had sacrificed her “one beauty.” It is such a beautiful picture of a mother who prays for her children, even during a time of personal anguish.

“A figure glided quietly from bed to bed, smoothing a coverlid here, setting a pillow there, and pausing to look long and tenderly at each unconscious face, to kiss each with lips that mutely blessed, and to pray the fervent prayers which only mothers utter.”

I re-read Little Women Part 1 as part of the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge hosted by In the Bookcase

Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge ... JUNE 2017

P.S. For the final week of the Challenge, I’m holding a Comment Challenge to give away a copy of The Courtship of Jo March. To enter, post a question regarding the novel OR a comment answering this question: “Why do you think Jo and Laurie should have been together?” in the comments section of the blog post If only Little Women…Courtship of Jo March Comment Challenge and giveaway. Entries close June 30.

Author and book sale PIC

2 thoughts on “Marmee’s legacy: the making of a mother in Little Women

  1. Marmee did make a comment about not marrying…something like “Yes, Jo, Better happy old maids than unhappy wives or unmaidenly girls, running about to find husbands.” And, something about being accomplished and “ready to accept homes of your own if they are offered you; contented here if they are not.”. (End of Meg Goes to Vanity Fair.)

    Sent from my Windows Phone ________________________________


    1. She did indeed! I suppose what I was after was a bit more enthusiasm about the single life, I felt like she was saying that it was better to be happy old maids than unhappy wives, but best of all to be happy wives. Something about happy old maids and happy wives being equally desirable states of being for different reasons would have been nice, particularly since the March sisters had begun to learn about financial independence and not needing marriage to support themselves.


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