Marmee, the matriarch of the March family, is a near perfect model of motherhood in her daughters’ eyes and in the eyes of the narrator. She is the cornerstone of the March family and social circle, and Marmee is generous, wise, patient, and honest. She runs a household of four daughters in various stages of adolescence and their lonely neighbor boy nearly singlehandedly while her husband serves in the American Civil War. She is never short of wise words, and she leverages the daily rhythms of the household as deliberate learning opportunities for her girls.
Marmee is a major character in Little Women, but most of what we learn about her internal life comes from the lessons she teaches others. We know that she was once a part of fine society, and that Mr. March was wealthy when she married him. Both Marmee and Mr. March were presumably generous early on in their marriage, because she supported him when he loaned his fortune to an unfortunate friend. That loan was never repaid, and the Marches were forced to change their lifestyle to accommodate. Marmee never complains about this change of circumstance, and instead learns how to cook, clean, and keep house without abundant resources. She retains her sophistication and takes pride in the home she does have. The novel does not follow Marmee’s character development, but it implies she became a model of virtue because of this loss of wealth and her reaction to it.
Throughout the novel, we see Marmee making or revealing life lessons with each of her children, but none more than Jo. This feels natural, as Jo is the primary protagonist, but also because Marmee struggles with her temper the same way Jo does. We never see Marmee lose her temper in Little Women, despite the many times she must discipline her children. However, we do see Jo lose her temper several times, particularly when she is younger, and we get to hear Marmee’s advice on the subject. Marmee tells Jo she too is often angry, but she does not allow herself to turn that anger on others. As Jo matures, she learns to better regulate her own anger and consequently becomes more like Marmee.
As the girls grow up, they seek to emulate Marmee in their marriages and their own experiences as mothers. When Meg gets married and has children, Marmee is her example and her best resource. Meg is the only March daughter old enough to remember a time when the family was wealthy, and so her comparative poverty weighs on her more than the other girls. Marmee asserts Meg has a better situation than her own because she already knows how to fend for herself. Marmee, conversely, married into the March family when they had money and later had to learn how to make a home out of less. Little Women does not depict Marmee’s situational change as tragic, however. Instead, the novel and Marmee herself treat material poverty as a life without the temptation and distraction of money, greed, or comparison. The text implies Marmee is a better person for her lack of wealth, and Meg grows to be one as well as she learns to live in her means.
Although Little Women centers the experiences of its women, it also shows how the March family shapes Laurie. Marmee’s influence in his life is just as deeply maternal as her influence on her own girls, and the novel implies that Laurie needs Marmee’s motherly guidance to grow into a respectable young man. Laurie cites how Marmee’s advice changes his decision making throughout the novel, and it is the stability of maternal influence that helps him become a reliable, hardworking, and mature man. Even when Marmee is not serving as a mother figure, she provides stability and a sense of home for the men in the story as well as the women. Mr. Laurence, Mr. March, and Mr. Brooke all rely on and benefit from her care, materially or emotionally.