Heroines Who Intrigue: Mattie Ross

Last week, I wrote this piece on Fanny Price, the intensely shy and unassertive heroine of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, as the first in my “Heroines Who Intrigue” series. In it, I argued that strength of character, not strength of personality, makes a heroine (or hero, for that matter) compelling. In this piece, I will be exploring my fascination with a character who is, at first glance, so dissimilar from Fanny that it’s hard to even think of them in the same sentence.

Mattie Ross is the heroine of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel True Grit. The novel, originally published as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post, follows the story of a 14-year-old Arkansas girl who sets out to avenge the death of her murdered father. Most of us know it better from the 1969 John Wayne film, or the 2010 remake directed by the Coen brothers (the latter, by the way, is in my opinion one of the best book-to-film adaptations ever made — I highly recommend it, if you don’t mind seeing a lot of dead bodies and people’s fingers getting chopped off and things).

I am assuming that most people have had some exposure to True Grit whether through the novel or one of the movie versions, so I will try to keep the synopsis as brief possible:

The story begins with Mattie traveling to Fort Smith, the site of her father’s death, only to find that his murderer, Tom Chaney, has left town and that nobody is in any particular hurry to catch up with him, there being more than enough outlaws to keep the law busy until Chaney dies of old age. Mattie wants more than anything to see her father’s killer brought to justice, and she knows that it is simply not going to happen if she sits back and waits for the law to do anything about it.

Using money that she has acquired by some shrewd horse-trading while in Fort Smith(she is obviously the brains behind her father’s business endeavors), Mattie decides to hire her own lawman to go after Chaney, and chooses Rooster Cogburn, a crusty, one-eyed Civil War veteran who has a reputation for having “true grit”. Cogburn intends to go after Chaney on his own, but Mattie is not so naive as to give money to a stranger and watch him ride away — she intends to go along and “see the thing done” herself. Against Mattie’s will, they are joined by a cocky Texas Ranger named LeBoeuf. LeBoeuf is on the hunt for Chaney over the much more high-profile murder of a Texas senator, and tries to persuade Cogburn that they can collect a much larger reward by bringing Chaney to Texas to stand trial. This does not suit Mattie, who insists that he must answer for the murder of her father — that is what she is paying Cogburn for, and that is what she intends to get.

When Mattie unexpectedly comes upon Chaney while going to get water from the river, she is captured by him after her revolver misfires, and taken into the custody of his boss’s gang. Cogburn and LeBoeuf pretend to abandon her, but LeBoeuf returns just as Chaney is about to murder her, and Cogburn goes after the rest of the gang. While Mattie and LeBoeuf are distracted by Cogburn’s showdown with the outlaws, Chaney wounds LeBoeuf. Mattie shoots him but the kick of the revolver causes her to lose her balance and fall into a snake pit, where her arm is broken, then bitten by a poisonous snake. Cogburn, though wounded, rides through the night to get her medical attention that saves her life, although she loses her arm. The book ends with the now-grown Mattie, never married but apparently quite well-off, telling how she tried to find Cogburn again to thank him, but when she finally caught up with him, she found he had died days earlier. She takes his body back home with her and gives him a proper burial. She has never seen or heard of LeBoeuf again, but she says she would “pleased to hear from him”. So ends Mattie Ross’s account of “how I avenged Frank Ross’s blood over in the Choctaw Nation when snow was on the ground.”

Mattie Ross did not come from anybody’s cookie cutter. She is not the beautiful young heroine of an epic romance — the text makes it clear that she is plain-looking, and this story is no romance. When the outlaw Ned Pepper thinks he has her pegged as a plucky tomboy type who would rather play with guns than “pretties”, she answers back, “I don’t care a thing about guns. If I did I would have one that worked.” She won’t fit into the modern conception of a strong heroine either — although she undoubtedly has “grit”, she is also unabashedly religious, even at times bordering on sanctimonious, regularly punctuating her self-told narrative with meandering homilies and scripture references. And then of course, on more than one occasion she becomes the dreaded “damsel in distress” that must be rescued by “the men” (more on that later).

I mentioned in my introductory article my appetite for female characters “that embrace and explore, rather than pig-headedly ignoring, the differences in the experiences of men and women”. In our post-feminist-revolution society, we do not like to be confronted with images of women being in positions of physical powerlessness. We cannot make these situations disappear in real life, but we can at least scrub them from our movie screens. But True Grit does not flinch from, for instance, portraying a smart, strong female protagonist in the humiliating position of being pulled off of her horse, held down, and “switched” like a little child by LeBoeuf when she finally catches up with them after they try to give her the slip in Fort Smith. On screen, it’s an awkward moment that we wonder how we are supposed to perceive — is it supposed to be funny? After reading the scene in the novel, I don’t think it is (although I don’t think it’s meant to be taken terribly seriously either):

He twisted one of my arms behind me and put his knee in my back. I kicked and struggled but the big Texan was too much for me … “Now we will see what tune you sing,” said he … The more I kicked the harder LaBoeuf pressed down with his knee and I soon saw the game was up. I left off struggling. LaBoeuf gave me a couple of sharp licks with the switch. He said, “I am going to stripe your leg good.” “See what good it does you!” said I. I began to cry, I could not help it, but more from anger and embarrassment than pain.

It would be satisfying to see Mattie use her secret karate skills to land LeBoeuf on his conceited little behind and teach him a thing or two. But growing up on an Arkansas farm in post-Civil War era America, she hasn’t had much opportunity to learn karate, and she is a small, teenage girl being held down by a big, grown-up man. There’s not much she can do but appeal to Cogburn to put a stop to it, which he does. But the point is not that Mattie can’t best a big tough guy in a physical match-up. The point is that she doesn’t let that turn her back from the task at hand. LeBoeuf may have been able to inflict a moment of indignity on her, but in the end she will have her way.

The ending, where Mattie first gets captured, then rescued, then falls into a pit, then gets rescued again, is problematic for a society which expects fiction to always portray women as doing everything on their own. She doesn’t even get to be the one who ultimately kills Tom Chaney — he survives her shot only to be finished off by Cogburn. According to the bar set by many modern critics, Mattie Ross will not pass muster as a “strong female character”. To that I would say, in Mattie’s words, “I do not see it that way.”

Mattie, who is an eminently practical character, realizes right from the start that a lone 14-year-old girl going off in pursuit of a murderous gang of outlaws is silly. She doesn’t have what she needs to get the job done, and getting the job done is what she cares about, so she acquires what she needs but does not have by hiring Rooster Cogburn. It may bother some modern viewers and critics to be confronted with the vulnerability of a 14-year-old girl (even a Mattie Ross) in a world of men, but the point is: despite the vulnerability inherent to her situation, Mattie wins. She does not flinch from hardship, challenge and very real danger, and in the end she accomplishes what she set out to do. That will pass, and surpass, my bar for strength any day of the week.

It’s not enough for a character to just show resilience and tenacity — to make a character interesting, we need to know why. What is it that buoys Mattie throughout the whole story? I think I found what makes Mattie tick in this exchange between her and Mr. Stonehill, the auctioneer who she squeezes for all he’s worth for compensation for her father’s stolen horse and the previously-purchased ponies that her family can no longer use:

Stonehill: I do not like to deal with children.
Mattie: You will not like it any better when Lawyer Daggett gets hold of you. He is a grown man. “
Stonehill: You are impudent.
Mattie: I do not wish to be, sir, but I will not be pushed about when I am in the right.

When she knows she is in the right, there is nothing and no one that will make Mattie Ross back down. Mattie’s ethic goes something like this: “There is a God. God is just. I am fighting for justice. What I am doing is right in the eyes of God.” You may not believe in her ethic. But you’d best believe that she does, and that is what makes a compelling character. Mattie is not driven by a need to prove herself, or by bitterness against the opposite sex, or a compulsion to buck the system, but by the conviction that what she is doing is right, and therefore she need pay no mind to anyone who tries to get in her way. I cannot conceive of a message more empowering than that.

Speaking of Tom Chaney, Mattie quotes from Proverbs 28:1 — “The wicked flee when none pursueth . . .”

But the righteous are as bold as a lion.

If you enjoyed this article, check out the introduction to this series here. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to click the little green heart!

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