He would smile at her, and then she was running down the path to him, crying because she was so glad he was home with his hands and feet and arms and legs all still attached. He'd hold her face in his hands, keeping her at arm's length, and wipe her tears away with his dirty thumbs. (2.fractious.97)
Mattie knows that her parents loved each other and had a happy marriage despite their difficulties and disagreements—it's part of what makes it so difficult when Mattie's mother dies. Pa takes it so hard. Not only has he lost a mother for his children and a helper, he's lost the woman he loves. It's this love that Mattie uses as a measuring stick to figure out if Royal loves her.
He looked at me closely, his head on an angle, and for a second I had the funniest feeling that he was going to open my jaws and look at my teeth or pick up my foot and rap the bottom of it. (5.misnomer.46)
Royal's just starting to think of Mattie as a potential wife, and here, we see how men have the luxury of shopping around. Take a look at how Mattie thinks of his actions: she compares herself to livestock with the phrases "look at my teeth" and "pick up my foot," which are both common ways to assess the health and age of cattle. Royal isn't just choosing his wife based on love; nope, he's figuring out how to get the most bang for his buck.
Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie
I did not laugh. "I am never going to marry," I said. "Never."
"Well, we'll see about that," Mrs. Crego said. Her face softened. "The pain stops, you know, Mattie. And the memory of it fades. Minnie will forget all about this one day."
"Maybe she will, but I surely won't," I said. (9.wan.61-65)
Mattie has just seen a pretty awful natural childbirth, and her response is a loud and clear no thank you. If she stays and marries, though, there's no question that having and raising children will be in her future. The experience of witnessing Minnie's birth, as well as Minnie's loving reaction to her husband after the twins are born, drastically influence Mattie's view of what motherhood is really like.
And then he put his arms around me and held me to him as best he could in a rowboat, and it felt so good. No one had so much as hugged me since my mamma died. I wished I had the words to describe how I felt. My word of the day, augur, which means to foretell things from omens, had nothing to do with it as far as I could see. I felt warm in his arms. Warm and hungry and blind. (21.auger.53)
It's so easy to see how Mattie is seduced not so much by Royal but by the intimacy and the caring a relationship such as marriage can offer, the type of intimacy she saw in her parents' relationship before her mother died. She's so alone, and she, like this song, just wants somebody to love and to love her. She's hoping that Royal fits the bill.
According to the article I'd read in Peterson's Magazine, if you wish to attract a man, you need to be "attentive and receptive to his every word, put his own interests before yours, and use the eloquent, unspoken language of the female body to let him know that he is the very center of your universe, the primary reason for your existence." The first two bits of advice were clear to me. I had trouble with the third one, though. (26.abscission.1)
The magazine that Mattie is referring to is one that provides guidance to women about marriage and acceptable social behaviors. But Mattie takes issue with this advice, and her experience with the opposite sex is so little that she doesn't know how to interpret "the unspoken language of the female body." Though we know that this just really means flirting or using her sexuality to please a man.
And it was only much later, after he'd called at our place and asked Pa if I could go riding, and we'd been up to Inlet and back and I was upstairs in my bed remembering every one of his kisses, that I wondered if he was supposed to have said he loved me when he told me about the ring. Or if maybe that came later. (26.abscission.22)
Even though Royal paws at Mattie's body and does nice things for her and kisses her, Mattie has enough foresight to think about love. And in marriage at the beginning of the twentieth century, it appears that love is a luxury. Think of Aunt Josie's marriage. Or Frank Loomis's marriage. There's love in Pa and Mamma's marriage and in the partnership of Minnie and Tom, so at least Mattie knows what to compare her relationship with Royal to.
Lord, what a mess of trouble she was in. Chester had put her in the family way and she needed him to marry her, but he didn't seem to want to. Not if she had to plead with him to come for her, not if he barely wrote to her, and when he did, told her about other girls he was taking around. (28.12)
Sexual activity outside of marriage is just that in this era: a mess of trouble. More trouble for the woman than the man, though, because so much value is placed on women's sexuality, virginity, and purity before marriage—and marriage is so often connected to women's financial security. Clearly Grace wants marriage and Chester doesn't. What might Mattie think about her own impending marriage to Royal now that she knows the context for Grace's letters to Chester?
Why hadn't Jane Austen married? Or Emily Bronte? Or Louisa May Alcott? Was it because no one wanted bookish girls, like my aunt Josie said? Mary Shelley married and Edith Wharton, too, but Miss Wilcox said both marriages were disasters. And then, of course, there was Miss Wilcox herself, with her thin-lipped bully of a husband. (33.gravid.12)
Is it true that no one wants bookish girls? Or does bookish connote something else, something of dreams, independence, and autonomy? And why might the men in Mattie's society want bookish girls if they have these characteristics? There's also the idea that marriage can be a "disaster," especially for the women involved. Mattie's slowly realizing what sacrifices women make for marriage—not just the physical sacrifice, but emotional and psychological sacrifices too.
As I quickly patted my hair back into place, it hit me: Emily Dickinson was a damned sneaky genius.
Holing up in her father's house, never marrying, becoming a recluse—that had sounded like giving up to me, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed she fought by not fighting. And knowing her poems as I do, I would not put such underhanded behavior past her. Oh, maybe she was lonely at times, and cowed by her pa, but I bet at midnight, when the lights were out and her father was asleep, she went sliding down the banister and swinging from the chandelier. I bet she was just dizzy with freedom. (33.gravid.44-45)
Mattie has just finished visiting Minnie, who is overwhelmed by the duties thrust upon her by marriage and motherhood, and thinking about Emily Dickinson. Mattie recognizes that marriage can bring great joy, she also sees that marriage is incredibly confining and limiting. Minnie is no longer the girl she was when the two friends were growing up; it seems as if she's sacrificed that part of herself to create a marriage with Jim.
Mathilda Gokey a.k.a. Mattie
I lie back against my pillow and spend a long time silently repeating them to myself, over and over and over again like a litany, but it's no use. Mamma said I would know. And I do. I guess I have all along.
"Poor, sad, stupid Grace," I whisper to the darkness. "Poor, sad, stupid Matt." (37.21-22)
Grace convinced herself that Chester loved her, but in one of the last letters she wrote, she reveals that she's aware he doesn't love her at all, and Mattie has tried to convince herself Royal loves her, but she knows the truth. Yet another way that Grace helps Mattie on her path to college. For marriage without love would not be worth the sacrifice of herself to Mattie.
My fingers trembled as I undid the string. What had he chosen for me? What could it be? An Austen or a Bronte? Maybe a Zola or a Hardy?
I opened the paper and saw that it was a Farmer. Fannie Farmer. A cookbook. […]
"It ain't new, only secondhand. Got it at Tuttle's. It's got different sections, see? Meats and poultry ... baked things..."
I could see in his eyes he wanted me to like it. I could see that he'd tried and it only made it worse. (40.ideal.48-49, 52-53)
Royal and Mattie had a pretty big fight before her birthday about his pushing Emmie Hubbard off her land, and he tries to make it up to her by getting her a cookbook. Think about the anticipation Mattie has before she knows the gift: she's giddy and hopeful that there's more depth to Royal than he's previously let on… but then comes the big reveal.
Mattie realizes that even though Royal tried to do right by her, the only thing he could think of to give her is a book that further cements the traditional role of womanhood in marriage, revealing that he doesn't know her at all. He will never know Mattie.