Y'all, being fourteen is hard. You're only a year into this teenage gig, you've probably got some pimples, your parents totally still treat you like a kid, you can't drive yet, and your dad has just been senselessly murdered.
You know what? We take it back. Ninth grade has nothing on Mattie Ross.
In 1875, Mattie is fourteen years old. Her dad goes off to town to buy some ponies and is killed by their hired hand. So, obviously, Mattie has to set off on a bone-chilling journey of revenge. Duh. Along the way, she's kidnapped, falls into a snake pit, loses her left arm, maybe falls in love with one or more inappropriately old lawmen, and—yes—avenges her father's death.
This is all pretty grim, but don't get out the liquid eyeliner just yet. Mattie may have some gothic moments, but she isn't interested in plumbing any gloomy psychological depths. She's no-nonsense, straightforward, determined, and an all-around Type A chick who later becomes a courageous woman living life according to her own code. Mattie is truly gritty, able to stand her own with the toughest men around, never compromising her principles—whatever you think of them—or her sense of humor. And that's true of fourteen-year old Mattie and our older narrator.
So let's take a closer look at our favorite teen.
Here's the first thing Mattie says to us: "People do not give credence that a fourteen-year-old-girl would leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it didn't happen every day" (1.1).
Right away, we learn a few things: (1) This story is being told sometime after it actually happened ("then"); (2) expectations about what's appropriate for various genders and ages have changed; (3) even back "then," Mattie never did quite what other people expected her to. Really, how could she just go and marry some dude after her life-changing, madcap adventure?
Mattie's unconventional life choices—pursuing her father's revenge; becoming an independent woman—don't exactly win her any friends. Toward the end of her story, she tells us what her neighbors think of her … and it's not good:
They say I love nothing but money and the Presbyterian church and that is why I never married. They think everybody is dying to get married. […] I never had the time to get married but it is nobody's business whether I am married or not married. I care nothing for what they say. I would marry an ugly baboon if I wanted to and make him cashier. (7.337)
In other words, Mattie is still single-minded, independent, and determined—and determined to take care of herself and her family before anything else. We don't get the sense that her life has been bad, or that she regrets her actions, or her life path, but we do get the sense that she's judged harshly for her choices.
So, is Mattie bitter? Would her life have been better if she'd just found a nice man to take care of her?
Well, consider who we're talking about: if getting married were that important to Mattie, or if she were really in love with someone, we're guessing she'd be married by now. (You think the woman who avenged her father as a fourteen-year-old couldn't have made some guy marry her?) Instead, we suspect that Mattie's never marrying or having a romance has more to do with her never finding a man who could measure up to her dad, to Rooster, or even to LaBoeuf.
In fact, Mattie's bitterness seems to have more to do with the fact that others see her life choices as shameful than with any real feeling that she's missed something. Let's just put this into context by mentioning that, in 1923, when she's telling this story, Mattie would only have been able to vote for four years, and there weren't exactly many career options open to her. (Although conditions for women were generally better out West than they were back in the settled East Coast—couldn't be too picky if you were trying to "civilize" a country.) Maybe Mattie's story helps us see how hard it was for a woman—or any minority—who wasn't willing to follow the party line.
Mattie lets us know that she's not exactly like other women by comparing herself to her mother—using a Biblical reference, of course. She says, "like Martha I have always been agitated and troubled by the cares of the day but my mother had a serene and loving heart. She was like Mary and had chosen the "good" part" (1.11).
Brain snack: in the New Testament's Gospel of Luke, Jesus and his disciples visit the home of two women named Mary and Martha. Mary's all, "Oh Jesus! Let me sit at your feet and wash them with my hair," while Martha is all, "ugh, Mary, could you maybe help me with the dishes?" In other words, Mary lets the housework go so she can hang out with Jesus, while Martha is too busy worry about mundane details to appreciate that Jesus himself is in her house.
Applied to Mattie? It means, we think, that Mattie's mom is gentle and loving while Mattie feels like she has to take care of everything herself. Now, in the Biblical story, Mary is the one we're supposed to imitate. But it's not so clear in True Grit. Mattie may compare herself to the needlessly "agitated" Martha, but this agitation is what lets her pursue and meet her goal.
And her goal is avenging her father. Just look at this list of Maggie reminding herself about her goal:
Over and over, Mattie reminds herself that she's not here to hang out with Jesus: she's here to get her revenge. Hm. That doesn't sound very Christian to us—but it sure is effective.
But we don't want to make Mattie sound like a bloodthirsty thug. She may be out for revenge, but when she's finally confronted with Chaney, she tries to bring him back to Fort Smith for justice, saying that she'll only shoot him if he "refuses" to go" (7.18).
And Mattie has another really good quality: she's open-minded, probably because she knows that she's a pretty unconventional kid. Slavery may have been over in 1875, but African-Americans still suffered plenty of racism and injustice, especially in slave-owning regions of the U.S. like Arkansas. But look at what Mattie says about her family's black neighbor, Yarnell:
[Yarnell] was born of free parents in Illinois but a man named Bloodworth kidnapped him in Missouri and brought him down to Arkansas just before the war. Yarnell was a good man, thrifty and industrious, and he later became a famous housepainter in Memphis, Tennessee. (1.7)
Coming from Mattie, this is high praise. She trusts Yarnell and—unlike many of her peers would have—treats him and refers to him as a "man." And for Mattie, being a "good man" is the highest praise she can give.
Here's the thing. Mattie gets her revenge, but she also loses her left arm and any hope of living a normal-for-the-time life. You could say that she sacrifices herself for her father; you could also say that she does a completely unnecessary and stupid thing.
Think about it. Chaney was probably going to be hanged or shot anyway. LaBoeuf was already hunting Cheney for crimes in Texas; Rooster was already going on the trail of the bandits. But noooo, Mattie has to do it herself. Even putting her life in danger, she feels she can't properly honor her father if she doesn't take matters into her own hands and supervise.
So, is she a tragic hero—that is, is she a hero who brings needless suffering on herself because of a fatal flaw like, say, lust for revenge or pride? Maybe. But would keeping her arm make up for feeling like she'd failed to do right by her father?
Ugh, and we thought we had hard decisions.