Mary Bee Cuddy is the film’s central character. She’s an unmarried, land-owning, fairly well-off, 31 year-old religious woman who is described by multiple men as “plain as a tin can.” She is a voracious worker and a good citizen who depressingly plays piano on an embroidered cloth keyboard for amusement, but has her heart set on ordering a melodeon. She’s instantly pitiable, and in her first dialogue on screen, proposes marriage to a man who turns her down, calling her “bossy” and again, “plain.” One gets the sense this isn’t her first proposal/rejection, and before the film ends, it won’t be her last.
The way Mary Bee pitches marriage to her suitors calls attention to the way people viewed marriage in 1850. It wasn’t about love or romance, it was a business deal. Mary Bee’s proposals aren’t full of flowery language and declarations of the heart, they’re a bullet-point list of how many livestock she owns, her farm acreage, her bank account, and recognition that she’s still capable of bearing children. It’s pragmatic and exerted with desperation.
The union of marriage itself isn’t important on a personal level, and isn’t respected amongst people. In a scene where one of the crazy women runs off and gets picked up by a lonely freighter, George tells the fellow the woman is married and crazy and under his supervision. None of those things, including the marriage, are of any concern to the gentleman, because the girl can “still spread her legs, can’t she?
Toward the end of the film, George meets a 16 year-old girl with no shoes who works as a servant. They talk twice, he buys her some shoes, and says they should marry. She replies, “maybe,” and though they never see each other again, the fact she replied semi-positively to a marriage proposal from a 70 year-old stranger says something about views on the subject during that time. Being married to a 70 year-old man might be less than ideal, but ending up a 31 year-old unmarried, childless woman like Mary Bee was worse. This girl clearly came from a situation where she wasn’t going to have any opportunities or the ability to fend for herself. Marriage, for her, would be about protection.