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Louisa May Alcott’s Changing Views on Women, Work, and Marriage in Work

Jelena Šesnić

Abstract

Louisa May Alcott’s intriguing and productive mix of fiction and auto-fiction suffuses the experience of the female protagonist of her Transcendentalist Bildungsroman Work (1873). The text, therefore, engages intersecting but distinct discourses of femininity, domesticity, and individual emancipation. The novel proposes a new direction by placing women squarely in the public sphere of labor and social relations, even though that move is qualified by normative and sentimentalist constraints for middle-class characters. Still, Alcott ably marshals reformist and Transcendentalist ideas to prove that the feminine Bildung requires self-growth, education, work and a variety of social and affective relationships.

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1Louisa May Alcott’s long and versatile career often found her performing a variety of jobs, mostly considered unsuitable for a nineteenth-century genteel woman (domestic help, seamstress, teacher, governess, companion, actress, nurse (Stern xxiv, 58, 63–64, 73–74, 88, 115). Yet when she found herself in the position of bread-winner for her extended family, she was able to forge for herself a successful career as a writer (which was more in line with nineteenth-century decorum). Alcott made her way boldly into the public spheres of the writerly profession, literary and publishing activity. As the next step, she became an outspoken abolitionist, like many other New England Transcendentalists, and a supporter of women’s suffrage (Stern 95, 97, 281). These particular features of Alcott’s biography suggest it would be advantageous to revisit and reconsider the author’s views on femininity and the public sphere, work, and marriage, particularly in her less critically appreciated novel Work: A Story of Experience (1873).

2In Little Women, and in particular its sequel Good Wives, Alcott displays different models of marriage already found in the work of her predecessor, Margaret Fuller. In her essay-manifesto, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, an attempt to summarize from a philosophical point of view the historical, cultural, and societal features of womanhood, Fuller mentions the following types of marriages: the household partnership; mutual idolatry and intellectual companionship; marriage of friendship; and religious marriage (282–83, 289). Alcott’s Little Women illustrates the features of Fuller’s taxonomy in its representation of marital bonds: Marmee and Father; Meg and John; Amy and Laurie; Jo and Fritz—albeit none of these is a clean fit but a messy approximation of the above models.

3This inadequacy can be traced back to the primary issue that Alcott tackles in her novel Work, her next step in interrogating women’s development and marriage. As Wallace argues, “The concept of independence... [for Christie] depends, like the political life of her nation, on a rational discourse of contractual obligation, the Lockean discourse of benevolent patriarchy that enabled the Declaration of Independence” (264). By leaving behind the purely rational and liberal frames of reference, Alcott’s text strives to find new, reform-minded modes of accommodating the woman’s quest in the frame of “the New Philosophy” (Walls 428).

4Alcott used relatively uncomplicated, even popular forms of middlebrow fiction to disseminate the ideas formulated by the intellectual leaders of the transcendentalist school (in addition to Fuller, R.W. Emerson, her father Bronson Alcott, and others [“A Transcendental” 516]). Alcott’s autobiographical “Recollections of My Childhood” from 1888, points out in a simple, unpretentious but nevertheless self-assertive style her notion of being the heir of transcendentalism and its ideas, in a sense claiming them as a birthright (“A Transcendental” 516, 517, 519). Literally, she imbibed its lessons at home (Strickland 93).

5It is from this particular vantage point that Alcott undertakes to reconsider and re-imagine the modes of nineteenth-century femininity, as it was conceived in the two key spheres, the public and the private. In the private domain, the goal for Alcott was not necessarily to abandon the idea of marriage but rather to conceive of more transcendent, spiritual, and transformative forms of marriage. It is therefore important to recall Alcott’s ambivalence about marrying off her heroines in Little Women’s sequel (Langland 118). On November 1, 1868, Alcott records in her journal, “Began the second part of Little Women.... A little success is so inspiring that I now find my ‘Marches’ sober, nicer people, and as I can launch into the future, my fancy has more play. Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman's life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie just to please any one” (Myerson et al. 167). However, even though appalled by the idea, she feels compelled by public expectations to do it, while sending Beth, the only celibate sister in Little Women, to her death, thus “replacing the sorority of March girls with a gathering of spouses, parents, and children” (Lang 115).

6The novel Work was begun in 1861, under the working title of “Success,” thus echoing perhaps the ambition permeating Jo March’s self-sacrificing exertions on behalf of others in Little Women, where Jo—reflecting Alcott’s fate—finds that she has to subdue her literary nerve in order to help her family financially (Fitzpatrick 30; Little Women 133, 144–45; Good Wives 46). As was often the case with Alcott, an additional strain was brought on by the need “to balance the work of her genius with the work that paid” (Maibor 120). As she pointed out, the composition of the novel was constantly interrupted and punctuated by domestic crises and the need to minister to her family’s needs. She complained about the final outcome that was seen by some as “a ‘disjointed’ or plotless story” (Harris 185, Myerson et al. 128, 187). As Hendler explains, after a longer break Alcott revised the novel, which was commissioned for the Beechers’ influential Christian Union (136, Myerson et al. 183–84) and, appearing in such a publication, would need to offer a seasoned and rational criticism of the ideology of domesticity rather than a full-blown demolition of it. However, as Hendler demonstrates, we need not assume that the obliteration of domesticity would be Alcott’s priority, even if she had placed the text in a different venue, but rather its revision, which included sentimentalist traits. In his words, the family does not so much vanish as become reconfigured into “an image of sympathetic community as a metaphorical family” (Hendler 143).

7In the course of her work on the manuscript, as Elbert reconstructs it, Alcott gave up on the evidently worldly and overly materialist overtones of the draft title and opted for the idea of “work,” trying to endow it with spiritual and feminist overtones. Taken up regularly in the context of the women’s question, the issue of work and professions for women would gain in importance. Here it is further marked by the transcendentalist implications of a “calling,” “vocation,” thus carrying clear spiritual associations (Maibor 29–30). Furthermore, this change of stress might suggest Alcott’s intention to reflect on the “profound changes” occurring in marital conditions and “in relations between the home and the marketplace” (Strickland 2). As a result, Alcott’s female Bildungsroman Work is arranged chronologically so as to display Christie Devon’s life from the age of 21 and her Declaration of Independence, to the age of 40. The novel, in Susan Harris’s apt formulation, “valorize[s] women who reach beyond marriage for self-definition and gratification, and who question the restrictions the marriage relation imposes on their freedom to do and be all they can” (125).

  • 1 As an illustration of this dualism besetting the transcendentalist thought, in his essay “Fate,” Em (...)
  • 2 In Tony Tanner’s apt summary of the cultural impact of Emerson’s essays (perhaps elusive to us in o (...)

8The title itself could be seen as an apt metaphor to mark the intersection of the presumably dynamic and processual nature of Bildung as embedded in society (and thus subject to observation and description) and the static and inborn notion of conscience (the transcendentalist and spiritual aspect captured by introspection). The concept of experience is thus embroiled in a paradox; it can be grasped only through a spatio-temporal and socially engineered dynamic which propels Christie to go out and seek her fortune, even as it may be circumscribed by the inborn determinants (that need only be intuited and activated).1 On a less philosophical level, but with a clear agenda to center the drama of development and growth on a girl (woman), Alcott takes up the terms of the debate. She effectively translates into Christie’s trials and tribulations one of Emerson’s pervasive images, that of genius (spirit) passing into “practical power,” the power of being and acting in the world as a self-reliant individual (Tanner 4).2

9Insofar as the sphere of practical exertions and (public) work was seen to reside outside of the realm of the intimate and the private, relegated to women (Fitzpatrick 28–29), it was of paramount importance to begin to elucidate the ways in which its potential could be harnessed by them. Alcott intervenes in this debate by launching a novel that, as Lang points out, seeks “to reconcile the requirements, both internal and external, of respectable femininity with the demands of employment in the period roughly from 1850 to 1870” (115). Langland cites autobiographical reasons for Alcott’s foray into the public sphere of labor: in taking up the role of breadwinner in her family, Alcott was eager to re-inscribe the idea of the working girl into her texts (334 n. 12).

10Additionally, Alcott intends to wrest the concept of work from its market dimension to serve another purpose, according to Harris, that of “expanding women’s opportunities for psychological and spiritual development... [and] its advocacy of women’s freedom to explore the world and to determine the shape of their own lives” (175). Christie’s self-discovery in the novel includes the manifold dimensions of work, as she makes clear:

You know I work for two, mother... I am not tired yet: I hope I never shall be, for without my work I should fall into despair.... There is so much to be done, and it is delightful to help do it, that I never mean to fold my hands till they are useless. I owe all I can do, for in labor, and the efforts and experiences that grew out of it, I have found independence, education, happiness and religion. (Work 441–42).

11 Work in the novel thus entails not only the different forms of labor that Christie Devon, the heroine, would be able to perform as a housemaid, governess, actress, companion, and seamstress but accrues an intangible, immaterial, affective, and spiritual dimension in the form of friendship, companionship, compassion, sisterhood, charity work, and social reform, and, as an addition and a follow-up to the aforementioned, rather than its apex, the work of romantic affection (love and marriage). In a true transcendental sense, and yet swaying to fit the new woman’s agenda of Bildung, the political, the social, and the economic are imbricated with the inner and spiritual strain into which marriage has now to be inserted, alongside work and experience. Alcott’s inscription foregrounds precisely the intangible, affective, and intimate “long labor of love” as she “gratefully” dedicates the book to “my mother” (n.p.). Christie’s idealistic credentials imbue the notion of work with lofty ideas and intentions: “I hate to be dependent... I must go where I can take care of myself.... I’m sick of this dull town, where the one idea is eat, drink, and get rich; I don’t find any friends to help me as I want to be helped, or any work that I can do well; so let me go, Aunty, and find my place, wherever it is” (Work 2). This plea for independence is all the more charged since it implies the deferral and (temporary) rejection of marriage. This idea could further empower Christie, even though it also might make her more vulnerable. As pointed out by Hartog in his comprehensive study of marriage, a woman’s choice to stay out of wedlock indicated that the universally accepted state of coverture did not necessarily stem from or presuppose some inherent, natural disability of women to stand on their own, as witnessed by single (unmarried) women not subject to it (118).

12Finessing the idea of work enables Alcott to perform a dual service for middle-class women as she makes the public sphere of labor relations and commercial exchanges more accessible to them, showing how her heroine Christie ably or, in some instances less so, navigates its realm. Hardly the one to idealize (manual) work due to her own experience, Alcott agitates for the gendering of the concept of work by allowing it to appropriate some activities of the intimate, private, and domestic sphere, stepping over into the (intimate) public sphere, as contends Glenn Hendler. Reading the discourse of sentimentalism in a political key, Hendler argues that Work, as a sentimental novel, attempts “to redraw boundaries between the public and the domestic” (17), placing Christie in situations requiring her to enter and act in the public arena (of occupations, social reform, women’s networks) by giving vent to “the apparently personal, privatizing, psychologized emotions” readily ascribed to women (29).

13In the novel, this gendering of the public sphere and the interweaving of the public and the private is further complicated by another laboring figure, the working-class woman. Christie rubs shoulders with working-class women (Cynthy Wilkins; Hepsey, a cook and an ex-slave; women in a mantua sweatshop) and immigrant women (the proverbial Irish domestic—whom she despises) but also needs to mediate the class gulf, as contends Sylvia Cook, arguing that middle-class women authors devised ways to contain their working-class subjects (11). Likewise, Christie tries to mitigate the class divisions by conjoining her genteel and working-class credentials (Lang 118). The novel cautiously modulates the two positions by allowing Christie to mediate between the decorous world of domesticity and the gritty world of labor, in the promotion of (middle-class) woman’s quest for occupation beyond the prescribed feminine roles of the time.

14Christie’s experience, atypical for her class and status, but narratively enabled by her parentless situation and her mobility (from the country to the city), serves her well in the final stages of the novel. There, she appears as another female agent of labor, a working-class woman, whose presence readily breaks down the antebellum division of the spheres and turns Christie into a public speaker, agitator, and self-identified working woman (despite her genteel background). On one hand, the sentimental mode traditionally espoused the idea of charitable work or labor of sympathy among women, assuming that upper- and middle-class women should raise their working-class peers and induct them into the sanctioned forms of womanhood (Cook 213, Lang 125). On the other hand, the novel departs from this scenario and displays ways in which “the valuable network of fellow women workers” encountered, befriended, and assisted by Christie, will be able to sustain her in her hour of need (Maibor 125). More authentically working class, both Hepsey and Mrs. Wilkins function as purveyors of support and self-reliance for Christie, and are, in an important proto-feminist gesture at the end of the novel, inducted into a new community of women where social distinctions become moot in their common pursuit, weaving together social, personal, and spiritual strands. It is interesting, according to Harris, that “a lower-class woman serves as a model for self-reliance for the protagonist” (180), and, moreover, that in the novel her “voice” is granted “legitimacy” (183), rather than merely propping up the heroine’s status. Cook, however, is more reserved about this transfer, since she argues that, as a “lady,” Christie evinces “modest notions of Romantic idealism and self-culture” and can therefore impart them all the more effectively to her working-class sisters (188).

15True emancipation, however, as transcendentalists claimed, happened at home; thus it is in the domestic precinct that we find the text laboring to chart new directions and possibilities for women. This new orientation is at first heralded in a traditional manner, by a budding romance between Christie and David Sterling among the flower beds of a Quaker household where Christie betakes herself after her breakdown. However, the romance does not proceed straightforwardly. Christie’s narrative foregrounds the ferment of self-growth; David’s narrative, and that of his lost sister Rachel/Letty, crystallizes the social reform interest; namely, how to assist, help, and reform fallen women. David’s role is ambivalent; being a blood brother to Rachel and at first a spiritual brother to Christie, the two narratives intersect, turning him into a spiritually regenerated man who will accompany new women in reforming the entire society (Walls 426). However, a sentimentalist agenda, coupled with the Christian message of redemption, interferes with the idea of self-sufficiency. Christie cannot do it alone; she will be doubly vulnerable as an independent (working) woman and so should resign herself to the nurture and assistance of more enlightened powers, such as the transcendentalist minister (Mr. Powers), the Quaker reformers, and self-reliant sisters (Rachel, Mrs. Cynthy Wilkins).

16When Christie nearly breaks down for want of friendly and spiritual sustenance, she is directed by Rachel to the Wilkins household, where Cynthy Wilkins presides over her large brood and directs her impassive and non-descript husband. Cynthy’s home would be a neat example of genial domesticity except that Cynthy is a competent working woman, a “clear starcher” (Work 164), whose home is not only a scene of a semi-public, hybrid form of labor (domestic and market oriented) but also a true abode of modesty, cleanliness, Christian charity, and sisterhood. Cynthy acts as a maternal figure to Christie as the latter is re-integrated into the domestic sphere, seasoned with labor but also laced with spiritual principles as she remains ensconced in her friend’s life and practical Christianity.

17The question of reform loomed large for women in antebellum America, and the norms of domesticity limited their public engagement. For instance, a rift in the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society opened over whether to accept women and allow them to perform reform work (LaPlante 89). Samuel May, Abigail Alcott’s older brother, a minister and an influential abolitionist, supported the idea of admitting women (90). These kinds of conflicts were likely to affect Louisa’s thinking on the matter and on the way she would make her heroine surpass the obstacles to public engagement for women by way of Fuller’s concept of self-growth (and aligned with the Emersonian notion of experience) where Christie would begin “the meaningful work of a vocation” (Maibor 121). The tenor of experience gradually obtained by Christie might be contained in the lesson of “how to transform the foundations of her life – her image of herself, her capabilities, and, fully as important, her image of other women and their capabilities” (Harris 177).

18Soon, with Cynthy Wilkins, Christie regains her spirits, but in order to fully recuperate she needs a change of air, so she moves from the city into an idyllic setting and the bosom of a Quaker family, the Sterlings. The affective work attendant upon Christie is quite demanding; she needs to learn to discipline her sympathies (from friendly to romantic) in the service of creating new kinds of bonds: the familial bonds with the Quaker family, and more intense sentimental, romantic bonds in her budding relationship with David. Christie must learn to de-sentimentalize David, and this lesson is acquired through mutually reinforcing domestic labor performed equally by men and women. It is from the equality of (productive and domestic) forms of labor that other forms of equality will ensue later in their marriage. First, she gets to experience David as her fellow worker and companion and builds on the experience of him in a domestic context as her “brother” (“a brother of girls” [Work 346]): “Companionship teaches men and women to know, judge, and treat one another justly” (Work 268).

19Her marriage is not a climactic moment but a logical extension of and a fitting emotional complement to her ever more involving and rewarding charity and benevolence work that takes her into the public light and the circle of reformers, where she stays surrounded by the league of sisters, her new-found family, even after David’s death. As Harris contends, Christie’s brief union suggests the possibilities of companionate marriage, but her widowhood demonstrates the strengths of independent women cooperating in a female community. The interrupted marriage serves as another “experience” for Christie (181), as signaled by David’s dying words to her: “Don’t mourn my dear, but work” (Work 406).

20Alcott’s imaginative attempt in Work to reorganize the discussion of a husband’s marital prerogatives takes the form of Christian emplotment, convincingly laid out by Lant and Estes, at the expense of strictly realistic expectations and readings of the novel (226–27). As Harris notes about Alcott’s framing the narrative of the protagonist’s Bildung by The Pilgrim’s Progress, once we apply to it the idea of “the soul’s journey towards redemption” (178), all other way stations, marriage included, must be redefined to suit the case. David himself seems to understand this idea when he, in a companionate way, urges Christie to continue alone the journey that they would have made together, foregrounding the spiritual implications of their marriage as a passage from the corruption of the world to the realm of charity (caritas in its Christian scope is much more encompassing than the domestic or intimate sphere might indicate and points to its communal, thus social aspect). Lang correctly identifies this impulse in the text: “Religion [is] a locus for the commitment to social justice” (146 fn. 26). Langland captures these intertextual signals as she further suggests that Alcott presents a feminized version of the journey: “Accompanied by Mercy, her children, and Mr. Greatheart, Christiana... travels to the Celestial City. Her journey expresses a community of salvation” (127, Work 440).

21After her widowhood, her women friends minister to Christie, both in her immediate household of three generations of women and in her larger reformist network, so much so that the boundaries between the kinship family and the spiritual family are blurred. Christie’s benevolent and social work echoes Margaret Fuller’s appeal to American women to extend help to the less fortunate sisters that Fuller visited in prisons. Fuller pointedly urges her genteel reader to assume responsibility for and to “mother those degraded women” (329) by joining public reform efforts or acting in private. Christie, in the latest stages of her social work, strives to bridge an old and widening divide, that between a lady and a working woman. By declaring her credentials as both, Christie continues to expand on the notion of the work then available to women through espousing the transcendentalist notion of experience, for which the work is merely a conduit, and reinforced by Christian charity as a transformative social force. As Hendler observes, “she transforms sympathy from a purely affective interaction into a form of political mediation” (137).

22In Work, Alcott persuasively dwells on different facets of women’s experience and strives to accommodate the spiritual needs of her heroines with her own reforming, transcendentalist, and proto-feminist agenda. She would not dispose of the institution of marriage altogether, but in her successive texts she continues to query its meaning for women (and occasionally men), sometimes creating, as Cook puts it, an awkward mix of “Romanticism and common sense” (210). For instance, the marital ties in Little Women are demanding of both partners as Alcott presents the cases of domestic partnership (Meg and John) and spiritual union (Marmee and the Father; Jo and Fritz; Amy and Laurie). In Work, Alcott is able to present an image of a more complete woman’s existence in which love, marriage, and romantic affection are among a host of other preoccupations of a woman who, in Fuller’s powerful vision, “stand[s] in the sunny noon of life” (348) to claim her birthright.

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Bibliography

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. 1868. Penguin Classics, 1994.

---. Good Wives. 1869. Penguin Classics, 1995.

---. “A Transcendental Childhood.” 1888. The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, edited with an Introduction by Lawrence Buell, The Modern Library, 2006, pp. 513–19.

---. Work: A Story of Experience. 1873, edited by Sarah Elbert, Shocken Books, 1977.

Cook, Sylvia Jenkins. Working Women, Literary Ladies: The Industrial Revolution and Female Aspiration. Oxford UP, 2008.

Emerson, R.W. “Fate.” The Conduct of Life. 1860, 1879. American Transcendentalism Web, archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/emerson/essays/fate.html. Accessed 2 Sept. 2020.

Fitzpatrick, Tara. “The Sentimental Economy of Louisa May Alcott’s Work.” NWSA Journal, vol. 5, no. 1, 1993, pp. 28–44.

Fuller, Margaret. The Essential Margaret Fuller, edited by Jeffrey Steele. Rutgers UP, 1995.

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Langland, Elizabeth. “Female Stories of Experience: Alcott’s Little Women in Light of Work.” The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development, edited by Elizabeth Abel et al., New England UP, 1983, pp. 112–27.

Lant, Kathleen Margaret, and Angela M. Estes. “The Feminist Redeemer: Louisa Alcott’s Creation of the Female Christ in Work.” Christianity and Literature, vol. 40, no. 3, 1991, pp. 223–53.

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Wallace, James D. “Where the Absent Father Went: Alcott’s Work.” Refiguring the Father: New Feminist Readings of Patriarchy, edited by Patricia Yaeger and Beth Kowaleski-Wallace, Southern Illinois UP, 1989, pp. 259–74.

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Notes

1 As an illustration of this dualism besetting the transcendentalist thought, in his essay “Fate,” Emerson, among others, dwells on what he terms the two extremes bordering human life, the one necessity, the other freedom, as one of the irresolvable philosophical questions (Emerson).

2 In Tony Tanner’s apt summary of the cultural impact of Emerson’s essays (perhaps elusive to us in our age of hyper-individualism), his revolutionary idea was to locate within a sovereign self the conditions for its development and maturation – primarily of spiritual capacities. Tentatively, this break from social authority and institutions could foster the growth of the female self too (although, for Emerson’s changing attitude toward the women’s question, cf. Gougeon). It is demonstratively shown by Fuller how women, too, might show the capacity for “self dependence,” in more explicit terms than Emerson’s (Fuller 262).

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References

Electronic reference

Jelena Šesnić, Louisa May Alcott’s Changing Views on Women, Work, and Marriage in WorkEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 17-3 | 2022, Online since 26 October 2022, connection on 29 November 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/18592; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.18592

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About the author

Jelena Šesnić

Jelena Šesnić is full Professor at the University of Zagreb. She is the author of two books and editor of two collections of essays. As a co-founder of the Croatian Association for American Studies, she co-organizes the society’s annual American Studies workshops, and acts as a vice-president of the Association for American Studies in South-Eastern Europe. She edits, with Sven Cvek, Working Papers in American Studies.

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