For many Louisa May Alcott will be primarily known as the author of the children’s classic, Little Women and its sequels. For others, she remains a prolific writer, often using her work to critique social norms and to promote her support for women’s suffrage and Abolitionism. Written in 1873, Work: A Story of Experience is one of Alcott’s lesser-known but more explicitly political novels in her oeuvre. A semi-autobiographical novel, Alcott takes up the case of the struggling poor, women and blacks, as she highlights the institutional and cultural obstacles disenfranchised groups face, needlessly.
Work tells the tale of Christie Devon, a head-strong, pretty young lady, orphaned and living with her doting aunt and strict uncle. Wishing to find her way, she embarks on a personal and professional journey as she goes through various employers. Hired first as a servant, she becomes friends with a black maid who is saving up her meager earnings to buy her relatives’ freedom. Christie’s quickly fired after being blamed for a small fire caused by a gas lamp, and moves on to become an actress. This career, while somewhat successful, is also short-lived as Christie finds it lacking fulfillment. Soon after, she is tapped to be a companion for a young girl, recouping from a nervous breakdown, but must leave because of the tragic circumstances of her charge’s household. She then is hired as a governess, but must quit after her boss’s bachelor brother proposes marriage. Finally, she gets work as a seamstress, but yet again leaves, this time out of loyalty to one of her fellow seamstresses who is blacklisted for having a “scandalous” past. Unable to support herself, Christie contemplates suicide, before being rescued by a series of kindly people, eventually falling in love and getting married. Her happiness is abbreviated by the onset of the Civil War, but she emerges stronger and wiser.
As seen by the extremely truncated synopsis of the book, there’s a lot of plot in Alcott’s book. And while it would be obvious to say that Alcott is a gifted writer, Work does have some flaws – namely it’s Alcott’s failure to successfully fold her political convictions naturally into the story. Instead of trusting her readers enough to understand her points of view, she self-consciously throws in her anti-slavery, feminist ideology, often in ways that come off as forced, to the detriment of the story. Her characters become prone to self-righteous speeches about the evils of racism and the plight of the poor, and often these monologues are unnecessary as Alcott’s depiction of the abject poverty and discrimination are often on-point and harrowing enough.
What does work is Alcott’s fantastic writing of the different characters: Christie Devon is a largely sympathetic and relatable heroine. She veers at times to lachrymose – there are flashes of instinctual spunk and fire, despite her overly rosy view on life. Christie also has a strong sense of self and despite temptations that fall in her way, she manages to stay true to herself and not let herself be seduced for too long. It’s obvious from the reading that Alcott patterned Christie after herself, but there are still enough shades to make her an interesting and somewhat complex character.
The social critique and the espousal of liberal political thought is another facet of the novel worth noting. While often handled ham-fisted, the anti-slavery rhetoric is definitely a major theme in Work. A few of the characters take up the cause of blacks emotionally – and despite the decidedly romantic view Alcott takes of the North’s Abolitionist movement, it’s clear that Alcott views slavery clearly as something damaging and tragic.
Despite its many merits, Alcott still shows some limits in her plotting. The structure of the novel is very episodic (it would lend itself well to a mini-series on PBS), but she’s established a formula that becomes easy to predict. Also, her depiction of the Civil War is rather dry and rushed, and does not do justice to the impact the war had on the women and children left behind. She writes with a teary-eyed patriotism, and all the good, kind characters fall into step, ready to defend their nation, yet the passages during the war are unsatisfying because they are devoted to summaries of actions that take place in Christie’s home life.
With Little Women, Alcott provided a warm tale of young ladies who adapted to the hardships of war because of sisterhood, friendship, piety and ambition. There is some of that in Work, although there is little to compare the two books – a more apt comparison would be to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre or Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey. In Work, Christie survives and thrives because of her feelings of justice and fairness as well as her devotion to her friends and loved ones. At its best, Work shows just how difficult, but meaningful, it is for young women to go out and create an identity of their own, separate from their family – it also provides readers with a telling glimpse as to just how problematic this journey can be when it means navigating through a highly stratified and hierarchical society.
Then ending of Work is a bit pat, but it makes sense – without giving too much of the plot away, Christie ages into an activist, buoyed by the support of the women around her. We are left with the image of the women rallying, but it’s highlighted by Christie’s toddler daughter, who joins in on the rejoicing; Alcott leaves the reader understanding that the struggle for women’s equality is a generational one, that is made all the more potent when it’s a result of a difficult and trying life. Christie has led such a life, and her “liberation” is hard-earned.