Work is devised to convey stages in a spiritual journey, and is marked by rather distinct sections. The first six chapters, perhaps worked on by the author as early as 1861, are episodic and simple, with one type of employment after another explored. Each work experience ends in a crisis or realization which leads to the next step in spiritual progress. A shift in narrative structure occurs after Chapter 6, which—critics have surmised—may be a result of a more skilled author taking up the novel again after a lapse of eleven or so years. By Chapter 7, when Christie is led to the brink of suicide, a more complex section begins in which meetings occur with characters devised to inculcate deeper perspectives on self and work. Another shift seems to occur with the outbreak of the Civil War, when Christie's domestic idyll is disrupted.
The use of one dominant character, Christie, traced through twenty years of varied experiences, provides a focus for interrelated and complex themes. Christie's journey demonstrates Alcott's remarkable gift for translating real occurrences, including her own life experiences, into meaningful fiction. The novel is based on actual antebellum and postbellum options for women. Critics especially tie Christie's work experiences to Alcott's own. At age nineteen Alcott spent seven humiliating weeks as a badly underpaid domestic servant, evading unwanted attentions from her employer. She also worked in her twenties as a...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Like many of the novels and stories of Alcott, Work should encourage provocative discussions of the feminist and social issues that were her concerns. Important aspects of the novel involve links among women, moral values and social leadership. The novel also reflects Alcott's views on domesticity and gender relations. One good avenue to pursue is whether Alcott portrays an effective marriage in that of David and Christie. Another is whether a "loving league of sisters," as Christie and her friends exemplified, is a possibility for women in today's feminist climate.
In general, Alcott drew upon her life experiences for her fiction. Discussion groups interested in history should find in Alcott's depictions of nineteenth-century life some useful keys to understanding. The novel should prove particularly enlightening on social attitudes, various reform movements of the day and the means by which society's poor and needy received aid. Groups might consider whether current social programs are an improvement.
1. The novel's first six chapters were written in the early 1860s, and conceived by Alcott as a novel to be entitled Success. Based upon the chapters from 7 on, what could be the reason Alcott retitled the manuscript?
2. Are the shifts in narrative structure a weakness of the novel? Why or why not?
3. What does the concept of "work" involve for Christie?
4. Domestic values are an important...
(The entire section is 496 words.)
In Work, Louisa May Alcott explores a number of social issues, particularly in relation to women, through the character Christie Devon. At the age of twenty-one, Christie leaves the rural home she has shared with her aunt and uncle since the death of her parents. She seeks satisfying work outside the bounds of docile domesticity. "I'm willing to work, but I want work that I can put my heart into, and feel that it does me good, no matter how hard it is." Christie objects to work with "no object but money," because it will not make her "a useful, happy woman." She moves to the city and seeks a way to earn a living, but finds that for a woman—especially a "poor gentle woman"— the options are few.
Christie undertakes a number of jobs in turn, leaving each in short order because it is either underpaid, demeaning, or morally corrosive. Nevertheless, each job provides encounters that heighten her social sensitivity. In the course of the novel, which takes Christie through the age of forty, she espouses the causes of antebellum abolitionism and of justice for all women who are out on their own, regardless of race or morally "fallen" background. By the time Christie reaches a crisis of unemployment and desperation, Alcott has delivered the message that women are hurt by a social and economic system dominated by men in pursuit of material wealth.
Christie's recovery process treats issues of social reform, domesticity, and gender relations....
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The most immediately recognizable influence upon the novel's structure and theme of spiritual self-fulfillment is John Bunyan's allegorical Pilgrim's Progress, finalized in 1684, which traces the moral journey of a hero named Christian to a heavenly Celestial City. Alcott's heroine has a similar name and, particularly in early chapters, shows steps of progress made through moral lessons. Alcott's indebtedness to Bunyan's allegory is reflected in numerous depictions of temptations overcome and resting-spots along Christie's spiritual way, and in such prose as "God was very patient with her, sending much help, and letting her climb up to Him by all the tender ways in which aspiring souls can lead unhappy hearts."
A painting of a scene from Pilgrim's Progress figures in Work, showing Christie's relationship to Bunyan's hero. Hepsey, Mrs. Sterling, and Rachel/Letty behold the painting and marvel at resemblances to David and little Pansy. Nevertheless, a crucial difference exists between Alcott's novel and Bunyan's allegory. In spite of references to God and religious inspiration in Work, Alcott focuses on an individual's progress toward secular ends.
Work falls within the nineteenth-century literary tradition of women's fiction. Also, insofar as Alcott, in Work, called for abolition and women's rights and a spiritual rather than material view of success, her novel falls within the scope of the era's...
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Christie's nursing career in Chapters 17 ("The Colonel") and 18 ("Sunrise") in Work recall Hospital Sketches, first serialized in The Commonwealth and later published in book form in 1863. For this work Alcott drew upon her experiences in 1862-1863 as a wartime nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital, Georgetown. The seriocomic narrator, spinster Tribulation Periwinkle who is added for the book version, courageously endures the emotional trauma of caring for wounded and dying men in shabby conditions. The story "My Contraband," published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1863, unites an abolitionist theme with wartime nursing in the characters of the spinster Nurse Dane, and Bob, a freed mulatto assigned to her as aide. Chapter 5 ("Companion") in Work recalls "A Nurse's Story," a thriller serialized in Frank Leslie's Chimney Corner in 1865-1866. The feminist narrator, nurse Kate Snow, has dealings with a girl plagued by inherited insanity.
Christie's experiences as a maid in Chapter 2 ("Servant") are reflected in the lighthearted short essay "How I Went Out to Service" published in the Independent, 1874. Feminist and work-related themes appear in other Alcott works, one of them the unfinished novel Diana and Persis of 1879. Little Women (1868-1869) treats feminist and career interests, moral development, and domestic values with an indebtedness to Pilgrim's Progress. In Little Women the...
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