Lyddie Themes

The main themes in Lyddie are freedom and servitude, pride, and resourcefulness and practicality.

  • Freedom and servitude: There is a tension between Lyddie’s insistent desire for personal freedom and the servitude to which she is often subjected.
  • Pride: Lyddie is deeply prideful by nature, but over the course of the novel, her pride is tempered by humbling events.  
  • Resourcefulness and practicality: Lyddie repeatedly demonstrates her resourcefulness, often in ways that bring a humorous note to the narrative.


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Last Updated on March 12, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1294

Freedom and Servitude

Lyddie Worthen struggles continually to define and attain personal freedom and to avoid servitude, yet she is continually pulled toward the latter no matter how she denies it, and at the end of the story, she finally realizes why.

Throughout much of the novel, Lyddie is little more than a servant. As a young girl, necessity forces her to care for her siblings and home when her mother no longer can, and she continues to struggle to maintain the farm after her mother and the younger children leave. Lyddie is essentially bound to her father’s dream and her father’s debts, but she does not realize it.

Lyddie’s sense of bondage increases when her mother hires her out to Cutler’s Tavern. As she tells Ezekial, she has no choice in the matter. She tries to insist that she is free or at least that her father is free, but she realizes even as she speaks that it is not true—she has no freedom to do what she wants or go where she wishes.

This seems to change when Mistress Cutler dismisses Lyddie and she chooses to go to Lowell. She finally feels free, but the feeling does not last long. Lyddie is soon caught up in the rules and regulations of the mill, trapped by long hours and exhausting work, all the more so as the company speeds up the machinery again and again. The other girls recognize the abjectness of their condition. “We’re all working like black slaves,” Betsy declares before she sings an old song about refusing to be a slave. And Diana warns Lyddie that it is “the nature of slavery to make the slave fear freedom.” To both of her friends, Lyddie vehemently proclaims that she is not a slave. Perhaps she is so emphatic because she is trying to convince herself more than anyone else. Deep down, Lyddie realizes that she is, in some sense, a slave, but it takes her a long time to admit it.

Finally, at the end of the story, Lyddie comes to a realization about freedom and servitude. She has indeed been a servant for a long time, but more than anything else, she has rendered herself servile by allowing others to do the same. For all this time, she has failed to recognize the truth about herself, her situation, and her lack of freedom. Now that she knows this, however, she can reach out for true freedom and for the education she now realizes she wants.


Pride represents a paradox at the heart of Lyddie. Lyddie’s family is dirt poor. They have only their failed farm and a small log cabin. By the end of the winter, Lyddie and Charlie are reduced to eating bark and rabbits, yet Lyddie refuses to ask for help. She is determined to be beholden to no one. Even the necessity of mating her family’s cow with the Stevens’ bull irritates her, yet she gives in because they need a calf, and there is no other option. When the siblings must leave the farm, Lyddie does not want to accept the hospitality of the Stevens family or their offer of a ride into town. Only when Charlie gratefully accepts does Lyddie go along.

This reluctance shows an arguably unhealthy pride in Lyddie, and readers are invited to imagine what Lyddie’s life would have been like if she had allowed people to help her. The Stevens family may well have gladly fed and cared for the children all winter, and Quaker Stevens might have taught them about efficient farming. But Lyddie’s pride dominates, and the children suffer for it.

When she arrives in Lowell, Lyddie is still driven by her pride, and she hates accepting help from anyone, even though she often finds that she must. Without Mrs. Bedlow’s help and sympathy, Lyddie would not have found a place in the company. Without Diana’s training, Lyddie would never have learned her job. Yet Lyddie quickly pushes these interactions aside and focuses on her work. She is proud of what she can do, that she can work several looms at a time, that she can keep up with whatever pace the company sets, and that she is better than the other girls because of her ability to be almost a machine herself. Lyddie wants nothing to get in the way of her work and her income—not the petition, not an injury, not even friendship. Her pride keeps her isolated.

Eventually, though, Lyddie learns to curb her pride. She has no choice but to rely on other people when she falls ill with fever and when she is weak for some time afterward. Further, when Judah brings Rachel to Lyddie, Lyddie must ask for help on Rachel’s behalf. She begs Mrs. Bedlow to allow Rachel to remain at the boardinghouse, promising to pay full price. She reluctantly but firmly takes money out of the bank to pay for the things her sister needs. She even convinces Mrs. Bedlow to ask for a job for Rachel. Lyddie must think of someone other than herself, and thus she is humbled for her sister’s sake.

By the end of the story, Lyddie is still somewhat proud, but her pride has been tempered. When she writes the letters that will keep Mr. Marsden away from Brigid, Lyddie is not thinking of vindicating herself but of protecting Brigid from the overseer’s potentially harmful actions. Of course, when she talks to Mr. Marsden, she lets him know exactly what she thinks of his “moral turpitude,” but she is truthful about herself as well. “I am mean and I am cheap,” she declares. “Sometimes I am a coward and often times I’m selfish. . . . But I am not vile, shameful, base, or depraved!” Lyddie has come a long way in knowing who she is—both the good and the bad—and in this self-assessment, one can see that her reflexive pride has given way to a more mature sense of self.

Resourcefulness and Practicality

Lyddie’s resourcefulness and practicality are essential for her and her family’s survival, but they also add touches of humor to the novel that make Lyddie a more endearing character. The story begins with a prime example of Lyddie’s ability to cope with whatever situations are thrown at her. She stares down a bear. She holds the animal at bay with the force of her gaze until her family is safe in the cabin’s loft. When Lyddie herself is safe and the bear stumbles out of the cabin with the oatmeal pot on his head, readers cannot help but laugh with Lyddie and her siblings at the image of a skinny thirteen-year-old girl locking eyes with a large bear. Lyddie’s resourcefulness is necessary, given the conditions of her life, as well as an opportunity for such theatricality.

Lyddie’s practicality leads to humor and theatricality again during her journey to Lowell. When the stagecoach becomes firmly stuck in the mud, the upper-class men among the passengers have no idea how to get it out, and the coachman is enjoying watching their efforts so much that he fails to instruct them. Lyddie, however, knows exactly what to do. She hitches up her dress, ties her shawl around her waist, grabs a flat stone, and places it under the coach's wheel, and then steps into the mud and pushes alongside the men. Under her direction, the men free the coach, and the party continues on the way, with Lyddie up front with the laughing coachman and the muddy passengers pouting inside. Lyddie’s resourcefulness saves the day again—and again to comic effect.

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