(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Work has one central character, Christie Devon. She is the orphaned child of a "gentleman" father and a "farmer's daughter" mother, indebted for her upbringing to a maternal uncle whom she refuses to burden further. At age twenty-one, she is strong, moral, eager to be on her own and to engage in satisfying work. At the outset Christie is cheerful and outgoing, and she has many appealing traits, among them a willingness to learn, be useful, and improve herself. Christie's soul-searchings and spiritual crises, her longings for security, are very human.

Christie is a remarkable fictional character because she is anchored in realism, yet designed by her creator for a didactic role. She is an introspective moralist, a social critic whose views are not immune to shifts. Through her twenties and thirties she mellows, recognizes and accepts her need for aid, and comes to appreciate domestic values. For marriage, she finds a man with whom to balance dependence with independence through equal partnership. As a widow rebuilding her life, Christie is an admirable figure. She has remained the strong, self-assertive woman who resolved after her first attempts at work that she would not "be a slave to anybody." She has also changed, grown as a woman.

Christie demonstrates both the difficulties and the possibilities for women, first in the antebellum and then the postbellum era. By the time she is forty, her experience enables her to mediate between working women who need reformed social conditions, and the rich women who want to help but are hampered by a communication gap. She also blends by birth the genteel "fine instincts" and "gracious manners" with the working-class "practical virtues" and "sturdy love of independence." Christie is a sort of "everywoman," journeying through encounters, usually brief, with characters who are largely types, and mostly women.

Among other important female characters is Hepsey Johnson, a fugitive slave at the time she and Christie first meet. Hepsey is the motherly cook who softens young Christie's disgust at the snobbish Mr. and Mrs. Stuart, for whom Christie works as a maid. Hepsey is a racial stereotype, depicted as having "melancholy eyes" and a penchant for showing humble gratitude for kindnesses, but she is intended to evoke abolitionist sympathy. Her sufferings cause Christie to feel "a sense of obligation so forcibly" that she begins "at once to pay a little part of the great debt which the white race owes the black."

Bella Carrol, met later, exemplifies a daughter victimized by her...

(The entire section is 1050 words.)