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Louisa May Alcott's Work: Reading and Discussion Questions

Louisa May Alcott headshotLouisa May Alcott is best known today for her novel for young girls, Little Women (1868-9, originally published as Little Women and Good Wives), yet she wrote in many genres both before and after the publication of this famous novel.  She began as a writer of "thrillers" and published them under the name A.M. Barnard, a pseudonym that hid her identity so successfully that these early works were not discovered until 100 years after her death. Those of you who have read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre might be especially interested in Alcott's Behind a Mask,which is an interesting "thriller" based on the basic governess plot that Bronte used.

Alcott was brought up in Concord, Massachusetts, the daughter of Bronson Alcott, a Transcendentalist philosopher and teacher, and Abba May Alcott, one of the first professional social workers in Boston.  Both her parents were idealistic, as can be seen in her fictionalized version of their year in Bronson's utopian community Fruitlands, "Transcendental Wild Oats." Little Women is a fictionalized version of her life with her three sisters in Concord, and the home in which she lived there after writing the novel still exists. Bronson Alcott called the place "Orchard House," but Louisa May called it "Apple Slump," one of many instances in which she affectionately chided her father's idealism.

 Alcott was steeped in Transcendentalism from the time she was born. She and her sisters were the subject of her father's educational experiments, which included progressive methods such as allowing children to learn through their natural questions instead of being whipped for failing to memorize facts. Both parents and daughters kept journals and recounted in them their reflections over their own consciences as well as meals such as Graham crackers, apples, and water for dinner. (An early edition of her journals is at Google Books.)

When they lived in Concord, the Alcotts had famous neighbors who influenced her ideas: Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived next door to the Alcotts and whose children looked to Louisa May for adventures (see Julian Hawthorne's account here); Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose books Louisa May Alcott borrowed and who was, she wrote in her journal, "the god of my idolatry"; and Henry David Thoreau, who took the Alcott girls huckleberrying out at Walden Pond. Her first book, Flower Fables, was a compilation of stories that she had told to Ellen Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson's daughter.

Throughout her life, Alcott struggled between two conflicting goals: a desire to write novels that she felt were artistic and worthwhile, such as Work, Moods, and Diana and Persis (a novel about a woman artist), and works for juvenile readers that would sell, such as Little Women, Eight Cousins,Rose in Bloom, Under the Lilacs, and An Old-Fashioned Girl.  On at least occasion, she called her work in this vein (and in Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Book ) “moral pap for young people.”

Alcott’s critical reputation has risen in recent years after the disdain heaped upon her work in the first half of the twentieth century. She was one of the early casualties of modernist denunciations of “sentimentalism,” as critics often dismissed women’s writing under that label as didactic and lacking in substance, and her work unfairly became a shorthand way of referring to moral prissiness and prudery. However, with the growth of feminist criticism, serious critical interest in Alcott has grown over the past three decades, including essays and books on her affiliations with traditions such as “woman’s fiction,” her intellectual roots in Transcendentalism, and her promotion of reform movements such as abolitionism, woman suffrage, and equality of the races, as can be seen in Work— the very sorts of political references that were thought to be insufficiently “aesthetic” by the modernists . You can find a list of secondary sources here: http://www.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/alcottbib.htm.


Please read the questions on Work only after you’ve read the book; some of them contain spoilers.

1. Would you call Work a feminist novel? Why or why not?

2. Christie declares her independence in the first chapter in the language of the Declaration of Independence. In what ways is Christie’s progress through the novel and her various occupations an American success story? In what ways does it refute the kinds of success typically sought in those stories?

3. How does Christie upset the kinds of gender stereotypes associated with nineteenth-century women and the heroines of conventional romances? For example, is the plot of the two suitors necessary for this work?

4. Why does Christie choose David over Mr. Fletcher?

5. Why does Alcott devote so much space to the Wilkins family? Why are they in the book?

6. As readers of Little Women know, Alcott used the allegorical work Pilgrim’s Progress in her novels, including features such as allegorical names that indicate the character’s function. For example, she calls Mr. Lawrence “Mr. Greatheart” in an allusion to Pilgrim’s Progress. In Work and in “Transcendental Wild Oats,” she frequently names her characters in this fashion. Analyze the meanings of some of the names in these works.

7. Alcott describes a number of admirable women in this book, including some who are foils or contrasting characters for Christie. Choose one or two of these characters and examine the ways in which they function in the book.

8. For her era, Alcott has a progressive view of racial equality, yet her views of the Irish, who were at the time subject to intense anti-Irish prejudice, are less enlightened. Discuss the ways in which Alcott portrays these characters.

9. In what ways is Work a “political enterprise” (Tompkins 515) like Uncle Tom’s Cabin? What “cultural work” of social reform is Alcott trying to accomplish in writing it?

10. Alcott writes about characters and ideas that would have been considered unladylike topics for women in her era, including suicide, insanity, prostitution or the “fallen woman,” and even being an actress, which was often considered disreputable. How does she handle these topics, and what is her perspective on them?

11. What part does the Civil War play in this novel? In what ways is it important for Alcott’s conception of Christie’s life? How does it connect her with her early “declaration of independence”?

12. An important symbolic pattern in this novel is that of the garden, flowers, and vegetation in all their forms. Analyze what Alcott does with this pattern, including the character of David Sterling, who is thought to be loosely based on Henry David Thoreau.

13. Tompkins discusses features of the home, such as the rocking chair and the kitchen, as exemplifying certain values or truths in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and she links these to Catharine Beecher’s The American Woman’s Home. Alcott, too, provides descriptions of rooms or other spaces that symbolize certain themes within the work. Using a close reading of some of these passages, analyze how these features are used symbolically.

14. Echoes of Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice frequently appear in Alcott’s novels, as do echoes of Dickens’s novels. Can you find and analyze some of those echoes in Work? (See, for example, p. 65).

15. As described in the Context section for this lesson, Alcott’s background in Transcendentalism is expressed in this novel, although “Transcendental Wild Oats” presents quite a different picture of the value of Transcendentalist thinking. Analyze some of the ways in which Transcendentalism appears in the scenes and characters in Work.

16. If you have read Little Women or other novels by Alcott, compare some features of these novels with Work. How does Christie differ from, or in what ways is she similar to, other Alcott heroines such as Jo March?

17. Tompkins notes that by the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “Stowe reconceives the role of men in human history” in that women, African Americans, and others do the work whereas “men groom themselves contentedly in a corner” (526). Could the same be said of Work, with its famous vision of an interracial group of women holding hands around a table at the end of the novel (see p. xx of your book for an illustration)?