The first of June, and both the Kings and Aunt March are away on holiday for the next three months. To celebrate Jo and Meg’s newfound freedom, the March girls all decide to try doing absolutely no work for one week. (Mrs. March limited them to but one week.)
This chapter is essentially a twist on Chapter 9, insofar as it presents a moral test for the March girls. This time, the test involves the practical and moral value of work.
The first day of no work is “delightful, though unusually long.” As the week drags by, however, the girls find that all idleness and no work leaves them feeling irritable and fidgety. Jo tires of reading books, Meg ruins some of her clothes in an attempt to fix them up like the Moffats’ clothing, Beth keeps forgetting not to work (and fights with her beloved dolls when she doesn’t), and Amy is overcome with ennui. The girls are secretly glad when the week is almost over.
Sloth and idleness – sins of the leisure class – take their toll on the girls’ Christian virtues. Their ability to be kind and loving toward one another is also hampered by their idleness. This can be seen as being tied to ideal womanhood, given that their virtue (a key trait of ideal womanhood) is deteriorating as a result of their idleness.
Mrs. March decides to hammer home the lesson by giving Hannah and herself a day off from housework on Saturday. Jo is alarmed to come down to breakfast on Saturday morning to discover that there’s no breakfast and, indeed, no fire. The girls, however, take matters into their own hands and pitch in to make a sub-par breakfast, which they proudly serve to Marmee. Jo invites Laurie over for dinner, and gets in well over her head when she attempts to cook a fancy meal for him. Meanwhile, Beth discovers her canary has died due to her negligence. Laurie and surprise guest Mrs. Crocker (an old, gossipy neighbor) attempt to eat Jo’s inedible lunch.
Depending how you view it, the tie between idleness and the deterioration of virtue can be seen as either feminist or patriarchal. On the one hand, one could argue that Alcott’s assertion that women should have practical work experience flies in the face of traditional ideals of femininity. On the other hand (as illustrated in this scene), it seems that idleness leads to the deterioration of the March girls’ ability to perform homemaking tasks, ones typically assigned as “women’s work” in a patriarchal society.
At day’s end, Mrs. March asks the girls what they’ve learned this week. She reveals that she wanted the girls to learn what happens when people are idle and only think of themselves. “Work is wholesome, and there is plenty for everyone,” she says. The girls agree to balance work with play, and Mrs. March is satisfied that their experiment was a success.
Alcott’s ideas regarding work are channeled through Mrs. March in this scene. The notion that work is virtuous flies in the face of the notion that the leisure class is somehow better or more valuable than the working class. It’s also somewhat feminist, insofar as it makes the argument that women require meaningful work just as men do.