Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, was preoccupied with what constituted women’s work, and how the Industrial Revolution spurred changes in a woman’s power to earn a living – so much so that, following the success of Little Women, she would go on to publish a semi-autobiographical novel called Work: A Story of Experience.
Work is central to the lives of the members of the March family, and it’s part of the social experiment at the heart of Little Women. Are women happiest when they work where they’ve always traditionally worked, in the home? Are women who are forced (or who select) to find work outside of the home less happy than women whose husbands serve as the breadwinners? These questions and more are addressed through the various work experiences of the March sisters (Meg is a governess, Jo tends to crotchety Aunt March, etc.). The book pushes forward the idea that a woman’s usefulness extends beyond the realm of hearth and home – and this is most evident when Jo goes on to create a name for herself as an author.
Social class is also at stake in Little Women. Prior to Mr. March’s departure, the March family is plunged into poverty due to shadowy circumstances. Throughout Little Women, the notion that poverty is valuable (and that material wealth, on the other hand, often leads to moral decay) is returned to again and again. “Wealth is certainly a most desirable thing,” Alcott writes, “but poverty has its sunny side, and one of the sweet uses of adversity is the genuine satisfaction which comes from the hearty work of head or hand…” The notion (right or wrong) that the lower classes possess a kind of nobility and virtue that the upper classes lack is levied again and again in Little Women.
Work and Social Class ThemeTracker
Work and Social Class Quotes in Little Women
“Our burdens are here, our road is before us…Now, my little pilgrims, suppose you begin again, not in play, but in earnest, and see how far on you can get before Father comes home.”
“I don’t believe fine young ladies enjoy themselves a bit more than we do, in spite of our burned hair, old gowns, one glove apiece and tight slippers that sprain our ankles when we are silly enough to wear them.”
“Work is wholesome, and there is plenty for everyone. It keeps us from ennui and mischief, is good for health and spirits, and gives us a sense of power and independence better than money or fashion.”
Jo’s breath gave out here, and wrapping her head in the paper, she bedewed her little story with a few natural tears, for to be independent and earn the praise of those she loved were the dearest wishes of her heart, and this seemed to be the first step toward that happy end.
“My dear, where did you get it? Twenty-five dollars! Jo, I hope you haven’t done anything rash?”
“No, it’s mine honestly. I didn’t beg, borrow, or steal it. I earned it, and I don’t think you’ll blame me, for I only sold what was my own.”
As she spoke, Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short.
“I’m not ambitious for a splendid fortune, or fashionable position, or a great name for my girls. If rank and money come with love and virtue, also, I should accept them gratefully, and enjoy your good fortune, but I know, by experience, how much genuine happiness can be had in a plain little house, where the daily bread is earned, and some privations give sweetness to the few pleasures.”
“I remember a time when this hand was white and smooth, and your first care was to keep it so. It was very pretty then, but to me it is much prettier now, for in these seeming blemishes I read a little history. A burnt offering has been made to vanity, this hardened palm has earned something better than blisters, and I’m sure the sewing done by these pricked fingers will last a long time, so much good will went into the stitches.”
“Meg and John begin humbly, but I have a feeling that there will be quite as much happiness in the little house as in the big one. It’s a great mistake for young girls like Meg to leave themselves nothing to do but dress, give orders, and gossip.”
Neither silk, lace, nor orange flowers would she have. “I don’t want a fashionable wedding, but only those about me whom I love, and to them I wish to look and be my familiar self.”
“My lady,” as [Amy’s] friends called her, sincerely desired to be a genuine lady, and was so at heart, but had yet to learn that money cannot buy refinement of nature, that rank does not always confer nobility, and that true breeding makes itself felt in spite of external drawbacks.
Wealth is certainly a most desirable thing, but poverty has its sunny side, and one of the sweet uses of adversity is the genuine satisfaction which comes from hearty work of head or hand, and to the inspiration of necessity, we owe half the wise, beautiful, and useful blessings of the world. Jo enjoyed a taste of this satisfaction, and ceased to envy richer girls, taking great comfort in the knowledge that she could supply her own wants, and need ask no one for a penny.
…Meg learned to love her husband better for his poverty, because it seemed to have made a man of him, given him the strength and courage to fight his own way, and taught him a tender patience with which to bear and comfort the natural longings and failures of those he loved.
“Women should learn to be agreeable, particularly poor ones, for they have no other way of repaying the kindnesses they receive. If you’d remember that, and practice it, you’d be better liked than I am, because there is more of you.”
[Jo] began to see that character is a better possession than money, rank, intellect, or beauty, and to feel that if greatness is what a wise man has defined it to be, “truth, reverence, and goodwill,” then her friend Friedrich Bhaer was not only good, but great.
“Oh yes!” said Jo, and he was quite satisfied, for she folded both hands over his arm, and looked up at him with an expression that plainly showed how happy she would be to walk through life beside him, even though she had no better shelter than the old umbrella, if he carried it.
“Ah! Thou gifest me such hope and courage, and I haf nothing to gif back but a full heart and these empty hands,” cried the Professor, quite overcome.
Jo never, never would learn to be proper, for when he said that as they stood upon the steps, she just put both hands into his, whispering tenderly, “Not empty now,” and stooping down, kissed her Friedrich under the umbrella.