By Sandra Harbert Petrulionis
The central concerns of “Burdens” may be character development and self-education, but within its domestic lessons, this chapter also foregrounds the inequities of Civil War- era America. It is an especially valuable chapter when teaching Little Women.
A brief synopsis: “Burdens” builds on the Pilgrim’s Progress allegory introduced in Chapter One. The post-holiday reality has set in, and the March girls “take up our packs and go on,” as Meg puts it, each with her own particular trial: Meg’s teaching of “four spoilt children,” Jo’s work as a companion for the “fussy” Aunt March, Beth’s household drudgery and lack of music lessons, and Amy’s misshapen nose and hand-me-down clothes. As “Burdens” concludes, Marmee points out what many discerning students will also have seen—that in confessing their day’s respective trials, each girl has already learned her own particular lesson, thus putting Bronson Alcott’s Transcendentalist self-culture into practice.
Through Jo and Meg, especially, this chapter prompts classroom discussions and research projects on the limited vocational options for antebellum women. But more important cultural work occurs here that doesn’t center on the March sisters. By bookending the chapter with Irish servant Hannah and enslaved Chloe and Tom of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Alcott juxtaposes the girls’ comfortable lives with fellow Americans whose “burdens” were not only far heavier than those shouldered by Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy, but were also not theirs to regulate.
As many critics have noted, and as students also quickly grasp, the privilege of a live-in servant belies the narrator’s persistent reminders of the March family’s poverty. As a “faithful” woman-of-all-work who tends to the girls’ every whim, Hannah Mullet also expands discussions of women’s labor; whatever the limited options for Jo and Meg’s working days, their choices are far greater, and more appealing, than most employment open to Hannah. Students are startled to discover through a cursory review of antebellum Boston and New York newspapers the plentitude of “No Irish Need Apply” in “help wanted” ads for even the most menial labor.
Reinforcing this class consciousness, “Burdens” concludes with Jo’s “morsel of fun” at the expense of Tom and Chloe. Though Jo mistakenly attributes (and heightens the dialect of) Tom’s words to Chloe, the sentiment of extreme Christian forbearance resounds in their last poignant moment together before Tom is sold, as he bids his family “‘tink ob yer marcies, chillen.” Students find it disturbing that a chapter centrally about work ends by invoking as comic relief characters whose black working bodies have determined their status in antebellum America. Yet in portraying Hannah’s service, the poor immigrant’s plight, and in alluding to Chloe and Tom’s long-suffering enslavement, this chapter directs us to consider the March girls’ collective lament about the severity of their “burdens” through a much more complex lens, one mindful of their privileged status. When we empathize with the subjects of class and race that frame this chapter, we more readily accept Marmee’s “sermon” that her daughters are indeed fortunate.
Sandra Harbert Petrulionis is Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at Penn State, Altoona.