Chapter XI. Experiments

Take Two

By Mark Gallagher

Louisa May Alcott was deeply affected by the Fruitlands experiment. While she eventually wrote a satirical history of it, her first published commentary on her father’s failed utopia appears in Chapter 11 of Little Women, “Experiments,” where the March sisters indulge in the “all play, and no work” lifestyle that led to Fruitlands’ failure and the near ruin of Alcott’s family.

The chapter begins on June 1st, the same day Fruitlands was founded in 1843. Meg is relieved of her governess duties for the summer, while Jo is reprieved by a vacationing Aunt March. Deciding that lounging is the preferred course of inaction, all four sisters abandon their domestic duties for a week of personal freedom. Mrs. March consents, “You may try your experiment for a week, and see how you like it. I think by Saturday night you will find that all play, and no work, is as bad as all work, and no play.”

Neglecting their domestic work, the girls are not unlike the carefree, aspiring-vegetable-eating idealists who lived with the Alcotts at their new Eden in Harvard, Massachusetts. As Alcott noted in “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873),

Slowly things got into order, and rapidly rumors of the new experiment went abroad, causing many strange spirits to flock thither, for in those days communities were the fashion and transcendentalism raged wildly. Some came to look on and laugh, some to be supported in poetic idleness, a few to believe sincerely and work heartily. Each member was allowed to mount his favorite hobby and ride it to his heart’s content.

Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane’s utopia failed in spectacularly foolish ways, particularly because the men failed to assume an equitable share in domestic responsibilities—or any responsibilities at all, for that matter. In her journal for Friday, November 2nd, 1843, eleven-year-old Louisa writes:

Anna and I did the work. In the evening Mr. Lane asked us, “What is man?” These were our answers: A human being; an animal with a mind; a creature; a body; a soul and a mind. After a long talk we went to bed very tired.

Years later, Alcott commented, “No wonder, after doing the work and worrying their little wits with such lessons” (Journals 46-47). The contrast between Alcott’s work ethic and Lane’s attitude is striking. Sharing his vision of the “consociate family,” Lane writes, “Of all the traffic in which civilized society is involved, that of human labour is perhaps the most detrimental” (The New Age [November 1, 1843] pp. 116-120). Lane subsequently left Fruitlands for a Shaker community, where “he soon found the order of things was reversed, and it was all work and no play” (“Transcendental Wild Oats”).

The “Experiments” story is similar to one Alcott remembers Lane reading at Fruitlands. She recounts the story of “The Judicious Father” in which a “rich girl” is punished for being cruel to a “poor girl” who only wanted to “look over the fence at the flowers” in her yard. The girl’s father makes her exchange clothes with the other girl, forcing her to wear the old rags for a week. The moral lesson was not lost on young Louisa: “I liked it very much, and I shall be kind to poor people” (Journals, 45). Such kindness is evident in the charity the March sisters give to the less fortunate Hummels. In “Experiments,” however, we hear the story from the perspective of the “shabby girls” who escape the drudgery of their housework to enjoy a week in their own flowerbeds. Luckily, they have a judicious mother to give them a lesson in the vice of idleness and the virtue of work.

The girls soon tire of the experiment and wish it were over. They are ready to take up their responsibilities again but not before one vulnerable friend suffers, as Daniel Shealy notes, the “consequences of neglected work” (Annotated Little Women, 168). Pip’s death is a melodramatic reminder to those children for whom Isaac Watts’ warning against the evils of “idle hands” is not enough of a moral. When Jo promises, “We’ll work like bees, and love it too, see if we don’t,” it is an imperative as well as a prediction. For while it was common for children to work with their families—on farms, in the family business, or doing housework—too often families suffered from failed entrepreneurial schemes and other risky endeavors that made child labor an economic necessity. Alcott’s experience at Fruitlands taught her that.

Mark Gallagher (@MarkRussellG) is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at UCLA. His primary teaching and research interest is American Transcendentalism.

The burial of a bird
“Here lies Pip March, / Who died the 7th of June; / Loved and lamented sore, / And not forgotten soon.” — Jo [Image courtesy of J. Alden Weir, “Children Burying a Bird” (1878), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.]

4 thoughts on “Chapter XI. Experiments

  1. I’m reading Harding’s biography of Thoreau. The chapter I just finished records another of Emerson’s attempts to support the Alcott household by hiring Bronson to design and build a summerhouse with the help of Thoreau while Emerson himself is in England. Thoreau eventually abandons the task because of Alcott’s unconventional and dangerous design plans which made the building, when finished, unusable.

    Thanks for bringing in the connection to the Fruitlands experiment. I’ll be mulling over what it means to live in a household where the children’s work is necessary to the family’s well-being and how that circumstance might be in tension with the conventional ideals clearly stated by Marmee.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A very favorite chapter of mine! I never thought of the Fruitlands parallel, however. I simply enjoyed the account of how inept Jo was in the kitchen and how few resources Amy had for entertaining herself; even Beth forgot to feed her bird and Meg snipped and spoiled her clothes…

    Liked by 1 person

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