Melissa McFarland Pennell
I did not read Little Women until I was an adult, but since that first encounter, I’ve enjoyed rereading the novel many times and often include it as a text in one of my courses. Perhaps that is why when asked which might be my favorite chapter, I picked “Experiments” –a chapter about lessons learned and the value of trial and error. It is also a chapter about work, presenting some forms of paid employment that women held in the nineteenth century, but also speaking to much of the invisible work that women did and continue to do. For me the key to the chapter is in Marmee’s commentary near its end that “Work . . . gives us a sense of power and independence better than money or fashion”—but then she cautions her daughters to seek a balanced life, to make each day “both useful and pleasant.” Alcott seems to anticipate the desire for a work-life balance that so often arises in our lives.
The chapter opens with the four March sisters expressing their joy at having some “time off,” the chance to set aside their daily responsibilities and embrace, at least briefly, freedom from duties. Asking their mother’s permission to do just as they please for the week, the sisters soon discover that things are not as pleasant as they had expected: time drags, they feel out of sorts, and boredom is creeping into their anticipated ease. Even saintly Beth becomes cranky. The chapter’s humorous highpoint comes in Jo’s attempts at cooking, as she assumes that skill and experience are negligible while preparing a company dinner as long as one has a recipe book to follow. Her burnt bread, undercooked potatoes, and salted strawberries result in a dinner disaster that “became a standing joke.” Fortunately, Jo’s guests could join her in laughing over her kitchen fiasco, and the sisters learn the wisdom of Hannah’s belief that “Housekeeping ain’t no joke.”
In this chapter Marmee, with Hannah’s help, proves herself to be a skilled and patient teacher. She and Hannah are both amused by what they see but step back and allow the sisters to make their mistakes. To move her daughters toward a better understanding of the lesson she is trying to impart, Marmee, who admits that she “never enjoyed housekeeping,” gives herself and Hannah a day off, to let the full effect of chaos and inexperience take hold. In doing so, she allows the girls to discover how much “invisible” work goes on around them every day and that knowledge, planning, and organization allow goals to be achieved.
As I began thinking about this blog entry, an article appeared in The Boston Globe that discussed gender-neutral skills necessary for modern adults. Some of the items on the list are specific to our own era. Among the others, however, being able to cook a meal, do your own laundry, take responsibility, listen, ask for help, and make and hold onto friends are all ones that I think Mrs. March would endorse.
Melissa McFarland Pennell, Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, specializes in the study of nineteenth-century American literature and culture.