Work: A Story of Experience: Part I (Chapters 1 ~ 4)
In Louisa May Alcott’s Work, we meet a young woman of twenty-one called Christie Devon, who lives with her Uncle Enos and Aunty Betsey. Her parents married for love and died early, leaving Christie in her uncle’s care.
Our protagonist longs to be independent – financially and socially. So one day while baking with her aunt, Christie declares that she will move out soon. As predicted, she gets no objection from her uncle and plenty of worry from her aunt. Christie has this fiery passion and endless dreams; she wants to “earn … the best success this world can give us, the possession of a brave and cheerful spirit, rich in self-knowledge, self-control, self-help.” (Work: A Story of Experience, Chapter 1) She can’t hold it out any longer in a town filled with girls whose biggest aspirations are getting married and owning pretty dresses.
After moving out, Christie stays at a what we’d call now a motel, I guess, (with the 100$ given to her by uncle Enos) and tries to find a work. At last she is hired by a Mrs. Stuart and befriends the black cook, Hepsey Johnson, who has been shunned by other maids because of her race. While being a swift, hard-working and cheery maid to the Stuarts, Christie starts to observe the master and the mistress of the house and their guests and point out their tedious repeating rituals. She also helps Hepsey learn to read and count.
A year passes while Christie is at service. Due to a fiery accident (that’s when the famous -is it famous? I’ve often seen it on GR- quote: “She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.”) she is dismissed by Mrs. Stuart. When Christie stumbles on an actress Lucy, who encourages her to audition for a vacant role, and Christie hesitantly accepts, and soon pours her heart and mind into her new-found passion.
In the fourth chapter Christie leaves the theater behind and becomes a governess. I enjoyed this longer chapter more than the previous one; perhaps because I am less interested in the world of acting. I also found Christie’s answer to Mr. Fletcher’s proposal highly engaging, as her opinion about Jane from Jane Eyre already shows that she has no intention of accepting even though she herself realizes it later. I would have wished to read more about how Christie got acquainted with children and what she did to make them like her!
My impression so far
Work: A Story of Experience is quite different from what I’ve read so far from Louisa May Alcott and also from what I’d expected. I don’t know whether the Experience in the title refers to Alcott herself or Christie’s life (perhaps a little bit of both), but this novel is turning out to be the life story of the protagonist.
The pacing is fast; a year passes in one chapter, and in one page we learn the world is now three years older than in the page before. I had a trouble with that, as the effects of this furious pacing were that we as readers got only the result, not the process. For example, we read that Christie is having quite a bit of success in acting. And she and Lucy have become awkward with each other. It’s an statement. We don’t actually get to see how it started or whether Christie ignored the signs. The last chapter, titled “At Forty”, takes place when she’s 40, I assume, so we have to pack 20 years into one volume, so on average every chapter has to take on one year of Christie’s life.
My second -and bigger, and related to the first- problem was Christie itself. That girl (actually a woman a couple of years older than me) is cheerful, optimistic, strong-willed and open-minded, almost to the point of being robotic in her sunshine-ness. I find it hard to find faults in her, which normally would make a great book with an impeccable heroine, Christie almost doesn’t feel human because her moral and conscience are spotless. There is no anxious despair after being fired; there is no tearful goodbye to Hepsey. No, after nearly burning her room down (and getting suffocated in sleep by the smoke), she starts to laugh at the absurd dance Mr. Stuart is having in order put the fire out. Yeah, I was bewildered.
Only her indignation at having to polish shoes (a job which a boy should do, in Christie’s opinion) and her quiet horror at seeing what a selfish and fame-seeking actress she has become are indicators that Christie is, thank goodness, a human. Still, she feels so… wooden to me. In chapter 4 she becomes a governess, which suits her character most well and made her come to life with more credibility.
I also found her idea of “independence” a queer one. For example, she thinks caring for an invalid as a job would be stealing her independence as she has to tend to the invalid day and night. But if that work gets her money and a sense of satisfaction, isn’t sacrificing one’s free hours a mean to achieve the ultimate independence? I think Christie and I have a different definition of “independence”.