Today, the majority of American women earn a wage outside the home, regardless of marital status, age, or race. "Career Girls" and "Working Moms" have become an accepted part of the American culture and economy. Behind our culture's acceptance of women at work outside the home is a long and complex history. Opinions about the kind of work women should do, and the meaning of that work to individual women and American society as a whole, have fluctuated throughout the centuries. This paper is an attempt to understand a part of that history. In it, I will explore the representation of women at work in nineteenth-century American fiction. The works I will explore range in time from 1850 to 1910 (roughly from the Civil War to World War I), a period of rapid industrial change in the American economy.
The growth of industrialization during this period introduced a new idea of work to America. Not only did the jobs available to Americans increase dramatically, the meaning of work changed fundamentally. In agrarian America (from the colonial period to the middle of the nineteenth century), most work was essentially private. Nearly self-sustaining family-based farms, in which all family members labored for the common good, were the norm. What products the family could not produce for themselves were usually acquired through barter. Dolores Hayden describes women in the agrarian preindustrial era as "working alongside their husbands and children, doing the hard work necessary for the family to survive" (12). Feeding a family meant more than just cooking food over an open fire; it included growing grains and vegetables, milling flour, and raising animals. Most of the store-bought items we take for granted today, like clothes, soap, and bread, were homemade in the preindustrial economy. Even nonagrarian work was based upon a period of apprenticeship to a craftsman, which provided an intimate passing of knowledge from one generation to the next. Historian Daniel Rodgers notes that even as late as 1850, "the centers of manufacturing remained the home and the workshop" and "the putting-out system flourished in every manufacturing town, employing shoemakers, weavers, tailors, and seamstresses in the traditional had process" (Rodgers 19)
Historian Jeanne Boydston notes that in the agrarian era, women were "recognized as workers, and the value of that labor-both to their households and to their communities-was openly and repeatedly acknowledged" (Boydston, Home & Work 5). Boydston lists numerous examples of the economic value of wives. Women created wealth for themselves and for their husbands by many means: they were able to make contracts in their own right, and thus obtained licenses to run taverns; taught school; sold produce and manufactured goods. In Sudbury, Massachusetts, land was allotted "6 acres for a man and 6 1/2 acres for his wife," which is strong evidence that women's domestic labor was highly valued (Boydston, Home & Work 5-6). However, the economic power that wives held did not yield social or political power. Religious and social conventions mandated that women conform to expected gender divisions. In colonial New England's culture, husbands were the moral and political leaders of the household, and it was commonly believed that the Bible disallowed women from participating in political life. These conventions of the early Puritans have had lasting effects for American women. Although other religious groups (such as the Quakers and Catholics) and other cultures (such as the German and Dutch) influenced American culture, the New England Puritans seemed to have had an especially powerful sway over American culture. Boydston notes that "English Puritanism, in particular, was a pervasively patriarchal belief system," whose cultural predominance eventually overwhelmed the influence of the Dutch culture in New York (Boydston, Home & Work 4).
Until American women won the vote in the early twentieth century, "women's work" did not include any formal political activity, even though women continually made important economic contributions in America during both the preindustrial and industrial eras. As the nature of work changed in the industrial era, the meaning of "women's work" necessarily changed as well. Even today the basic meaning of that phrase has not changed. "Women's work" still carries domestic connotations: caring for children, cooking, and cleaning. This cliché hides the complexity of women's work, but an exploration of several nineteenth-century novels uncovers the changes in women's work in the new industrial era, as well as the dilemmas, tensions, and the meaning of that work. The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1851), Uncle Tom's Cabin: Or Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852), and Work: A Story of Experience by Louisa May Alcott (1873) describe how middle-class women made their work at home meaningful. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1908) and The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (first published in 1881, revised 1908) describe the careers of elite women who make their living by negotiating high society, while "The Tartarus of Maids" by Herman Melville (1855) and "Life in the Iron Mills" by Rebecca Harding Davis (1861) describe the harrowing lives of factory girls. Ruth Hall by Fanny Fern (Sara Willis Parton), (1855), Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868), and A Country Doctor by Sarah Orne Jewett (1884) investigate fulfilling careers of nineteenth-century women. These novels illustrate the various kinds of jobs available to women. Upper- and middle-class women worked inside their homes, in the professions of domestic manager or ornamental wife. Lower-class women labored outside the home in often demeaning and dangerous jobs, such as domestic service, sewing, and factory work. The most fortunate women worked in what we would now classify as careers, such as teaching, nursing, and writing.
The literature from 1850 to 1910 reflects how work varied according to place, race (due to the United States' unique situation of having simultaneously industrial- and slave-based labor systems), and gender. Mechanized production changed the place and the product of labor: wages became the purpose of work, and factories became the location of work. Men began to work outside of the home, while women and children (of the middle-class, at least) were expected to stay at home. Earning wages became a man's responsibility, managing a household became a woman's. As wage-work developed outside of the home, women reinvented the meaning of housework. Early feminists (called domestic feminists or material feminists) like Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister Catherine Beecher, saw an opportunity for women to command power as moral leaders within the home. Domestic manuals, such as Beecher's Treatise on Domestic Economy, For the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School (1841), Beecher and Beecher Stowe's The American Woman's Home (1869), Melusina Fay Peirces' Cooperative Housekeeping: How Not To Do It and How To Do It, A Study in Sociology (1880), and periodicals, such as Ladies' Home Journal and Good Housekeeping, promoted a new domestic feminist philosophy and scientific and social innovations in housekeeping. Dolores Hayden describes this period:
Regardless of the innovations in household space that the material feminists promoted, the ideal woman of the middle class was a profoundly private and virtuous creature who supported the moral life of her family while her husband supported the financial and public aspects of family life. But only a prosperous husband could support such a "domestic goddess." The industrial revolution sent many poor women and children to a hard life at factories, mills, and other forms of industrial labor. However, it was the middle class who set the standard for nineteenth-century womanhood. Harriet Beecher Stowe's and Catherine Beecher's writings were the epitome of the literary domestic writings of the nineteenth century. Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin: Or Life among the Lowly, was the most popular book of its day. Her literary manifesto against slavery drew upon her philosophy of the home, and women's place in it, as the basis for abolition of slavery.
Many critics have examined the importance of domesticity in Uncle Tom's Cabin. In her reading of the novel, Jane Tompkins sees the home, represented best by the kitchen, as an economic alternative to-not a refuge from-the "crass industrial-commercial world" (144). The domestic world in Uncle Tom's Cabin, with its communal and utopian characteristics, is very different from the rest of society. It is clear that Stowe considers morality the only source of women's power; politics, business, and other traditional male power structures hold no sway in her ideal domestic kingdom. However, Stowe's kitchens are still subject to a certain kind of economy.
Critics such as Ann Douglas and Gillian Brown discuss the representation of economy and the marketplace in Uncle Tom's Cabin, particularly its relation to sentimental power. These critics use the terms "sentimental economy" and "sentimental power" to describe women's sphere of influence in nineteenth-century America. Jane Tompkins characterizes the popular domestic novel, or sentimental novel, as representing "a monumental effort to reorganize culture from the woman's point of view"; for her "this body of workoffers a critique of American culture far more devastating than any delivered by better-known critics" (124). The Sentimentalist movement was a legitimate effort to create an alternative power structure to capitalist hegemony. Sentimentalists believed that power should be based not just on monetary value, but also on the emotional value of people and objects.
Furthermore, Gillian Brown claims that "the domesticity that Stowe advocates must be understood as a revision and purification of popular domestic values-domestic values which Stowe regards as complicit with...slavery" (18). Brown further describes her ideas about the nature of Stowe's reforms:
Stowe's ideas about domestic feminism, economic and social reforms, and the value of these reforms, are still controversial. The primary message of Uncle Tom's Cabin, that slavery is morally wrong and should be abolished, is quite clear, but the method that Stowe offers for the abolition of slavery-creating a world in which women are moral leaders-is not. A close examination of the kitchen is a starting point for the examination of the nature of domestic feminism and the nature of women's work in Uncle Tom's Cabin. For Stowe, meaningful work for women must center on the home, and the kitchen is the symbol of woman's work and networks.
The first kitchen we see in Uncle Tom's Cabin is Aunt Chloe's. In her own kitchen, as well as in her master's, she is a mixture of military commander and culinary scholar: She delegates certain responsibilities to her "inferior officers" and her corn cake is "a sublime mystery to all less practiced compounders" (Stowe 66-67). Her skills as a cook are a source of power during her enslavement. She can even dismiss her own mistress from her kitchen (although in a polite and flattering manner):
Chloe's kitchen is more than a refuge from slavery; it is a place where she is the leader. Needless to say, most twentieth-century readers find it offensive that her complete lack of freedom might be compensated by some pittance of power gained by mastering a menial task. However, Stowe presents Aunt Chloe's mastery in the kitchen as something that allows her to transcend her lowly position. When necessary, Chloe turns these domestic skills towards the outside world, where she nearly earns money enough to free her husband. When women like Chloe work outside the home, they are motivated to improve their home life, not to earn a profit for profit's sake.
Brown has a different opinion of the importance of Aunt Chloe's capitalism. She writes:
I would argue that Stowe celebrates Chloe's way of getting into the market nearly as much as she celebrates Tom's way of getting out of the market. Chloe's atmosphere of goodwill attracts more goodwill. The goods she produces nourish everyone physically, even spiritually. For example, it is her housekeeping skills that create a good Christian home, which in turn entices young George to the cabin to foster Tom's Bible study.
Although Stowe holds Tom's and Eva's self-sacrificing spirituality in the highest regard, she does not disregard the value of the conventional marketplace. For example, Stowe lauds enterprising freed slaves in her concluding remarks. She seems to take great joy in reciting how many thousands of dollars these furniture makers, farmers, realtors, washermen, and washerwomen have earned in their capitalist endeavors. Stowe's task in Uncle Tom's Cabin is not "anti-market"; she shows how the conventional marketplace can cooperate with the ideal world of the kitchen.
There is a strong connection between a well-kept and productive kitchen and the spirituality of its keepers. The orderliness and superiority of Aunt Chloe's kitchen reflect the orderliness and Christian example that Mrs. Shelby sets for the greater household. There is an exchange of benevolence between Mrs. Shelby and Aunt Chloe: Mrs. Shelby is a type of "home minister" who creates an atmosphere of goodwill that allows Aunt Chloe to produce in a superior manner. Tompkins' description of Mrs. Halliday's kitchen is apt here: "Stowe's image of a utopian community...is not simply a Christian dream of cooperation and harmony; it is a reflection of the real communitarian practices of village life, practices which depend upon cooperation, trust, and a spirit of mutual supportiveness...." (144). That the institution of slavery could encompass this kind of cooperation and trust shows the merit of the individuals in the relationship, but it also makes it easy to argue that slavery is not entirely evil.
In contrast to Mrs. Shelby, Marie St. Clare lacks spiritual and moral authority, as evidenced in Dinah's chaotic kitchen. Dinah is as much of a cooking genius as Aunt Chloe, but she lacks Chloe's ability to make the kitchen an inviting place. Stowe compares the two cooks:
There is no spiritual order in the house of Marie St. Clare, and so the kitchen and cook produce in a wasteful manner. Miss Ophelia's New England sensibilities are offended by the waste, the disorder, and the uncivilized, almost pagan nature of Dinah's kitchen, but she cannot impose order on the house because she is morally lacking in her own way. She has no Christian love for the lowly people around her. Although she opposes slavery, she does not recognize the humanity of the slaves surrounding her. Only when she comes to love Topsy does Miss Ophelia become a moral leader. Little Eva is the moral center of the household, but, as a child, she has no real power. Without a moral leader, the St. Claire family's home economics are in a state of disarray. St. Clare rightly claims that we must judge Dinah by her success-she makes excellent food-but we must judge the house and its leader by its method of production. And the St. Clare method is of "chaos and old night," not divine order (317).
As Tompkins points out, the kitchens of the Quakers and the Hallidays are for Stowe ideal kitchens, in which the moral leader of the household rules with a gentle and loving hand. Eliza and Harry both find a refuge in this house, and in it, for the first time ever, "George...sat down on equal terms at [a] white man's table" (223). At the end of the story, George and Eliza find equality and freedom and a kitchen of their own, and it is not surprising that their family reunion takes place just as Eliza is about to serve an evening meal. Her preparation of food is a symbol of domestic harmony and the spiritual nourishment it provides. The domestic harmony that Eliza creates is spiritually powerful-it quickly restores the "shattered and wearied" Cassy to a state of grace (607).
In Stowe's novel, the heroes who flee society-Eliza, Harry, and Cassy-eventually return to society. However, the society to which they return -Canada or Africa-is extremely different from the society of the South. They are no longer objects of the economy, but cognizant participants in the economy. For example, "George had found constant occupation in the shop of a worthy machinist, where he had been earning a competent support for his family" (Stowe 603). And Eliza produces another child and masters her own home. Thus Stowe has shown us examples of heroes who flee an extremely repressive society but rebuild a society that is centered on domestic harmony. Goods and services are produced, but spiritual salvation is also produced. Eliza's work creates a supportive and nurturing home, which heals the wounds of slavery and allows her family to enjoy the freedom for which they risked their lives. To Stowe, political freedom without a proper Christian home is meaningless.
Stowe's ideal housekeeper is not a mere maid, but a capitalist manager and consumer. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, we see this in Mrs. Shelby, who not only runs her house well but after her husband's death, manages the household's business affairs much better than Mr. Shelby did. Stowe admired at least one domestic or capitalist endeavor: the cooked food delivery service. Hayden includes a portion of a letter from Stowe for publication in "The Revolution": "The future model village...shall have...a town laundry...bakery...and lastly a town cook-shop where soups and meats may be bought, ready for the table" (60).
Furthermore, Mary Kelley also notes that even Stowe herself sought professional success as well as domestic bliss. In her essay entitled "At War with Herself: Harriet Beecher Stowe as Woman in Conflict within the Home" in Woman's Being, Woman's Place: Female Identity and Vocation in American History, she writes:
Stowe admits to struggling with two roles-that of home manager and that of money earner-in her letters to her children, and we can see that some of Stowe's heroines, like Mrs. Shelby and Chloe, manage to balance both roles better than Stowe herself did.
Corresponding to the two roles Stowe played, there are also two kinds of meaningful work in Uncle Tom's Cabin: work inside the home, which is symbolized by the kitchen, and work outside the home that is centered on maintaining the home. For example, George and Aunt Chloe were motivated to capitalism by a Christian desire (or "right feeling") for the reunion of their families. And it is one of Mrs. Shelby's goals in managing her family's financial affairs to reunite Tom with his family. This kind of sentimental motivation is fundamental to creating a better marketplace. A more humane form of capitalism is dependent on what Stowe calls "feeling right":
Sentimental feeling is fundamental to creating a better marketplace. George and Aunt Chloe were motivated to capitalism by a Christian desire (or right feeling) for the reunion of their families.
Yet sentimental feelings also add a value to objects and people that is beyond capitalism. For example, Eva's locks of hair, the coin young master George gives to Tom, and Mrs. Halliday's rocking chair become infused with a sentimental value that makes them no longer mere objects; they embody a sentimental feeling that makes their emotional value transcend their market value. One cannot imagine Tom ever spending the coin that George gave him. The sentimental value Uncle Tom has in the Shelby and St. Claire households cannot protect him once he has stepped outside of them. The value that sentiment gives to objects and people can only have meaning in an economy of sentimental feeling. Stowe's plan to free American slaves is to combine capitalism and the Christian love of God and family to allow sentimental feeling to circulate in the capitalist economy. Only then can slaves be recognized as people, not objects.
For Stowe, capitalism is not inherently evil, but it can be evil if it is taken to extremes, as it is in the slave-based South. In her concluding remarks, she writes: "Does not the slave system...make every individual owner an irresponsible despot?" (622). In Uncle Tom's Cabin, slave owners like Simon Legree and Mr. Harris desire complete possession of other people, as if slaves were merely objects to be bought and sold without any regard for their families, feelings, or health. When George Harris and Uncle Tom force their masters to confront their basic humanity, their owners try to beat the humanity out of them. For example, although Legree recognizes Tom's value as a machine, Tom also inspires in Legree feelings stronger than any machine could inspire:
This restraint does not last long, and Legree kills Tom not because he no longer has value as a machine, but because Legree despises Tom's declaration of humanity. Stowe conceived of women as having a unique ability to infuse sentiment and morality into the economy; thus putting them in the best position to combat the Simon Legrees of America. To Stowe, "women's work" is a moral act, and at its best it counters the devastating effects of both the slave and capitalist economies.
Louisa May Alcott also explores the meaning and power of women's work in her novel Work: A Story of Experience. It portrays a young girl in her quest to make her life meaningful through her own labor. Alcott takes her heroine, Christie Devon, through a variety of careers, from the domestic to the dramatic to the depressing, until Christie finds the balance between public and private work and between work for her own profit and work for the profit of others. The book's end does not mark the end of Christie's work, but the beginning a of new career as a voice and activist for other working women. In this novel, Alcott portrays work outside the home (which is fundamentally public) as potentially dangerous to a woman's reputation, health, and identity. Alcott portrays work inside the home (which is fundamentally private) as healing and regenerative, but ultimately unsatisfying to an ambitious woman like Christie. Her quest is an allegory for every woman who does not want to live her life solely in the kitchen.
It is appropriate that the story begins with Christie discussing her ambitions with her Aunt Betsey while they cook in the kitchen, for Alcott's heroine ultimately rejects the ideal world that the kitchen represents. It is Aunt Betsey who more closely resembles the ideal wife-manager idolized by Stowe. Aunt Betsey belongs to the kitchen; indeed, it is her only point of reference in understanding the world around her (for example, she only understands the difference between their temperaments when Christie explains it in terms of bread baking). Not only does Christie reject her aunt's kitchen, she also rejects the opportunity to have her own kitchen by turning down an offer of marriage.
Unlike Stowe's heroines, Christie craves experience, independence, and a life outside of the home, as she tells her uncle:
Thus, Alcott begins her novel with a different concept of women's work from that which Stowe portrays in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Christie's idea of work is intensely public and worldly; she seeks a life outside of the home. In Stowe's fiction, women who work outside of a protective home-especially slaves-are profoundly sad, suicidal, and even homicidal. Although Stowe describes some homes that protect slave women, a complete lack of legal protection puts all slave women in jeopardy. Ultimately there is no safe home for slave women (for example, although Eliza lives in a protected and loving home for most of her life, the Shelbys' are forced to sell her child). For white working-class women the home does offer a safe refuge, which Christie Devon declines. As a member of the working class, Christie seeks self-definition as a worker, not as a wife-manager. Furthermore, as a Northern woman, Christie is familiar with industrialization, and is thus more comfortable with one of its major impacts on nineteenth century life: work outside of the home. The Lowell factory girls and their like set an example of respectable women earning an income outside of the home.
Yet there is one compelling similarity between Stowe's portrayal of women's work and Alcott's-the quest for love. That Christie wants work that she "can put her heart into" and that she wants "love to make [dependence] bearable" betrays Alcott's alliance to sentimentalism. Alcott's heroine is a fictive embodiment of the power and protection that sentimentalism was supposed to offer women, both as workers in the outside world and as workers inside the home. Christie's speech implies that infusing work with love and compassion leads to a similar protection that the home offers. As Philip Fisher notes in Hard Facts:
Because the family is the model on which all compassion is based, Sentimentalists like Alcott and Stowe create fictive worlds in which heroines and heroes are not people who try to escape society's restraints, but who counter society's restraints by creating their own family-like societies. These societies are centered on compassion and sentiment; thus sentimental feeling flows as money flows in the capitalist society. The relationship between Topsy and Miss Ophelia in Uncle Tom's Cabin is a nearly perfect example of this kind of sentimental economy. Although Miss Ophelia opposes slavery on principal, Stowe does not portray her as an admirable woman until she embraces Topsy with her heart and raises her as an adopted daughter. Consequently, Miss Ophelia's good Christian feelings shape Topsy's "activity and ingenuity," which once made her "so multiform and restless" (Stowe 612). Topsy continues the circulation of sentiment by becoming a missionary, which seems to make the circulation of good Christian feelings nearly infinite.
Alcott's heroine Christie is also an example of circulation of sentiment. When Christie supports herself in the capitalist society, she is proud and independent, but she never makes money her primary goal. She forges sentimental attachments to the women around her, and these attachments, which have no immediate benefit, return to aid her in times of crisis. For instance, Christie excels in her work as companion to the invalid Helen Carrol. Going far beyond her duties, Christie becomes a "living, loving prop" to Helen and gains trust and love from the Carrol family (113). They repay her with much more money than originally promised to her, which Christie promptly "reinvests" in her relationship with Hepsy:
The dividends are indeed returned by the flow of sentiment from one working woman to other women. At her lowest point, when Christie is without her own economic resources, a series of women take care of her as she has taken care of others. Christie loses her job as a needlewoman when she defends her "fallen" friend Rachel. After her defense of Rachel, Christie becomes as much of an outcast as Rachel. Not only does she lose her job, she loses touch with her old friends, and she begins to doubt in her God. Ultimately, Christie becomes a seamstress, which was one of the most isolating and underpaid jobs of the nineteenth century. Alcott allows Christie the position of "fallen woman" without allowing Christie to break any sexual mores, and so Christie can still be a moral exemplar and yet inspire sympathy usually reserved for the "fallen woman" in nineteenth-century sentimental literature. Rachel's saving Christie symbolizes women's reliance on each other, for the "fallen woman" is saved by another "fallen" woman. From this point on, Christie is housed and cared for by a network of female friends. The kindly Mrs. Wilkins houses her, and the Sterling family gives Christie a mother-figure in Mrs. Sterling and a husband in David, and makes her "fallen" friend into her own sister-in-law. Even when Christie marries, she never settles into the typical wife-manager role, for she decides the best way to serve her soldier husband is to become a nurse. The death of her husband seems inevitable-Alcott's sentimental heroine functions best in a network of women and a long, happy marriage would decrease her reliance on that network of women.
Work demonstrates the power of the sentimental economy and perhaps demonstrates why sentimental novels and feelings were so influential during this time-sentimentalism was thought to mitigate the negative aspects of women's work. Sentimental feelings inspired women to protect one another when the male world failed to offer protection. The temperance, anti-slavery, and women's rights movements were all influenced by the fundamental goal of women wanting to help other women. Both Stowe and Alcott address the needs of those women who are completely without familial protection: slaves. Work was published in 1873, years after slavery had been abolished, but nonetheless slavery plays a key part of the sentimental economy of Work.
Alcott addresses the integrity of slaves as human beings throughout the book in the character of Hepsy. The first job Christie holds outside of her aunt and uncle's house is that of a domestic servant in a wealthy lady's home. Hepsy, the cook, is a runaway slave. Christie insists on sharing her work and her meals with her because "If we can work together, we can eat together" (Alcott 24). Like Stowe, Alcott uses the kitchen to reflect the moral order of its two mistresses, Hepsy and Christie (although Mrs. Stuart can claim ownership of the household, she cannot claim to be the mistress of the kitchen because she never enters it). Hepsy's dream is to liberate her own mother from slavery, and Christie helps her by donating part of her own earnings to the cause and by teaching Hepsy to read and write:
It is significant that it is the kitchen where Christie teaches Hepsy. It symbolizes the protection that other women can offer. Hepsy's unselfish desire to free her mother awakens an unselfish desire in Christie to offer help as well.
Hepsy's work is as meaningful as Christie's-although Hepsy cannot save her mother, she does save "scores of her own people" (Alcott 439). Work, as Alcott represents it, is freeing and redemptive when it is combined with a drive to do right. The work of a former slave woman is perhaps the best illustration of the synthesis of work and sentiment; no one knows both the destructive and redemptive forces of labor better than a former slave whose labor frees other slaves. In Alcott's idea of work, no one knows the rewards of work better than an industrious, self-supporting New England woman does. As Christie says, "I owe all I can do, for in labor, and the efforts and experiences that grew out of it, I have found independence, education, happiness, and religion." (442). It is labor within a sentimental economy that gives her independence, education, happiness, and religion.
Stowe explores the meaning of slave women's work in characters such as Cassy, Aunt Chloe, and old Prue. The disenfranchised slave women-like Cassy-are not allowed to work for the benefit of their own families or even their own selves. Their work is hard on the body and even harder on the soul. Cassy's situation exposes the class structure of slave women in the South and the ease with which a slave can fall from affluence to complete wretchedness. As a young, beautiful, fair-skinned woman, Cassy could live a relatively upper-class life as a mistress to a wealthy white man. While a mistress, she has the best of everything. She is well educated, well fed, and well respected to a certain degree, as are her children. But their safety is precarious. To these upper-class slaves, the desertion or death of a lover-master leads the woman and her children to the slave auction and possibly to men like Simon Legree. Desertion leads to something much worse than poverty: it leads to the loss of her children and her self-autonomy.
The slave can never own herself or the profits of her work, so she has absolutely no legal escape from the torment of slavery. Without a social structure to support morality or any other form of goodness, women like Cassy are forced to run, or wither into insanity or death. Women and families are essential to any kind of civilization, and their degradation is slavery's ultimate sin. Historian Jacqueline Jones eloquently states the painful predicament of slave women:
Even motherhood was experienced differently by black and white women. Slave women could never fully claim their children as their own. As old Prue's story illustrates, slave woman's children were the property of her master and could be sold for any reason, at any time. Although slave women loved their children as much as any white woman, their children (and their ability to bear more children) had an economic value to the master. Motherhood could never be the basis for the sentimental economy among slave women because of the intrusion and exploitation of the master's capitalist interests. A slave woman's ability to produce children produced wealth for her master. Her children could be sold for profit or put to work. The plights of old Prue, Eliza and George, Uncle Tom and Aunt Chloe, and Cassy and her estranged family, all demonstrate how much slaves valued their family as a family and how much slave owners valued the slave family as a means of production and reproduction of wealth.
Recognizing that slavery violated the most fundamental unit of American life-the family-abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe used the significance of motherhood and family to illustrate the evils of slavery. Slavery even violated the white slave-holding family. As Jones points out, white wives were often put into jeopardy by their husbands' sexual relations with slave women. Even during divorce proceedings, husbands had legal possession of any money or property that a wife brought to the marriage. A white slave-owning woman in this sort of triangle was forced to choose between her dignity and her wealth. The white wife's pain pales in comparison with the pain and degradation of the slave woman, but it reinforces the idea that slavery had the potential to ruin both white and black families.
In contrast to the slave women of the South, the factory girls of the North often worked by choice, though most worked by necessity. A life of domesticity was not the reality for many nineteenth-century American women. By 1831, "no less than 39,000 females had employment in the cotton manufacture of the United States" (Eisler 18), and by 1860 that number grew to 73,730; by 1850 in New York City alone, one-third of the manufacturing work force was female (Reynolds 352). This kind of mechanized factory work was dull, repetitive, and often dangerous, yet women frequently preferred factory life to domestic service (whether working for their own families or hired out to another family). Working on a farm or in a lady's house entailed long days (sometimes longer days than factory work) and a variety of unpleasant tasks, all under constant supervision and scrutiny. The demands of domestic work could lead to a very limited social life, as live-in domestics were often on-call twenty-four hours a day.
The Lowell Offering, written and published by the Lowell factory girls, provides some insights into the reasons why women chose factory work over other kinds of work:
And the reasons continue.
Although many critics have faulted the Lowell Offering for romanticizing factory work, it still is a valuable presentation of the thoughts, musings, criticisms, and fictions of actual factory workers. From it, one can see that factory work offered freedoms as well as constraints to young, single women. One Lowell employee writes:
The profits of factory work were a primary motivation for factory girls. An anonymous contributor writes in the Offering that "it is because our toil is so unremitting, that the wages of factory girls are higher than those of [other] females.... [T]he avails of factory labor are now greater than those of many domestics, seamstresses, and school-teachers" (Eisler 189). The Offering also provides evidence of the opportunities for education in such articles as "Chapter on the Sciences: Geology and Mineralogy" and "The Western Antiquities."
The founders of the Lowell factories actively sought to preserve the New England family and its daughters from the ill effects of industrialization while still making a profit appropriate to an industrial enterprise. John Kasson notes Lowell's "founding sprang from the conviction that, given the proper institutional environment, a factory town need not be a byword for vice and poverty, but might stand as a model of enlightened republican community..." (Kasson 65). Lowell's position among factories is unique: its founders employed only single women and imposed various paternalistic methods of social control to protect the virtue and reputation of its workers. However, most other factories, particularly factories in England, lacked any regard for the well being of their workers.
Works like "Life in the Iron Mills" and "The Tartarus of Maids" vividly portray the dehumanizing conditions that women experienced in the factory. As David Reynolds notes, these works belong to a genre that was an outgrowth "of a crescendoing spirit of working-class protest that had infiltrated a large body of popular writing during the 1840s" (81). Unlike the undereducated factory girls at Lowell, Melville had access to and appreciation of the history of Western literature, which he used to elevate the tone of his composition on factory life. He used allusions to classical works, like Dante's Divine Comedy, and classical myths, like the Greek idea of the underworld, a desolate place populated by shades and ruled by the icy god Pluto, to describe a bleak New England paper mill and its employees. As the narrator nears the mill, appropriately located in a ravine called Devil's Dungeon, he describes various aspects of his surroundings as "Dantean," as "Plutonian," as a "sepulchre," as "a pass of Alpine corpses," and as a "whole hollow gleam[ing] with the white" (211-214). The biblical and classical imagery of "The Tartarus of Maids" give Melville's story an allegorical quality that would appeal to many educated readers.
Indeed, Melville's paper factory is not an ordinary factory; it has a mystical and mythic importance. Not only does Melville present the factory girls as Christ-like martyrs to the machines (in the "great machine" he sees "...the yet more pallid faces of all the pallid girls...outlined in the imperfect paper, like the print of the tormented face on the handkerchief of Saint Veronica" [Melville 221]). As in the case of his famous white whale, the whiteness of Melville's factory girls, whom he describes as blank (215), pale (214), pallid (215), and white (218), is symbolic of an aberrant evil. The factory girls have had an evil inflicted upon them, the root of which lies in the surrounding machines. The narrator describes the machines as "iron animals," whose accuracy is like a "mysterious prophecy" (215, 220). The evil of the machine is its inhuman consistency, accuracy, and almost supernatural ability to work. The narrator describes his epiphany about machines:
The machine's unceasing capacity to work inflicts a high standard on its human counterparts. As the narrator comments, the machinery degrades the maids, "who served mutely and cringingly as the slave serves the Sultan" (216). The owner of the factory confirms that he expects his girls to keep pace with their machines "twelve hours a day, day after day, through three hundred and sixty-five days, excepting Sundays, Thanksgiving, and Fast-days" (222).
Duals and couplings play an important role in the story. Melville couples "The Tartarus of Maids" with "The Paradise of Bachelors," to heighten the contrast between the differences that gender creates in the lives of the unmarried. Furthermore, dual images are plentiful in the story itself. The first operatives the narrator sees are two sets of women, the first set of which produce ruled paper. The contrast between the old and young women mirrors the ruled paper they produce: "I looked upon the first girl's brow, and saw it was young and fair; I looked upon the second girl's brow, and saw it was ruled and wrinkled," and it calls out the ill-effects of the monotonous life behind the machinery (215).
The machines and the maids who serve them are also coupled in an odd manner. The maids are void of human sexuality-like the Lowell manufacturers, Melville's mythical paper mill only hires unmarried and therefore childless women to promote a stable workforce-but Melville's maids seem to have a sexual relationship to their machines. The factory hand named Cupid is the first hint of the factory's bizarre sexuality. Furthermore, the narrator describes the factory as a sort of harem, and he also compares both the girls and the machines to mated animals. He describes the operatives at the machines as "tame minister[s]...feeding the iron animal" and as "mares haltered to the rack" (215, 217). These images blur the relationship between the maids and the machines. Their coupling produces nothing but blank, cheap paper-a sad replacement for the maids' sacrifice of their own reproductive powers. Men control the maid's reproductive powers, just as men controlled the slave women's reproductive powers.
Melville's allegorical story dramatically points to the injustices served upon unmarried working women. The maids have been stripped of the traditional symbol of female work and camaraderie-the kitchen. Although a kitchen is not shown in "The Paradise of Bachelors," the products of the kitchen are quite important to the bachelors' lifestyle. Their fine meal defines their decadence, but it seems to be produced by invisible cooks and served by a male butler. In the factory, however, food itself seems to be nonexistent; we do not see the factory maids eat. Melville's maids are not earthly women with physical desires; they are instead otherworldly shades of women cursed to toil unceasingly in Hades. This supernatural tone reduces the story's effectiveness as social commentary. Although Melville clearly disdains the industrial exploits inflicted upon factory girls, he makes no suggestions for improving their lot, nor does he address the cause of their exploitation. No one can help Melville's maids because supernatural forces damn them for eternity.
Rebecca Harding Davis's story "Life in the Iron Mills" gives a more realistic look into the life of a factory girl and her makeshift family. The story is told from the point of view of an anonymous narrator, whose vocabulary betrays an upper-class education, and whose lack of work outside the home betrays her gender. This narrator invites the reader to "come right down with me...into the thickest of the fog and mud and foul effluvia....to hear [the] story" of a Welsh mill worker and his family (13). This invitation to descend into the life of a lower-class worker symbolizes the social and physical distance between industrial workers and the middle and upper classes of the town. The narrator invites the reader to give up psychological and philosophical theories about the poor and to experience life as they do.
The example of working-class poverty that Davis holds up is the Wolfe family, which consists of two cousins, Hugh and Deb, Hugh's father, and Janey, a stray girl whom Hugh befriends. The makeshift nature of the family is reflected in their kitchen. It consists of only a half-extinguished fire, an iron saucepan, and a broken chair. It is a kitchen in function only, for its physical space is not divided from the rest of their apartment. Beecher and Stowe conceived of a kitchen as a formal space whose boundaries not only defined an isolated space for women to perform work, but whose boundaries metaphorically defined woman's sphere in society. The kitchen, traditional seat of feminine power in the domestic economy, holds neither power nor attraction to the Wolfe family. As Ellen Lupton and J. Abbott Miller write, " the settings for physical sustenance and hygienic care, the kitchen and bathroom...[frame]...'worlds'" (504). Deb's kitchen does not frame its own feminine world, but she demonstrates her sentiments for Hugh in other ways. Although she does not cook, she carries food to him "almost nightly," although she herself aches "from standing twelve hours at the spools" of the cottonmill (19).
Hugh, not Deb, is the moral center of the family and Davis attributes typically feminine qualities to Hugh. For instance, he embraces the sentimental economy by helping Janey and Deb. Furthermore, Hugh's artistic sensibilities signify an appreciation for aesthetics, which the female narrator shares. Most importantly, Davis calls attention to Hugh's woman-like appearance:
Davis gives Deb and Hugh both masculine and feminine qualities. Hugh's korl-woman further signifies this blending of genders; Dr. May describes the sculpture as having the "peculiar action of a man dying of thirst" (32). Hugh chooses to represent his yearning in the form of a woman because a woman's form represents reproduction, hope, the infinite cycle of renewal. Like Melville's maids, Hugh has sacrificed his creative powers to mass production and eventually gives up his hope for the future. But after Hugh's death, the korl-woman keeps his yearning alive:
Hugh's eternal hunger still speaks to the narrator, and she in turn speaks to the reader. Unlike Stowe, Davis does not ask the reader to "see to your hearts" but to "see for yourself." She addresses the reader while Hugh is deciding what to do with the stolen money, "You laugh at the shallow temptation? You see the error underlying its argument so clearly.... I do not plead his cause. I only want to show you the mote in my brother's eye: then you can see clearly to take it out" (46). She presents Hugh not as the object of pity or scorn, but as a person with complex problems and motivations. Honestly seeing the humanity of the poor is not an easy task for an upper- or middle-class person of the nineteenth century. Davis admits that both political and private reformers become "outraged, hardened" while working with the lower classes (15). Deb shows some of the faults that are not easy to overlook. She is physically deformed, and her work is so morally hardening that she steals without remorse and inadvertently causes the imprisonment of Hugh. However, she is redeemed with the help of a Quaker woman. Like Christie Devon, Deb needs a network of others to rebuild her morality after hard work and poverty corrupt it.
Both Davis and Melville portray factory work as more than just drudgery. Factories are soul shattering, and the "Devil's place," where all workers labor intensively for little in return, financially or spiritually (Harding 20). Although the Lowell Offering details the benefits of factory work, factory women were not universally well treated or well paid. Work alienated factory women from their own bodies by inflicting pain and disease and by discouraging the female reproductive power. As Reynolds notes:
These women do not contribute to the reproduction of family, but only to the production of wealth. Denied the protection of a family, the women have no escape from industrial society's restraints.
Women on both sides of the economic extremes had feelings of isolation and unfulfillment. In some ways, poor and working-class women had more power to control the effects of economic fluctuations because they had to face fewer social barriers in earning an income. Working-class women had an accepted place outside of the middle-class ideal of the isolated household. Hawthorne's novel The House of the Seven Gables compares the work of a young, working-class girl to work of an older, "aristocratic" lady. Phoebe Pyncheon, the heroine of the novel, was raised in the country, far from the rest of the Pyncheon family. She is young and energetic, and "widely in contrast" with the ancient House of the Seven Gables (68). She also presents a contrast to her perpetually scowling, poverty-stricken, and aristocratic aunt Hepzibah, who lives in the decaying house. The pairing of these two women presents the drastic changes in women's social and financial status that a capitalist economy can produce.
The first morning that the young country cousin spends in The House of the Seven Gables brings her and her ancient aunt to the kitchen for breakfast. Young Phoebe takes "the most active part in preparing breakfast" (76), as she does in all of her chores at the house. As Hawthorne describes the process of making breakfast, the kitchen comes to symbolize the differences between Phoebe and Hepzibah. As an aristocrat, Hepzibah merely watches (albeit with admiration) as Phoebe prepares their meal; however, Hawthorne only describes one of Phoebe's activities in making breakfast-boiling water for tea. Perhaps it is part of Phoebe's "natural magic" that allows her to hide the labor involved in housework (71). Hawthorne writes that whatever Phoebe did was "without conscious effort" (76), but I would add that whatever Phoebe does is also without any visible effort. Perhaps as a man, Hawthorne simply is unfamiliar with women's work in the kitchen and cannot describe it. Although Phoebe is never seen laboring, Hawthorne does indicate that her labor is taxing, for late in the novel, she must return to the country for a spiritual and physical rest. Yet Hawthorne also describes Phoebe's work as refreshing. He alludes to Phoebe's natural talents by comparing her to a bird: Phoebe prepares breakfast "...with frequent outbreaks of song which were exceedingly pleasant to the ear.... This natural tunefulness made [her] seem like a bird in a shadowy tree" (76). This image of a bird is continued in the old family tea set that Hepzibah brings to the breakfast table, which is decorated with "grotesque figures of man, bird and beast...in a world of their own" (77). The birds on the china symbolize Hepzibah's antiquity-delicate and dusty, the figures are aristocratically aloof and frozen in time.
Love eventually inspires Hepzibah to work in the kitchen. When her brother Clifford returns to the House of the Seven Gables, Hepzibah returns to the kitchen with Phoebe to cook breakfast. In contrast to the first breakfast scene, Hepzibah is an active participant in this scene. Eschewing an antiquated cookbook, full of old-fashioned dishes worthy of a "nobleman to give in the hall of his great castle" (98), Hepzibah instead works with Phoebe (in a rather democratic style, each sharing a part of the labor as the ghosts of housemaids past look on) to produce a simple but tasty meal, which one might describe as democratic. As in Uncle Tom's Cabin, love infuses housework with a higher meaning, even in old Hepzibah. She purchases and cooks a fish for her brother, a process that she often neglected to do for herself, but in which she now finds great satisfaction:
The completed meal is a fusion of Phoebe's and Hepzibah's work. Phoebe's tasty food coupled with Hepzibah's fine china, spoons, and other table furnishings symbolize a union of democratic and aristocratic ideas of good taste. Owing to her love for Clifford, by the end of the novel Hepzibah's "house-keeping had...greatly improved" (286). Previous to the entrance of love and companionship into her life, managing a household did not gratify Hepzibah. Her home was more like a prison than an asylum from the world. Unlike Stowe's and Alcott's heroines, Hepzibah did not find refuge in running her household, nor was her house a seat of morality or of women's networks. It is ultimately Phoebe who adds life to the house (as Hawthorne notes, Phoebe possesses "...the gift of practical arrangement"  that allows her to add charm to the old house). And it is ultimately Phoebe whom Hawthorne holds up as a successful woman and spiritual savior of the Pyncheon family.
These two images of women in the kitchen signify the changing roles of women in the nineteenth century. As Gillian Brown points out:
Hepzibah exemplifies the outmoded aristocrat, and Phoebe the competent worker. Phoebe's relation to work, both as a housewife and saleswoman, is the force of spiritual change at her ancestral home, for she is the only Pyncheon left who has a truly democratic relation to the world. Clifford and Hepzibah avoid the world as much as possible. According to Holgrave, they are figuratively dead: "Miss Hepzibah, by secluding herself from society, has lost all true relation to it, and is in fact dead. Your poor Cousin Clifford is another dead and long-buried person" (216). Phoebe's uncle, Judge Pyncheon, is no democrat either. He is a true aristocrat, waiting to be appointed, not elected, to a higher political office:
Thus, Hawthorne uses Phoebe to represent another virtue of the domestic economy: democracy. Like the robust mill girls of Lowell, Phoebe represents the best that a democratic and industrial society can produce. The founders of the Lowell mills "resolved to create a labor force that would be a shining example of those ultimate Yankee ideals: profit and virtue, doing good and doing well" (Eisler 15). The same could be said for Phoebe Pyncheon.
Not only is Phoebe a better housewife than Hepzibah, she is also a better merchant. Hepzibah's attempt at capitalism challenges her idea of herself; she feels that she must sacrifice her status as a lady and aristocrat in order to survive. Hawthorne describes her first day as shopkeeper:
Hepzibah is truly an aristocratic anachronism. Work is not gratifying to her. She is not particularly good at being a shopkeeper because she cannot accept the public nature of this kind of work. Not only is she uncomfortable facing new people, she finds waiting on them an embarrassment. As well, she does not fulfill the social functions of lady because she has neither the money nor the proper disposition.
Phoebe is powerful in both public and private ways. She creates a homelike atmosphere in the old house, but she is also its only successful link to the outside world and spiritual world. Hawthorne describes her demeanor:
In keeping with her aristocracy, Hepzibah's power is that of a prime mover, not that of "a Religion in herself." Hepzibah sets up the shop that Phoebe runs so well; Hepzibah owns the house that Phoebe makes into a home; Hepzibah brings to their home a Maule whom Phoebe marries, thus bringing harmony to the two clans. Phoebe bridges the gap between the working-class Maules and the aristocratic Pyncheons, and thus she represents a true democratic spirit.
Gillian Brown remarks that The House of the Seven Gables has a "fairy-tale ending of restored wealth and health" for Hepzibah (69). I would argue that Phoebe's infusion of spirituality is what allows Hepzibah to return to aristocracy. Love and good fortune only return to Hepzibah after Phoebe brings her golden light to the House of the Seven Gables. The money that Hepzibah inherits is only a reflection of the inner blessings that come from Phoebe's spiritual renewal and housework.
However, not all women considered housework regenerative or appealing. Economic extremes distanced many women from the support of the predominantly middle-class sentimental economy. Furthermore, like Christie Devon, not all women desired the protection that a middle-class home offered. Feminists like Amelia Bloomer and Elizabeth Cady Stanton publicly campaigned for women's suffrage and against women's isolation in the home. In her speech at the Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention of 1848, Stanton explained how her own experience as a household manager was limiting and unsatisfying:
Stowe's vision of an economy of sentimental feeling, in which sentiment and good will would circulate as freely as money does in the capitalistic economy, necessarily placed women's sphere of influence outside of any kind of worldly power. Yet some women recognized that worldly power, whether political or financial, was clearly dominant in the increasingly capitalist and industrial American economy.
For adventure or out of necessity, many women participated in this industrial-capitalist economy instead of retreating into the home. The daughters of sentimentalists began to demand public freedoms (such as education, meaningful work outside the home, and autonomy) instead of power centered in the home. Women's fiction reflected this transition. Elaine Showalter explains that the works by and about women during 1880-1910 were
The novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James explore the complexities of marriage as an upper-class woman's job. Marriage is the key factor in allowing women to withdraw from and enter into the industrial economy; and marrying a wealthy husband is a crucial factor in the success or failure of an upper-class woman's career. Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth describes a "career girl" involved in this kind of work. Its heroine, Lily Bart, works hard by merely participating in the social life of the American upper class. At the cusp of her youth (and marriagability) she maneuvers through New York's elite knowing that she must find a husband in order to survive in her society.
Yet wealth is not Lily's only mission in life. Wealth has its own pitfalls to avoid. As her friend Seldon remarks to himself, Lily is "so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate" (7). Marriage is her fate -her only choice to maintain her lifestyle, friends, and social status, is to marry a moneyed husband. Her rebellion against this fate is perhaps why she invariably hinders herself from marriage. Her dismal financial situation leaves her with no other chance of earning a living while still maintaining her idea of herself as an elegant and fashionable lady.
Although her mother had expected Lily to marry for financial gain (and without regard for love), Lily's
Lily bases her morality upon the sentimental, yet still yearns for the luxuries that only a capitalist husband can provide. In a sense, The House of Mirth is about Lily's gamble that she can have money without having to pay the price for it; the price for marrying money is to exclude love from her marriage. Throughout the novel, her sentimental or moral impulses battle her vulgar urge for wealth, but, as she admits to Seldon, "the only way not to think of money is to have a great deal of it" (69).
It is important to Lily that she appears to lead a life of leisure, but in fact she has many duties as a professional houseguest. In return for companionship and hospitality, Lily serves as a social secretary to her hostesses, particularly Judy Trenor and Bertha Dorsett. Mrs. Burton Kingsland's Etiquette for All Occasions describes the duties expected from a houseguest. In addition to being punctual, being interested in her hosts and fellow guests, paying for her personal expenses, and tipping the appropriate servants, above all, a guest must set her own desires aside and take on those of her surroundings. Lily must follow this code of the social elite, although she cannot afford its expense. For instance, even though she cannot afford to gamble, Lily must play bridge with her peers in order to remain in their good graces.
Gambling is present in nearly every aspect of her life-most of her adult life is spent battling "bad luck" or "the terrible god of chance" (26-27), which comes in many forms. Her card playing is merely one example of her attempt to play at a lifestyle she cannot afford nor bring herself to leave. When Lily asks Gus Trenor to invest her money for her in the stock market, she gambles that her demeanor will inspire a sympathy in Trenor. Wharton writes that
Unfortunately, Lily soon learns that her sentimental pleas cannot defeat the vulgar impulses of Trenor, for she learns that he does expect sexual favors from her. Wai-Chee Dimock claims that the language of the marketplace "animates and possesses Wharton's characters" and that the "power of the marketplace...resides not in its presence...but in its ability to assimilate everything else into its domain" (123). Certainly the exchange between Lily and Gus Trenor is one of the more blatant references to the marketplace in the novel, and it is the most blatant example of how Lily's way of combating the marketplace-trying to exploit the nonexistent sentimental impulses of others-fails.
Pleasing others, whether as a houseguest or as a potential mate, is more than just work for Lily, it defines her entire being. For all her sentimental feelings and moral impulses, Lily is cut off from any kind of sentimental economy and any skill with which to support herself. Lily's anti-market impulses coupled with her upbringing make her ill-suited for a trade. Societal tasks, like entertaining and companionship, are the only form of work that Lily does well. Lily's brief employment at a milliner's shows that she lacks the basic sewing skills that most women possess; thus, without money, she has very few outlets for her fine taste and artistry. Her finest artistic moment-as a tableau vivant of Reynolds's "Mrs. Lloyd"-comes when she herself is her own medium. In this scene, the boundary between Lily as a person and Lily as a pleasing image blurs. As both Seldon and Gerty Farish note, Lily is never more "the real Lily" than when she is an illusion, a representation of beauty (135).
Existing as a mere image divides Lily from the genuine world of work, fellowship, and family. She leads a very lonely life. For example, as she wanders into a lunchroom full of women and girls, she is "shut out in a little circle of silence," and feels "a sudden pang of profound loneliness" (302). As early as the first chapter of the book, Lily admits that even her "best friends...use [her] or abuse [her]" (9). Some women do reach out to Lily. The good-hearted Gerty Farish encourages Lily during her depression, and Lily's chance meeting with Nettie Struther, a working woman for whose convalescence Lily once paid, gives her a "surprised sense of human fellowship" (316).
Lily recalls helping Nettie as "one of the most satisfying incidents of her connection with Gerty's charitable work" (312). This is perhaps one of the few feminine "connections" to which Lily admits, and this is perhaps the only flow of sentiment from Lily that eventually returns to her. The kitchen once again symbolizes this connection, for it is in Nettie's kitchen that Lily witnesses the bond between mother and child and experiences a small part of that bond herself when she holds the baby:
As the only child present in the entire novel, Nettie's daughter symbolizes women's power to continually renew life and hope. However, the child's name, Marie Antoinette, alludes to the dangerous urge for decadence and wealth that brings Lily to her downfall.
The spiritual renewal of Nettie's kitchen does not last past Lily's boardinghouse door. Living in a boardinghouse makes Lily realize the "rootless and ephemeral" existence she has lived:
Without a household or kitchen of her own, Lily is divorced from the sentimental economy and "continuity of life."
Henry James's heroine of The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer, also lives her life outside of the kitchen and sentimental economy. Like Lily Bart, Isabel Archer maneuvers through an elite society, does not rely on a network of other women for support and has ambivalent feelings about marriage, but Isabel unexpectedly inherits a fortune. Consequently, Isabel does not work to support herself. Furthermore, unlike Lily, Isabel has access to a network of women (she has her aunt, her sister, and Henrietta Stackpole), but she purposefully distances herself from them.
Yet many problems Isabel confronts reflect on the themes common in novels about women's work: the private self versus the public self, the meaning of money and the objects it can purchase (including people), and the difference between a lady of leisure and a woman of work. Isabel values the effects of work, but she herself does not pursue them because she is, above all else, a lady. She has the need for privacy, the inherited wealth, and the moral fastidiousness that defines a lady. Isabel even lacks the most traditional (and fulfilling) form of women's work: raising children. Her own child dies, and Osmond refuses to allow Isabel any authority over her stepdaughter. However hindered though they may be, Isabel still has sympathy and maternal feelings towards Pansy. Helping Pansy to defeat her father's ambitions for her marriage is a significant factor in Isabel's decision to stay with Osmond. This relationship to Pansy draws Isabel's focus outside of herself, and to a certain extent, makes her a less isolated person. Her friendship with Henrietta Stackpole also connects Isabel to the outside world, but again.
It is Henrietta Stackpole, the plucky American journalist, who embraces the "new woman's" value of work and is "the one character in the novel to achieve a successful and meaningful life" (Baym, "Revision and Thematic Change in The Portrait of a Lady" 125). James seems to hold up Henrietta's Yankee sensibilities for ridicule because she has an irritating demeanor and lacks a sense of privacy. She is by no means a lady, but she is a shrewd judge of others. James often gives Henrietta the voice of true insight into the meaning and effects of work. She instantly disapproves of Ralph Touchett's idleness, and asks Isabel: "'What does he do for a living?... Does he go round all day with his hands in his pockets?... Well, I call that a shame -- when I have to work like a car-conductor'" (142). To her, the lack of a meaningful occupation (including marriage) is an immoral waste. The duty that she feels toward work and her country are absent in every other character of the novel.
Although they feel no duty to work, Ralph and Isabel cannot help but admire Henrietta's intelligence and spirit, which give her a sympathetic character despite her abrasive personality. Advising Isabel about her inheritance, Henrietta is rightly concerned about its effect on Isabel. She predicts that her "newly-acquired thousands will shut [her] up more and more to the society of a few selfish and heartless people" (268). More importantly, Henrietta knows exactly how to prevent this fate: "Whatever life you lead, you must put your soul in it.... And you can't always please yourself...but there is another thing that's still more important -- you must often displease others" (268). The relationship between this working woman and the intensely private lady displays the contrasts in women's work at that period. Isabel has duties as a hostess at her husband's soirees, but these duties are limited. Osmond's position in society and his personal tastes decide the frequency of social functions, and the guests to those functions. By choosing the private career of marriage over a public life of work or other goals, Isabel limits herself. Annette Niemtzow notes that:
To this, James contrasts Henrietta's very public life as a journalist, which leads to unlimited options, even that of a happy marriage.
As Henry James portrays Henrietta as satisfied by a meaningful career, Fanny Fern's semi-autobiographical Ruth Hall and Sarah Orne Jewett's A Country Doctor depict women at work who find financial and spiritual rewards in the capitalist marketplace. Although Fanny Fern still seems to uphold the idea of the home as a "woman's sphere" protected from the dangers of the capitalist economy, her novel makes it clear that she admits to the necessity of meaningful and profitable work outside the home for women. Throughout her life, Ruth Hall is excluded from the sentimental economy: the death of her mother, her abandonment by her father and brother, and her rejection by the other schoolgirls isolate her from any support network. The lonely young girl's marriage is her first foray into the larger world, and she understandably greets it by "trembling" and "question[ing] the dim, uncertain future" (17). Although her happy union to Harry quells her fears, her in-laws repeat the rejection she has experienced in her early life. Despite being belittled by her in-laws, Ruth finds meaning and love in her marriage.
When she enters her very own home for the first time, she is "quite unable to repress the flow of spirits consequent upon her new-found freedom" (28). The freedom and power that the home affords Ruth is grounded upon the sentimental-Harry returns Ruth's love with a protective home that she can rule with a gentle hand. Her love of nature, particularly her love of wildflowers, symbolizes the idealized beauty and harmony that Ruth creates. Ruth's nature walks are physically and spiritually redemptive. As the narrator claims, it is "better to seek health in hunting live flowers" and "better to pay the shoemaker's than the doctor's bill" (34). Furthermore, Ruth's housekeeping transcends even the lingering effects of slavery. It is in the kitchen that the former slave Dinah confesses to Mrs. Hall that "Missis Hall takes it [housework] easy" by "singing about the house to make time fly." Ruth is also "careful...of ol' Dinah's bones," and "cooks a steak jes' as easy as she pulls off a flower" (33). When Dinah alludes to the harshness of laboring "to the tune of a lash," one cannot help but contrast the harmony of Ruth's kitchen to the utterly inhuman treatment of slave women in the marketplace.
However, Ruth's home cannot protect her from all calamities, nor does it provide a permanent refuge from the marketplace. After describing the initial pain of Daisy's death, the story skips eight years into the future, to a time in which Ruth has given birth to two more daughters. In Chapter 24 Katie comforts Ruth as she remembers Daisy. This small episode depicts the kind of power that children embody in the sentimental economy. As Katie places her lock of hair and shoe next to her dead sister's, Fern describes her as "the pupil and yet the teacher, half infant, half sage, and whole angel!" (49). Like Little Eva, Katie's natural instincts allow her to act as a guide for the adults around her.
The effect of Harry Hall's death on Ruth is startlingly different from the death of her child. When Harry dies, Ruth is thrust into the marketplace, and all sentimental language and imagery ceases in the novel. Ruth's world after Harry dies is "beyond the pale of female jurisdiction" and almost exclusively controlled by unsympathetic men (74). Fern exposes the treachery of the men in Ruth's life in Chapters 35 and 36. The reader overhears Ruth's in-laws scheming to gain custody of her children, and her own father's reluctance to contribute to her financial survival. Furthermore, the reader also overhears the voices of boarding-house men who plot to exploit Ruth's loneliness and poverty. These two men disrespect all women, particularly widows, the most vulnerable of women. Sam proclaims that although he would not marry a widow with children, he does not know of "any occupation more interesting than helping to dry up their tears; and then the little dears are so grateful for any little attention...," and Jim claims that "the uglier a women is, the more beautiful she thinks herself; also...any of the sex can be bought with a yard of ribbon, or a breastpin" (74). This rhetoric of buying women is also reflected in the conversation between Mr. Ellet and Dr. Hall; each man claims that he owns no responsibility for Ruth. Thus Ruth has become an object of the marketplace economy-an object to be bought and sold for the benefit of men. Like her only female friend, Mary Leon, the people who should care for Ruth instead leave her at the mercy of strangers.
Ruth does not remain an object of the marketplace for long. She seeks employment as a schoolteacher. Although teaching was one of the few employment opportunities open to women at that time, even this form of "women's work" is subject to male control. Prominent men who have an inflexible and seemingly arbitrary idea of pedagogy dominate the school board to which Ruth applies. When Ruth fails to meet one of their criteria, she loses any chance for a teaching position. Her desperate attempt for survival leads to her job as a seamstress, then to a successful writing career, in which she expresses the "wail from her inmost soul" (140). She earns more than money; she earns respect, an outlet for her native common sense, the admiration of her readers and a reconnection to the sentimental economy. As Ann Douglas writes:
When Ruth reinvents herself as "Floy," she has the "courage to call things by their right names, and the independence to express herself boldly on subjects which to the timid and clique-serving, were tabooed" (133). This courage springs from her devotion to her family: "[Ruth] had not the slightest idea...what an incredible amount of labor she accomplished, or how her mother's heart was goading her on" (174). However liberating Ruth's labor is, she still claims that "no happy woman ever writes. From Harry's grave sprang 'Floy'"(175). Although she has conquered the capriciousness of the market economy, the protected home is still the ideal for Ruth. Neither "Fanny Fern" nor "Floy" were "supposed to have happened," because each author sprang from extreme economic circumstances (Kelley, Private Woman, Public Stage 139). Kelley also notes that
Another one of these unlikely actors is Louisa May Alcott, and her semi autobiographical heroine, Jo March. Alcott modeled Little Women after her experience as a female writer. Like Fanny Fern, Louisa May Alcott wrote for the benefit of her family and emphasized the sentimental power of that the family could posses. Marmee is a wise and loving mother who guides her children through very difficult times by creating a home that promotes her daughters' moral and intellectual growth. The scene that best exhibits Marmee's influence takes place in the March kitchen. During their most bleak Christmas, Marmee encourages her daughters to give their breakfast to a more needy family. The poor immigrant family in turn calls the March girls "angel children," which signifies the moral advances that the March girls are making with the help of their mother. As their game of "Pilgrim's Progress" suggests, Marmee seeks to make the moral development of her girls by example and encouragement, not by punishment.
Jo's moral progress is mirrored in her writing career. Her first fictions are sensational, but she directs her writing toward moral fiction when Professor Bhaer convinces her that her sensational stories are "trash" and harmful to herself and her readers. As a woman of the nineteenth century, Jo was expected to conform to the moral conventions of her day. Yet as a writer, Jo herself expected to earn money by producing fiction that would maximize her profit, regardless of the moral implications of her fiction. Alcott's portrayal of Jo may describe some of the tension Alcott felt as a writer of both sensational and moral fiction. David Reynolds claims that the "most significant reality that Alcott learned from her experience as a professional author is that in the fluid realm of American popular culture, moral values had become changeable objects of production rather than fixed entities with clear referents," which signifies a form of "moral relativism" (408). As we have seen in the example of Harriet Beecher Stowe's financial support of her family, domestic feminists valued morality for its own sake but also found that morality could be translated into a commodity to be sold for profit. Writers like Stowe and Alcott exploited their private morality for the many benefits of a public career.
However, I disagree with Reynolds's assertion that the moral values Alcott promoted had no clear referents. Alcott used the domestic sphere as the referent for her moral tales. The origin of moral values in Little Women is the private home, but writers like Alcott choose to take the consequence of moral values into the public arena, where they become a very profitable product in the capitalist marketplace. As we have seen, authors such as Stowe, Hawthorne, and Wharton portrayed the home as the seat of morality in nineteenth-century American fiction. The importance of the home is even reflected in the titles they choose: Uncle Tom's Cabin, The House of Mirth, and The House of the Seven Gables all immediately draw attention to the importance of the physical structure of the home. Although Alcott never raised her own family, she supported her father, mother and sisters. Her alter-ego Jo clearly finds meaning and morality in her roles as sister, daughter, wife, and mother. Alcott herself "always regarded herself as a dutiful daughter...and described her highest ambition as being a 'good daughter' rather than a 'good writer'" (Showalter, Sister's Choice 43). Providing financial support to her family was an important part of her duties as a good daughter. I would argue that Alcott's writing of sensational fiction does not negate the morality of Work and Little Women: it rather points to the dual motivations (the desire to make money and support her family and her own desires for an adventurous life that were denied to her) that Alcott had in writing.
In A Country Doctor, Sarah Orne Jewett also explores the public-versus-private tensions that "scribbling women" like Alcott, Fern, and their heroines experienced. However, her heroine is clearly not motivated by a need to support a home, nor is Anna (Nan) Prince a writer. She is an aspiring physician. Anna's natural talents are not domestic, instead, as Dr. Leslie says, she "shows a real talent for medical matters" (105). Dr. Leslie encourages her, giving her a unique training for a woman of her day. Like Marmee, Dr. Leslie carefully trains his ward without imposing gender limitations. The conversation between Dr. Ferris and Dr. Leslie betrays Jewett's own ideas about the proper kind of education for girls [for Jewett "...admitted that she was being a propagandist as well as a novelist; she deliberately interlaced the conversation of her characters with ideas that have more relevance to her philosophy than to her plot" (Auchincloss 9)]. Dr. Ferris says:
Dr. Leslie's response further reflects Jewett's philosophy. He says, "And if I can help one good girl [become] useful and intelligent...I shall be glad. I don't care if it's a man's work or a woman's work; if it is hers I'm going to help her" (106).
Unlike Ruth Hall, Jo March, or Hepzibah Pyncheon, Anna is not forced to earn a living; instead it is her choice to earn a living. That Anna has a choice to work outside the home drastically changes the meaning of her work when compared to other working women. Anna clearly responds to a calling, not to necessity. In his treatise The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber concludes that a calling is "the fundamental basis" of the "social ethic of capitalistic culture" (54). He defines a calling as "an obligation which the individual is supposed to feel and does feel towards the content of his professional activity, no matter in what it consists, in particular no matter where it appears on the surface...." (54). The calling is a "task set by God" (79). In the Protestant sects the calling has a religious connotation, and it causes one to perform labor "as if it were an absolute end in itself" (62). In her justification of her career choice to her aunt, Anna's language closely resembles Weber's idea of the Protestant calling:
Although her critics try to persuade her that women's "place is at home" and that "the best service to the public can be done by keeping one's own house in order," Anna holds firm to her true calling (282). The kitchen holds no attraction to a woman who finds her true calling elsewhere. However, the kitchen nonetheless represents the feminine sphere that Anna Prince relinquishes, for she carries the ideals of the kitchen into the marketplace. Anna's medical career is not motivated by profit, but by a desire to do good for others without wasting her own talents. Ruth Hall is another example of a woman who moves outside of the kitchen without giving up "feminine" ideals. As "Floy" Ruth Hall brings her sentimental values to a mass audience, touching both female and male readers (as her fan letters prove).
As women's work moved away from the home and into the larger society, women did not give up their need for sentimental feelings. In keeping with Weber's idea of the Protestant work ethic, Sentimentalists sought to promote a morality they deemed idiosyncratic to women's work. They portrayed women as busy and hard working people (regardless of whether they performed household chores, earned a wage outside the home, or hunted for a wealthy husband), but also as seeking and creating connections to other women (even proud and isolated women like Lily Bart and Isabel Archer seek connections and the companionship of other women). This idea of a sentimental economy gives a spiritual value to women's work that transcends its monetary value.
Perhaps the best example of finding morality in work occurs in the last scene of Work. As Christie and her friends sit around the kitchen table, they symbolize a family of women bound together by mutual aid. Regardless of class, age or race, or whether they work inside or outside of the home, all of Christie's friends are sisters. This kind of sentimental economy softened the harsh effects of industrialism on women because it based value on sentimental terms-on love, compassion, and emotion-as well as monetary terms.
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