Sunday, September 12, 2010

Drudgery and the Good Life: Questions In The Philosophy of Alcott and Montgomery

I've always thought of Louisa May Alcott and L. M. Montgomery as philosophical novelists.  Alcott is more obvious, maybe less subtle about it:  in books like Little Women the wiser are always counseling the less wise in ways clearly directed at the rest of us, and the less wise are always geting into trouble for not following wise counsel.  Montgomery is more subtle and more complex:  the Anne of Green Gables books do have that same wise-not-wise-counsel stuff, but they also have a kind of funny randomness and unpredictability.  Montgomery doesn't seem committed, as Alcott is, to the belief that if you just approach what is happening in your life with the proper spirit it will be less sucky.  In Montgomery books, somtimes life just sucks.

One theme that is big in both authors is the importance of caring for others, and the ways in which caring for other people will enrich your own life.  Interestingly, both pursue this theme partly through reflection on adoptions of various kinds.  Of course, Anne's own adoption is the main thing in the Green Gables books, and the main thing about it is the way it alters and improves the lives and the souls of the brother and sister who have adopted her.  In Little Men (the sequel to Little Women), Jo opens a school and takes in various abandoned boys to raise and care for alongside the regular pupils.  In other Alcott novels, taking care of children that are not yours is treated as an obvious thing to do, something tending toward the happiness of everyone involved.  And late in the Green Gables series, one of Anne's children has to decide whether to take in an orphaned infant to care for as her own, even though at sixteen years old all she wants to think about is what color ribbons she wants to wear to the next gathering.  Naturally, she decides to take in the infant; naturally she comes to adore him and is completely happy with her choice.

It's a nice message: caring for others is the way to happiness.

But this is not a simple message to carry over from their world to our world.  Consider.  Who is changing all those kids' diapers?  Who is doing their laundry?  Who is cleaning up their dishes?  Who is making sure they have lunch at school?

The answer to all these questions is THE HIRED HELP.  Even though none of the families in the relevant books is in any way rich, they all have help:  women who work for the family and do the washing, the cooking, the darning, the scrubbing the floors -- even the nose-wiping, the infant feeding, and the nagging.

It seems to me this complicates the idea that caring for others is the way to happiness.  Sure, if someone else is doing all the boring dirty work, I'm sure singing lullabies, reading stories, and giving wise counsel is pretty life affirming stuff.  But that's just the nice part of caring for someone.  The hard part of caring for someone is the drudgery:  the shopping, the food preparation, the endless boring tasks that life just requires. 

Now I'm willing to believe that doing these things is Good, but the ticket to happiness, really?  Certainly no one is holding up the servants as examples of the Life Well Lived.  In fact, and weirdly, in these kinds of books no one discusses the emotional life of the help.  When you think about it, the existence of "help" complicates many of the themes of these books.  There's often a kind of "if you are industrious and good you'll go far" kind of thing, but what if the cook is industrious and good? She doesn't go anywhere.

The fact that someone else is doing all the crummy parts in these books, it seems to me, undercuts the simple theme that the ticket to well-being is to surround yourself with dependents.  The question, then, is how we should interpret Alcott and Montgomery's idea in a modern world without servants.

Is it that drudgery isn't so bad, and doing laundry at 10:00 pm, as many working moms do, is not so sucky, if you just approach it in the proper spirit, like a wise person would?  Is it that there are ways of caring for people that don't require taking over the drudgery parts, and we should do more of those?  Is the idea essentially yoked to a system in which only one person works outside the home?

We need a modern Alcott and a modern Montgomery, so they can help us figure it out.

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