Children's Literature "All Work Essay

Pages: 7 (2790 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 7  ·  Level: College Junior  ·  Topic: Literature

SAMPLE EXCERPT:

[. . .] " (18). In other words, Tom has made the activity seem as though it required special talent and insight to do it properly, and to make it enjoyable. But the larger joke is that, of course, Tom's initial capitalist scheme -- to possibly pay other boys to do the work for him -- is reversed here: he now gets Ben and the other children to pay him for the opportunity to work. The profits, of course, are parody profits within the parody economics of the situation but Twain nonetheless maintains the metaphor of commerce, claiming that "Tom was literally rolling in wealth" -- although the wealth here is defined in the same terms as before, "toys, marbles and trash" (19). We are also told that "If he hadn't run out of whitewash he would have bankrupted every boy in the village." (19). What we are witnessing here seems like a parable about the birth of capitalism, or the birth of advertising. But Twain offers his own moralistic gloss on the story which does not cast it in quite those terms:

Tom said to himself that it was not such a hollow world, after all. He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it -- namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do. And this would help him to understand why constructing artificial flowers or performing on a tread-mill is work, while rolling ten-pins or climbing Mont Blanc is only amusement. There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger-coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign. (19-20)

This question of obligation, however, is set into sharp relief when we consider the inclusion of Jim and the water-bucket at the beginning of the episode. There, of course, slavery is defined as a state in which one's existence as a worker is entirely obligatory and compulsory. Tom's desire to take on Jim's task rather than his own -- which results in the beating of the slave rather than the child -- is just as surely an illustration of Twain's maxim here than the examples of the hobbies of the wealthy or privileged.

If slavery is one way of problematizing the concept of work and play for children, however, the question of gender in the nineteenth century problematizes it differently. This is foregrounded by Louisa May Alcott, and her own title, Little Women, asks us to imagine the child's identity differently just as surely as Twain's does. The March sisters may indeed have a series of episodic "adventures," but it is more clearly established in the title that these are, in some way, a rehearsal for adulthood. But adulthood for the nineteenth century woman consists of considerable domestic work, and indeed the eleventh chapter of Little Women, "Experiments," reverses the dynamic of work and play seen in Tom Sawyer. Here the March sisters -- with the approval of their mother -- attempt the experiment of engaging solely in leisure activities. But the moral is presented first so that we may measure the story against it; Mrs. March tells the girls: "You may try your experiment for a week and see how you like it. I think by Saturday night you will find that all play and no work is as bad as all work and no play." (Alcott 109). At first the experiments consist of the sort of cultivated leisure activities that are the target of Twain's satire at the conclusion of Tom's fence-painting -- Amy dresses up in her finest formal attire and goes outside to paint, "hoping someone would see and inquire who the young artist was." (110) Instead she gets caught in a rainstorm. By presenting the moral first, Alcott seems keen to note that the girls seem bound to live up to their mother's admonition: in their experiment of all play and no work "the days kept getting longer and longer, the weather was unusually variable and so were tempers; an unsettled feeling possessed everyone, and Satan found plenty of mischief for the idle hands to do." (110). But a large clue to the failure of their "experiment" consists in how Alcott narrates it: by the terms of the experiment, each of the sisters chooses a solitary amusement. What is lost, then, is any sense of collective social interaction. Although this is reintroduced at the moment when Mrs. March decides to make the meaning of her moral absolutely explicit, and dismisses the domestic help and retires to her room: "Mrs. March, who had a good deal of humor, resolved to finish off the trial in an appropriate manner, so she gave Hannah a holiday and let the girls enjoy the full effect of the play system." (111). What follows is the "experiment" in which the girls are forced to behave socially with each other, because they are forced into the situation of managing the household by themselves -- in other words, to be forced to experience the total amount of work on which a "play system" depends. This results in a comically disastrous dinner presented for a local spinster, and even contains a parodic element of domestic tragedy as the girls are forced to deal with the death of their canary. The implication, of course, is that adult women have to deal with real family deaths on a routine basis -- and the "little women" of the March household can barely manage an edible dinner on their own, let alone dealing with larger facts of life. But what ultimately connects Alcott with Twain here is that, in the moralizing conclusion, the images of nineteenth-century slavery and capitalism are presented as the way of understanding the children's behavior. Mrs. March indeed invokes the concepts of both slavery and poverty in summarizing her moral:

"Very good! Then I am quite satisfied with the experiment, and fancy that we shall not have to repeat it, only don't go to the other extreme and delve like slaves. Have regular hours for work and play, make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well. Then youth will be delightful, old age will bring few regrets, and life become a beautiful success, in spite of poverty." (118)

The moral here is about finding a balance between extremes, and is therefore intended to render the girls self-sufficient. But self-sufficiency is constructed differently by Twain: if the March girls learn, to a certain degree, how to manage their own household economics, Tom Sawyer by contrast is learning how to manipulate the larger social economy through the power of advertising. In both cases, however, childhood work and play are defined in terms of the larger adult world of commerce -- and require the contrasting image of slavery to contextualize the unfreedom, and the remoteness from economic reality, of children who will grow up to take part in that economic world.

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Edited with an introduction by Elaine Showalter. New York: Penguin Books,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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