Work: Staring madness in the face

The Yellow Wallpaper by Kaitaro

A ticking time bomb lay inside of Louisa May Alcott and she knew it.

It went off with her father, her Uncle Junius, and eventually, herself.

Her journals alluded to it.

Her creativity was fueled
by it.

And chapter 5 of Work: A Story of Experience gives us a detailed look inside.


Having left the employ of the Saltonstalls as governess, Christie is offered a position as companion to an invalid woman. Observing the opulence of the home, Christie exclaims, “What a happy family the Carrols must be!”

Beauty masks the ugly secret within.

Sadness …

As Mrs. Carrol introduces Christie to her ward (daughter Helen), Christie suspects that a deep sadness lies beneath the stately exterior of Mrs. Carrol. Upon meeting Helen she finds a young woman in despair. Christie’s heart goes out to Helen and they become close. As Christie reads to her, sings to her and listens to her confidences, Helen appears to be improving.

… Madness

Eventually it becomes clear that Helen is depressed to the point of suicide. And the ugly secret? The family has a history of insanity.

Death spiral

Helen reviles her mother for marrying her father even though she knew the insanity he carried in his genes would be passed down. Helen herself, deeply in love and engaged to be married, is forced to break her engagement once she discovers the truth. The loss of her true love breaks her spirit.

Spiraling downward into despair, Helen eventually takes her own life.

Close to home

Alcott biographers have noted the episodes of madness in the family.

Bronson’s episodes

John Matteson in Eden’s Outcasts speaks of Bronson’s mysticism which teetered back and forth between sanity and madness. The breakdown he experienced after the collapse of his cherished Fruitlands nearly killed him. Recovery was slow and in Boston, Bronson suffered a relapse. During this episode, he endured hallucinations which he documented with feverish fury (pg. 225 ebook, Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson).

Bronson’s younger brother

Bronson’s younger brother Junius, also a mystic, suffered similar episodes. At the age of thirty-two, he suddenly committed suicide by matter-of-factly walking into machinery at his factory (pg. 238, Ibid).

Louisa May Alcott at around age 25 (Wikipedia)

Louisa’s moods

Louisa’s roller coaster mood swings are well documented. She could fall into furious, exuberant vortexes where she would crank out an enormous amount of writing. And then she would sink into despair.

She lamented her violent temper, so poignantly illustrated in chapter 8 of Little Women, “Jo Meets Apollyon” (see previous post)

She also considered suicide but thought it cowardly:

“My fit of despair was soon over, for it seemed so cowardly to run away before the battle was over I couldn’t do it. So I said firmly, ‘There is work for me, and I’ll have it,’ and went home resolved to take Fake by the throat and shake a living out of her.”(pg. 169 ebook Louisa May Alcott The Woman Behind Little Women by Harriet Reisen).

Chapter 7 of Work, “Through the Mist,” details Christie’s attempt at suicide – this will be covered in the next post.

The stigma of mental illness

There were two things that intrigued me about “Companion:” how mental illness was regarded in Louisa’s day, and the case Louisa built to justify Helen’s suicide.

It’s no surprise that mental illness was to be kept secret as it was a source of shame. Such a tremendous stigma was attached to it that families carrying the genes were discouraged from marrying as demonstrated with the Carrols.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Shopot

Hidden away

How many times have we read about women locked away in attic rooms while they work through their madness? Who can forget Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre or the woman depicted by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in “The Yellow Wallpaper?” Helen had experienced similar treatment, hidden away from the world which she recounts to Christie:

“She [Christie’s mother] hides the truth; she hides me, and lets the world believe I am dying of consumption; not a word about insanity,  … This is why I was not sent away, but for a year was shut up in that room yonder where the door is always locked.”

Each to his own

Helen displays the family trait through her morose spirit. Her two brothers, also aware of their fate, deal with it in different ways: Augustine as a priest through penance and prayer, and Harry through constant, empty recreation. A younger sister, Bella, had not yet been told.

Close to home

A raw authenticity marks Louisa’s description of Helen’s despair as she shares the family secret with Christie. Gazing at the picture of her lover on the wall, Christie and the reader can keenly feel Helen’s pain.

The storm brews

Just when it seemed Christie’s presence was helping, Bella returns home for the Christmas holidays. Helen discovers that her beautiful younger sister has a lover and “a terrible unrest grew upon her [Helen], bringing sleepless nights again, moody days, and all the old afflictions with redoubled force.”

Shocking outcome

Suddenly Helen grows calm as Christmas approaches. She adorns herself in a pretty dress and celebrates with family around the tree.

And then, after finally agreeing to see her mother at bedtime, Helen quietly slices her throat with a knife. She dies in her mother’s arms.

Building the case

Suicide (often closely connected with insanity) carried a stigma of its own. In religious circles it was considered a fast track to Hell (the Catholic Church identified it as a mortal sin back in the fourth century thanks to the arguments of Saint Augustine). In the middle ages, suicide victims were further victimized by the public with bodies hung or dragged through the streets.

Justifying suicide

While the view on suicide softened somewhat in the nineteenth century, it still was much frowned upon. Yet Louisa, using a lawyer-like logic through the heart-wrenching testimony from Helen, seems to justify suicide:

” ‘You [Christie] have done much for me, and God will bless you for it, but you cannot keep me sane. Death is the only cure for a mad Carrol, and I’m so young, so strong, it will be long in coming unless I hurry it.’

She clenched her hands, set her teeth, and looked about her as if ready for any desperate act that should set her free from the dark and dreadful future that lay before her.”

Scholars analyzing the worthwhile social implications of Work for women don’t often mention what is to me, pretty controversial.

Close association

Could it be that the close relationship between insanity and suicide justified the act? Did the victim suffer in the afterlife as well?

“Companion” was a revealing look at the anguish suffered by a family with a history of mental illness. As the Alcott family shared this history, perhaps it is safe to assume we readers are privy to a similar anguish, suffered by the author.

Perhaps this is one reason why Louisa never married?

John Matteson, when asked a question at the Orchard House Summer Conversation series this past July about why Louisa never married remarked that he thought it crossed Louisa’s mind that she should not marry lest she pass down the genes.

While there is no concrete proof that this was a consideration, certainly it was a powerful concern as demonstrated in Chapter 5 of Work. Yet Anna and May both married, so who knows?

In the next post, I will discuss Chapter 7, “In the Mist” where Christie considers suicide.

Are we reading again the thoughts of the author as she considered it?

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13 Replies to “Work: Staring madness in the face”

  1. I didn’t know that about Bronson’s brother! I really need to read Matteson’s book one of these days. Have you read Charlotte Perkins’ “The Yellow Walpaper”? I recommend it as an accompaniement to the image you posted above. But far more, I recommend you read Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour.” It’s my favorite short story so far. 🙂

      1. Oh, great! I missed that.

        I’d love to know what you think of Chopin’s story whenever you get to it. I’ve read it a couple times. 🙂

      2. That was a short short story! Quite the ironic twist. A great story to study from a writer’s point of view. How did you come across that one? I’d love to be able to write something that short and that powerful.

    1. Agreed. I read my first adult bio of Louisa in the 1970s, the one by Martha Saxton, and as much as I related to Louisa as a child with her writing and plays, and temper, etc., I related to her even more as an adult with her mood swings and creative vortexes. Mine weren’t nearly as severe as hers but they were bad enough to deeply affect the quality of my life for many years (that’s the nice thing about being over 50 now, everything’s all evened out! :-)) I think that’s why Chapter 5 in Work spoke to me in a more personal way even if feminist commentators didn’t necessarily think the chapter was as significant to the overall story (at least with regards to forwarding Alcott’s feminist message).

  2. Thank you for your perceptive comments about madness, suicide and the Alcotts. On re-reading Chapter V of Work I am struck by how strong the belief is in inherited madness. In Helen’s case, the exact nature of the madness is not clear but she herself refers to the return of “the horror” so it must have been pretty bad.

    Alcott the dramatic writer gives us the pathos of Helen’s suicide, but then Alcott the doer and activist ends with a more positive message:

    “Since I came here, I have read many books, thought much, and talked often with Dr. Shirley about this sad affliction. He thinks you [Bella] and Harry may escape it if you will.”

    Christie’s recommendations are cheerfulness and service to others, accompanied by self denial. Sounds like Bronson to me. How much of his serenity was a turning away from the dark side of his nature?

    1. The self denial sounds like Bronson but the cheerfulness and service to others is SO Louisa (and Abba too). I was focusing so much on the darkness (Helen) that I forgot about the light (Christie), and both characters reflect a different side of Louisa.

      Thanks for the reminder of Christie’s recommendation.

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