Gender Roles, Work, and God’s Judgment in “A Day” from Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches

Louisa May Alcotta, Hospital Sketches (Boston: James Redpath, 1863); and
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1888). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photographs by Sophia Lola.

Louisa May Alcott’s Hospital Sketches, written in 1863, comprises a series of vignettes following Tribulation Periwinkle, a nurse during the Civil War, just before and right as she begins her work treating injured and dying soldiers in a hospital. The third sketch, “A Day,” takes place during a day on which the hospital receives a huge influx of patients whom Tribulation must help care for: bathing them, bringing them food and water, assisting with medical procedures, writing letters for them, and comforting them. Throughout, Tribulation ponders men’s and women’s differing roles in the War, and how those roles reflect on them morally and even religiously. The men in the story, pretty much just doctors and soldiers, receive much more attention and respect for their work and sacrifices, but there is also praise for the women’s more domestic, nurturing jobs, and the two separate roles are meant to be somewhat equalized by the story’s implicit idea that they are all doing God’s work, which is allegedly all that matters. 

Around the middle of the sketch, one of the men whom Tribulation has been tending to dies while she goes to get him some water. When she returns to him, she notices something is amiss, narrating:  

“I touched his forehead; it was cold: and then I knew that, while he waited, a better nurse than I had given him a cooler draught, and healed him with a touch. I laid the sheet over the quiet sleeper, whom no noise could now disturb; and, half an hour later, the bed was empty. It seemed a poor requital for all he had sacrificed and suffered,—that hospital bed, lonely even in a crowd; for there was no familiar face for him to look his last upon; no friendly voice to say, Good bye; no hand to lead him gently down into the Valley of the Shadow; and he vanished, like a drop in that red sea upon whose shores so many women stand lamenting. For a moment I felt bitterly indignant at this seeming carelessness of the value of life, the sanctity of death; then consoled myself with the thought that, when the great muster roll was called, these nameless men might be promoted above many whose tall monuments record the barren honors they have won.”

The way she sugarcoats his death, as though he has just fallen asleep or is now healed, portrays death somewhat positively and beautifully, like it is progress or a step forward, even though the lonely and pathetic setting in which it occurs is neither positive or beautiful. The “Valley of the Shadow” terminology carries a spiritual and religious undertone to it, casting the “great muster roll” in a similar light. Though a literal muster roll is just a list of names or a roll call of people in a military unit, this usage plays on the man’s status as a soldier to evoke the idea of Judgment Day, when one is called before God to determine if they are worthy of Heaven; Tribulation believes that, because they sacrificed themselves for this War, this “nameless” man and his comrades would be deemed worthier than men who are celebrated on Earth. Their work is thus religiously good, or godly. Another important thread to pick up on in this quote is that of women’s roles. If the man is “a drop in that red sea” whereas women are on standing on the shore, then it would seem like women are simply on the sidelines of God’s work or are only witnesses to it. But later in the sketch that changes. 

Women have their own godly and religiously good work that they are doing. When Tribulation comments on how much of an appetite the men have despite their ill states, one of the other nurses responds, 

“‘Bless their hearts, why shouldn’t they eat? It’s their only amusement; so fill every one, and, if there’s not enough ready to-night, I’ll lend my share to the Lord by giving it to the boys.’ And, whipping up her coffee-pot and plate of toast, she gladdened the eyes and stomachs of two or three dissatisfied heroes, by serving them with a liberal hand; and I haven’t the slightest doubt that, having cast her bread upon the waters, it came back buttered.” 

In giving up her rations, this nurse, by her reasoning, is serving the Lord because the men whom she is serving are serving the Lord directly, so she is serving God indirectly. This is the greatest sacrifice that she can make, since she cannot be on the battlefield laying out her own life. What Tribulation says about the bread coming back buttered seems like an allusion to the Biblical stories of Jesus turning water into wine or feeding thousands of people with only a few fish and loaves of bread: the nurse’s generosity and selfless intent are enough to figuratively transform a meager amount of something plain into something plentiful and decadent. It suggests that her selflessness makes the food more meaningful and important, and that she will also be rewarded in a way that more than compensates what she gave up. So, in Tribulation’s eyes, the nurse and her work are also religiously good and should be well received by God, just like the men and their work. 

Overall, by using divinity and the ideas of a higher purpose and the reward of Heaven, “A Day” attempts to portray the roles of men and women as equal; according to the story, it doesn’t matter the work that someone does as long as they do it and as long as they do it selflessly and to serve God. This subtle religious rhetoric was probably very appealing and fulfilling to readers who were faithful; it showed that everyone had a way to please God. However, it should also be considered that this rhetoric could be used to falsely justify the separate spheres of men and women by claiming that they are “separate but equal.” That justification is false because the form of equality that the story promotes hinges on religion and the afterlife, which are concepts that not everyone buys into and that don’t concretely or tangibly impact the real world and real living conditions.

Works Cited

 Alcott, Louisa May. “Hospital Sketches: Chapter III: ‘A Day.’” American Literature, www.americanliterature.com/author/louisa-may-alcott/book/hospital-sketches/chapter-iii-a-day.

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