LOUISA MAY ALCOTT practiced what she preached: work. Hers was always a labor of love, but not just for self-fulfillment. Every penny earned counted in a lifelong struggle to support parents and sisters. Her father Bronson Alcott left everything to be desired as head of household, his own being stuffed with abstractions and dreams befitting a member of the inner circle of New England transcendentalists. Friends called him, with love, the most impractical man in the United States.

How his shrewd daughter must have rejoiced when her tireless pen brought literary success and the mantle of breadwinner - and more hard work. In 1861 she began a novel with the working title "Success." More than a decade later the then famous author of Little Women returned to "Success"; in the process of finishing the book, she gave it a new title. Where once there had been "Success," there was now Work: A Story of Experience.

Unfortunately, Sarah Elbert's otherwise competent introduction to this edition - one of many important titles in Schocken's "Studies in the Life of Women" series - does not explore the interestingly ironic change of title, and whether it signals a critical shift in Alcott's values. Enraged by post-Civil War America's increasingly slick and shrill "success ethic," Alcott definitely retaliated in Work as did many American writers, by revolting against materialism and equating financial success with moral failure. She also judged success and celebrity from her own experience, and there is abundant evidence that she found both unsatisfying and often irritating.

Work's youthful heroine Christie Devon is confident that she will make her own way in the real world of 19th-century America, a world she sees as filled with possibilities for a true woman wishing to lead an independent, useful and fulfilling life. But in searching for work, Christie finds only jobs, each less rewarding than the one before. Maidservant, governess, companion, seamstress and actress - these occupations threaten Christie's humanity, health and virtue, leaving her increasingly vulnerable, both financially and emotionally. Having tried so hard to be good, Christie has earned the wages of work: poverty, exhaustion and despair.

Alcott's portrayal of America's working women, unprotected by Heaven or any other institution, gives Work most of its power for contemporary readers, aware of the often identical difficulties facing women in today's world of work. The relentless Alcott transforms her heroine's - and society's - ideals into illusions. The trap of female wage work closes rapidly on Christie's dreams of achievement and self-reliance. Alone in a boarding house, too weak to be up and doing once again, she feels that suicide is her only alternative. Chance intervenes, however, for Work is novel of rebirth. Having found that work is death, Christie slowly creates a new definition, not only of work but of herself.

Christie's saviors, a circle of rural Christian reformers, are led by a charismatic minister reminiscent of Theodore Parker, brilliant transcendentalist and friend of Alcott. Aptly if obviously named Power, the clergyman places needy women in the wholesome and modest abodes of country parishioners. In this milieu, Christie regains her vitality, embraces a Christian ethic of work based on charity and compassion - and finds love.

The Civil War interrupts her idyll and challenges Christie and her husband of several hours to march away, although to different drummers - he as a captain, she as a nurse. (A marriage of equality, Alcott would have us believe.) Christie finds true work and fulfillment in nursing, even when her husband, dying of battle wounds, becomes her charge. From wife and nurse to widow and mother - her passage continues as she moves, somewhat hesitantly, toward a new calling: a spokeswoman for working women, reformer and redeemer.

The significance of Work is its depiction of women as objects, adrift in an increasingly industrial and professional America. Alcott's solution to this dilemma is more personal than social - a pastoral vision - as if she wished to flee the perils of wage work for that ideal world of utopian experiments conducted by her father and his friends. Like them, she could not conceive of any other methods of social reform. Experienced in most of the work she described, Alcott was at her best recording injustice to women in vivid detail.

The continuing education of Work's heroine among the reformers did not lead back to the marketplace or to female autonomy. It led to a paradise of maids protected by benevolent men - yet another "woman's sphere" within the larger culture. It would be easy to criticize Alcott for the incompleteness of her feminism, for being a woman of her time, and for imagining and ideal society so stuffily masculine and Christian, if we could not see ourselves so clearly in Work , without even removing the trappings of another age.