A New England Nun by Mary E. Wilkins: Analysis and Summary
In her work, "A New England Nun," Mary E. Wilkins Freeman illustrates a woman's struggle with the commitment of marriage after waiting fourteen years for her fiancé to return from Australia, where he was making money to support her. Freeman's main character, Louisa, is constantly working on tedious, domestic activities alone in her home. During the fourteen years that Louisa's husband, Joe was overseas, Louisa got used to her daily routine of sewing and polishing, which is disturbed when Joe returns.
Joe's entrance makes the bird chaotic, and when he goes to leave, he accidentally knocks over Louisa's work-basket. He is disoriented in her home, which stands as a symbol for Louisa's personality: neat, clean, organized. When Louisa is outside her home, she discovers life is not what it seems and she becomes the equivalent to a nun. She is alone and dedicated to keeping her house neat and other domestic activities. Although many feminists at the time were rejecting housework as a way to liberate themselves, Freeman shows her character embracing domestic tasks as a way to indulge in her solitude.
- Although many feminists at the time were rejecting housework as a way to liberate themselves, Freeman shows her character embracing domestic tasks as a way to indulge in her solitude.
- Louisa set herself onto a "path" that she can only walk alone on. This path represents her independence and foreshadows to the end of the story.
- In Joe's presence, Louisa feels caged because she lived alone for so long. Similarly, Caesar also represents Louisa's captivity.
- Freeman chooses to give the desire to free the dog from its chain to Joe, not Louisa. Louisa believes that the dog may go on a "rampage" once it is set free.
- Louisa can never leave her home without ridding herself of her internal independence.
- She becomes so attached to her feminine belongings and lifestyle, that the idea of moving these items to a new home, where they will be mixed with masculine elements, rids them of their significance.
While Joe is in Australia for fourteen years, Louisa's family passes away and she is "left all alone in the world. But the greatest happening of all...Louisa's feet had turned into a path, smooth maybe under a calm, serene sky, but so straight and unswerving that it could only meet a check at her grave, and so narrow that there was no room for anyone at her side" (4). Louisa set herself onto a "path" that she can only walk alone on. This path represents her independence and foreshadows to the end of the story, when she decides to live alone: "Serenity and placid narrowness had become to her as the birthright itself" (8). As an independent woman, Louisa is to travel the path of life solo, without the dependence on any man.
Within Louisa's home, she has two pets, a dog, Caesar, and a canary. The canary is caged to prevent it from flying away. When Joe enters the room, the canary "that had been asleep in his green cage at the south window woke up and fluttered wildly, beating his little yellow wings against the wires. He always did so when Joe Dagget came into the room" (2). Like the canary, when Louisa hears Joe coming, she rushes to take off and fold her sewing apron "with methodical haste" (4). In his presence, Louisa feels caged because she lived alone for so long. Similarly, Caesar also represents Louisa's captivity. Fourteen years prior to Joe's return (the same time Louisa and Joe got engaged), the dog has been chained up to his house because he bit a neighbor. By agreeing to marry Joe, Louisa is giving up some aspects of her independence.
Caesar is described as a "hermit," secluded in his home. Since Caesar symbolizes Louisa in many aspects, we can assume that like Caesar, Louisa is also a hermit. Not only this, but the dog and Louisa are both prisoners with different masters: "It was now fourteen years since, in a flood of youthful spirits, he had inflicted that memorable bite, and with the exception of short excursions, always at the end of a chain, under the strict guardianship of his master or Louisa, the old dog had remained a close prisoner" (5). Similarly, Louisa is chained to her marriage, a prisoner of her absent husband.
Have you ever felt caged like Louisa?
Interestingly, Freeman chooses to give the desire to free the dog from its chain to Joe, not Louisa. Louisa believes that the dog may go on a "rampage" once it is set free. This illustrates Louisa's fear of change and moving into Joe's house: "Louisa looked at the old dog munching on his simple fare, and thought of her approaching marriage and trembled. Still no anticipation of disorder and confusion in lieu of sweet peace and harmony, no forebodings of Caesar on the rampage, no wild fluttering of her little yellow canary, were sufficient to turn her a hair's-breadth" (6). Louisa's home is where she finds serenity and the thought of moving into another home seems too drastic of a change. She is constantly saddened by the fact that her feminine belongings will be mixed with masculine elements: "She had visions, so startling that she half repudiated them as indelicate, of coarse masculine belongings strewn about in endless litter; of dust and disorder arising necessarily from a coarse masculine presence in the midst of all this delicate harmony" (5). She appreciates the peaceful, gentle aspects of her home with solidify her femininity in a very powerful, not oppressive, way.
The thought of moving in with and marrying Joe seems to make Louisa even more uncomfortable than the fact that he was having an affair with his mother's caretaker, Lily Dyer: "She never mentioned Lily Dyer. She simply said that while she had no cause of complaint against him, she had lived so long in one way that she shrank from making a change" (7). Lily Dyer's character allows Louisa to end ties with Joe. Before she hears them talking outside, she "had always looked forward to his return and their marriage as the inevitable conclusion to things. However, she had fallen into a way for placing it so far in the future that it was almost equal to placing it over the boundaries of life" (4). With time, Louisa became comfortable in her home and Lily became a tool in her ultimate quest for independence.
The elements of her home, the different tasks and tools she uses within the home are very important to her overall domesticity; but, outside of her home, they become mere representations of the past. This is why she can never leave her home without ridding herself of her internal independence. After marriage, the Joe and Louisa were supposed to move into to Joe's house. "Louisa must leave hers. Every morning, rising and going about among her neat maidenly possessions, she felt as one looking her last upon the faces of dear friends. It was true that in a measure she could take them with her, but, robbed of their old environments, they would appear in such new guises that they would almost cease to be themselves" (4). Because the past fourteen years were so routine for Louisa, she finds comfort in solitude and dedication. To her, marriage was plausible because she could not see it happening soon. When Joe returned from his trip, she was taken aback; similar to her dedication in keeping Caesar chained to his kennel, Louisa committed herself to her own home, while living in fear of change.
Through this romantic narrative, Freeman shows the struggle of a woman who has gotten so used to being alone, that she feels imprisoned by her upcoming marriage. She becomes so attached to her feminine belongings and lifestyle, that the idea of moving these items to a new home, where they will be mixed with masculine elements, rids them of their significance. Similarly, Louisa feels as though she will lose her independence and organization (two key elements of her personality). Freeman's character decides to leave her fiancé in order to live in solitude with her feminine obsessions. Even though she left him, she didn't chose to to do this (despite her unease at the decision to marry) until after she finds out about the affair between Joe and Lily. Her independence was very important to her, yet, she could not assure it until she knew that was what the man wanted. Through this story, Freeman is illustrating the feminine struggle to be independent while being dedicated to a man.