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Adoniram Penn is presented from the beginning as an extremely uncommunicative old man – certainly in the presence of his wife Sarah. He staunchly refuses to explain to her about the new barn being built; her urgent questions actually have the effect of making him literally close his mouth.
There was a sudden dropping and enlarging of the lower part of the lower part of the old man’s face, as if some heavy weight had settled therein; he shut his mouth tight, and went on harnessing the great bay mare.
Adoniram’s stubborn refusal to discuss anything at all with his wife is what finally pushes her into drastic action. She had been wanting him to build a new house for the family, particularly as their daughter Nanny is about to get married, but he goes ahead with his own plan for yet another barn. Faced with his imperturbability, she takes advantage when he is unexpectedly called away for a few days to appropriate the new barn for the family living quarters.
This, then, is the nature of Sarah Penn's revolt – a woman’s sudden rebellion against the ways and wishes of her menfolk; and it scandalises the little community in which she lives, not least the minister who is comically portrayed as being quite floored by the situation:
He could expound the intricacies of every character study in the Scriptures, he was competent to grasp the Pilgrim Fathers and all historical innovators, but Sarah Penn was beyond him.
Adoniram, it turns out, feels even more helpless than the minister when he returns home to find out what his wife has done; in fact, he is reduced to tears.
Adoniram was like a fortress whose walls had no active resistance, and went down the instant the right besieging tools were used.’Why, mother,’ he said, hoarsely, ‘I hadn’t no idee you was so set on’t as all this comes to.’
Therefore, at the very end of the story his character appears to undergo something of a collapse. This shows that he wasn’t as unfeeling or as unreasonable as he might have appeared; he simply wasn’t able to understand his wife, and share things with her.
Men and women throughout the story are shown to be performing rigidly separate gender roles; the men are occupied with farmwork, the women confined to household matters. Sarah challenges the men literally on their own ground by taking over the new barn, but had Adoniram been more open with her, she probably would not have taken such a momentous undertaking upon herself. Therefore Adoniram’s character is central to the way that the story develops.
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