What is the significance and symbolism of Caesar in relationship to Louisa in "A New England Nun" by Mary Wilkins Freeman?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Mary Wilkins Freeman enjoyed the prestige of being counted among a small group of women writers who gained popularity  at the end of the nineteenth century.  Known as a local color writer, Freeman wrote about women who felt the strain of domestic life and the domination of men.  In 1891, she wrote “A New England Nun” which tells the story of Louisa Ellis, an unusual protagonist.


The story, told through a third person limited omniscient narrator, evolves around Louisa.  She  has learned to live a solitary life, despite her engagement of fifteen years to a fortune hunter. Joe Dagget, her fiancé of fifteen years, has spent fourteen years seeking his  fortune. As Louisa waited, she cloistered herself through the solitary ways she adopted waiting for Joe.

One week before the wedding, Louisa goes for a walk. When she sits down to rest, Louisa overhears a conversation between her fiancé and Lily Dyer. She learns of their feelings for each other, but also of Joe’s intention to keep his promise to Louisa. The next day, Louisa breaks her engagement and explains to Joe that she had grown too accustomed to her life in solitude to commit a change. Joe accepts her decision and leaves. Eventually, Louisa is content and anticipates a life in solitude and complete harmony.

Symbolism of Caesar

One of the themes of the story is isolation. Louisa lives in an isolated spot. Because it is quiet, one can make the conclusion that there is little interaction between Louisa and the townspeople.  For many years, her only companions have been her canary and her dog Caesar.

Caesar is the old yellow dog Louisa has kept chained to his hut in her back yard.

 ‘‘Fat and sleepy’’ with ‘‘yellow rings which looked like spectacles around his dim old eyes,’’ Caesar ‘‘seldom lift[s] up his voice in a growl or bark.''

The name Caesar acts as a symbol for the character in history. Julius Caesar, who was never given the chance to become tyrannical, was killed for what he might have done.  This is true of the dog. His freedom has been taken away for fear of what he might do.

This poor animal was sentenced to a life in prison when he bit someone as a puppy. Caesar’s reputation has been as a ferocious blood thirsty animal. Caesar, the pet of Louisa's dead brother,  has become just as placid as Louisa.

Symbolically, the dog house is also away from the beaten path, isolated away from society.The old dog has lived a lonely existence with only his dog house and a couple of feet of chain as his freedom.  Caesar has never known the freedom to roam or run or play with a stick.  The only one who defends Caesar is Louisa’s fiancée. When Joe was around Caesar, he threatens to take the dog off his chain and release him into the town. To Louisa, taking the dog off his chain figuratively relates to her being freed from the constraints Joe puts on her.

The protagonist and the dog have both lived lives of restriction and desire for freedom. Now that the woman has been given her freedom. The old dog no longer resists his captivity. The two will live their parallel existences forever.


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