Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Local-color writing provides a sketch of a particular time and place, usually with sympathetic portrayals of local types and suggestions of the interrelationship between a locale and those who inhabit it. “A New England Nun” does these things skillfully. Its descriptive passages capture the New England area Mary E. Wilkins Freeman knew so well. Freeman was born in Massachusetts in 1852 and remained in New England until 1902, when she married and moved away, but continued to write about her New England background and the remnants of Puritanism that still laced the society in which she grew up.
The details of Louisa’s life suggest what the community she belongs to is like, and show the limitations of her options. Every small detail has its implication: that Louisa’s neighbors talk about her daily use of her good china, for instance, suggests that there is little to talk about in the village and that there is not much room for individual eccentricity. It also indicates that someone who values privacy is going to have to work hard for it. The dialogue in the story also captures character, although it is not dialect, as it is in some local-color stories. It is clear that Louisa’s more educated tones do not match Joe’s plainer speech, giving another hint at the incompatibility of the two for marriage. The narrator’s somewhat negative assessment of Louisa’s choice of serenity and a peaceful narrowness does not reduce the reader’s sympathy for a...
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Religion and Economics
Mary Wilkins Freeman wrote most of her best-known short stories in the 1880s and 1890s. They provide a unique snapshot of a particular time and place in American history. The small towns of post-Civil War New England were often desolate places. The war itself, combined with urbanization, industrialization, and westward expansion, had taken most of the young able-bodied men out of the region. The remaining population was largely female and elderly. Women like Louisa Ellis, who waited many years for husbands, brothers, fathers and boyfriends to return from the West or other places they had gone to seek jobs, were not uncommon. The area was suffering from economic depression and many were forced to leave to support themselves and their families. There were many widows from the war, too, often living hand-to-mouth and trying to keep up appearances. Also common were the New England spinsters or old maids—women who, because of the shortage of men or for other reasons, never married. They were numerous enough that they contributed to the making of a stereotype we all recognize today.
Freeman knew these New England villages and their inhabitants intimately, and she used them as material for her many short stories. She said she was interested in exploring the New England character and the strong, often stubborn, New England will.
New England was settled by the Puritans during the early years of colonization in...
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This story about a woman who finds, after waiting for her betrothed for fourteen years, that she no longer wants to get married, is set in a small village in nineteenth-century New England. Critics have often remarked that the setting is particular but also oddly universal as are the themes Freeman chooses to treat. This village is populated with people we might meet nearly anywhere in rural America. Point of View
‘‘A New England Nun’’ is told in the third person, omniscient narration. That is, the narrator is not one of the characters of the story yet appears to know everything or nearly everything about the characters, including, at times, their thoughts. For example, the narrator tells us that, after leaving Louisa's house, Joe Dagget ‘‘felt much as an innocent and perfectly well-intentioned bear might after his exit from a china shop.’’
In general terms, a symbol is a literary devise used to represent, signal or evoke something else. For example, a fading red rose might be used to symbolize the fading of a romance. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom she has been compared, Freeman was adept at using symbolism in her short stories; but her touch is lighter than Hawthorne's.
There are many symbols in "A New England Nun.'' For example, the chained dog Caesar and the canary that Louisa keeps in a cage both represent her own hermit-like way of life, surrounded by a...
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Compare and Contrast
1890s: Women are faced with limited political, legal, and social options.
1990s: Women are an important part of the political process. Candidates struggle to attract the female vote, and women's issues are central to many political platforms.
1890s: Realism is a popular literary style, reflecting changing American concerns in the twentieth century. Short stories gain popularity as a literary genre.
1990s: Short stories remain popular, and American literature is rich with fine examples of the short fiction genre. With the advent of the twenty-first century, realism also remains a viable literary form.
1890s: Since in many areas of the United States women outnumbered men, spinsterhood was not uncommon. The declining male population can be attributed to the Civil War, other armed conflicts, and westward expansion. To remain single was a serious social stigma for women, as it was believed that a woman's primary duty was to marry and have children.
1990s: Although marriage remains a goal of most young American men and women, many females in the late twentieth century often choose not to marry. A myriad of social and financial opportunities have lessened the stigma of remaining single. Divorce rates have skyrocketed in the past few decades, making marriage a less desirable option for many men and women.
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Topics for Further Study
Mary Wilkins Freeman is known for her accurate portrayals of rural New England life during the late nineteenth century. Research urban life during the same time period (roughly 1880 to 1900) and compare the two. You may wish to read a few of her other short stories from her collections A Humble Romance and Other Stories and A New England Nun and Other Stories in order to get a more complete picture of rural life.
Most historians consider the major forces that shaped the nineteenth century in America to have been the Civil War and Reconstruction, urbanization and industrialization, European immigration, and the expansion westward, including the building of the intercontinental railroad and the gold rushes of 1849 through 1899. Pick one of these factors and research its impact on American life. Can you find evidence of this impact reflected in "A New England Nun'' or other stories by Mary Wilkins Freeman? Are we still feeling the impact of this factor today?
Mary Wilkins Freeman claimed that one of the things she was interested in exploring in her short stories was the legacy of Puritanism in New England. Do some research on Puritanism, perhaps on the impact of the Great Awakening, the Puritan revival that swept New England in 1740-42. You may read one or two Puritan sermons, such as the famous Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, by Jonathan Edwards. What traces of Puritanism can you find in "A New England Nun,’’ other...
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"A New England Nun’’ is available on audio tape from Audio Book Contractors (1991), ISBN: 1556851812.
"A New England Nun’’ is also available on microfilm from Research Publications (1970-78), Woodbridge, CT. Wright American Fiction; v. 3.
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What Do I Read Next?
Other short stories of note by Mary Wilkins Freeman include ‘‘Sister Liddy,’’ a story about women living in the poorhouse, ‘‘A Conflict Ended,'' in which a stubborn parishioner refuses to enter the church, sitting on the steps instead, because he disagrees with the hiring of the new minister.
Kate Chopin's short novel The Awakening (1899) chronicles the story of a young mother in Louisiana who leaves her husband and children in search of her own identity and later commits suicide. Like Freeman, Chopin has caught the attention of feminist critics and historians for her depiction of women's lives at the end of the last century.
Carolyn Chute's novel The Beans of Egypt, Maine (1985) is an example of a recent work that continues the local color realist tradition. It tells of the poor and eccentric inhabitants of a small rural town in north-central Maine.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman's social analysis, Women and Economics (1898), contends that the sexual and maternal roles of nineteenth-century women were overemphasized and their true potential neglected.
Thomas Gray's 1751 poem ‘‘An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard’’ meditates on the unrealized potential of the rural people buried in a cemetery. Many, he suggests, may have possessed artistic talent or other gifts stunted by ignorance or lack of opportunity. Critics have noted that the opening to ‘‘A New England Nun'' seems to...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Sources: "New England in the Short Story,’’ in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 67, No. 6, June, 1891, pp. 845-50.
Foster, Edward. Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Hendricks House, 1956.
Hirsch, David. ‘‘Subdued Meaning in 'A New England Nun,'’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 2, 1965, p. 131.
Howells, William Dean. ‘‘Editor's Study,’’ in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 75, No. 448, September, 1887, pp. 638-42.
Martin, Jay. ‘‘Paradise Lost: Mary E. Wilkins,’’ in Harvests of Change: American Literature 1865-1914, Printice-Hall, Inc., 1967.
Pryse, Marjorie. ‘‘An Uncloistered 'New England Nun,'’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 20, No. 4, Fall, 1983, pp. 289-95.
Westbrook, Perry. "The Anatomy of the Will: Mary Wilkins Freeman,’’ in his Acres of Flint: Sarah Orne Jewett and Her Contemporaries, Scarecrow Press, 1981, pp. 86-104.
‘‘Mary Wilkins Freeman,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale Research, Vol. 78, 1989, pp. 159-73.
Mary Wilkins Freeman, Twayne Publishers, 1988.
Ziff, Larzer. ‘‘An Abyss of Inequality: Sarah Orne Jewett, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Kate Chopin,’’ in his American 1890s: Life and Times of a Lost Generation, Viking Press, 1966, pp. 275- 305.
Further Reading: "New England in the Short Story,’’ in...
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