The New England Town
Freeman grew up in a small New England town at a time when the region was undergoing what many social and cultural historians have viewed as an enervating change. Many of the area’s vigorous youth, including a large percentage of men, had abandoned the settled communities of the East to pursue the country’s westward expansion. The Civil War had also decimated the population of young men. The New England of Freeman’s experience seemed overwhelmingly peopled by single women and old men. New England townspeople were similar racially and culturally, church-based, and strongly agricultural. Women usually did not work in the fields, but instead took on responsibility for the many tasks required to run a farm, such as making basic foodstuffs and clothing. The town itself was frequently made up of several villages along with the countryside in between, all of which were under the same government.
New England towns typically presented a closeknit community, which led to a pervasive interest in the affairs of one’s neighbors as well as a concern for what others might think. Such a situation could make it extremely difficult for a person who chose to flaunt or break the accepted rules of the community. But while the gossip of neighbors often traveled quickly through the village, there was also a certain amount of respect for those who defied gossip to be true to themselves.
A secular government, made up of all voting citizens, and a group of pastors and deacons, chosen by the congregation, ruled over the religious, intellectual, and political life. As such, the churches had a strong influence on the development of the values of each child who lived in the town. Many of the New England churches followed Calvinism, a particularly austere version of Christianity that teaches, among other things, that humans are filled with sin. Many New Englanders grew up under the direction of this patriarchal, strict religion.
The descendants of the Puritans who had first settled New England maintained a stubborn religious faith. Their belief that they were probably among God’s chosen people helped them to persevere in circumstances—like farming the hilly, rocky New England soil—that might cause others to give up. They believed that their own human will, when it coincided with God’s, made them...
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In medias res
‘‘The Revolt of ‘Mother’’’ begins in medias res, literally ‘‘in the midst of things.’’ In this case it is a conversation between a long-married couple. This conversation hearkens back in time forty years, to the day that Adoniram and Sarah married and he promised her a new house. The reader is quickly apprised of the present situation—the fact that there has been no house but that workers are breaking ground for a new barn—and that the Penns now have an engaged daughter who wants a more impressive dwelling for her wedding.
‘‘The Revolt of ‘Mother’’’ was originally written as piece of magazine fiction, and the technique of in media res effectively draws the reader quickly into the story. The provocative title also serves to entice readers immediately. They are forewarned of an unexpected ‘‘revolt’’ that will seem at odds with the behavior of the characters at the beginning of the story.
Point of View and Narration
‘‘The Revolt of ‘Mother’’’ is narrated in the third person omniscient point of view, which allows the narrator to present the thoughts or feelings of any or all of the characters. Most of the story, however, concerns Sarah Penn and her inner struggle to do what she believes is right. The narrator rarely chooses to directly relate what a character sees or feels. Instead, most of the story is told through a detached, objective point of view, which provides more information to the reader. This technique is used to full advantage to present a full picture of Sarah’s life—her relationship with her husband, her desire to help her daughter, the lives and concerns of her fellow villagers, and the social mores of the late nineteenth-century New England community.
The detached narrator exerts a strong authority in relating the story, and the objective tone influences the reader to accept the opinions of this authorial voice. For instance, to show the...
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Compare and Contrast
1880s: By the end of the 1880s, one-third of the population of the United States lived in towns. In the decade from 1880 to 1890, the number of U.S. cities of 45,000-75,000 increased from 23 to 39.
1990s: By the 1990s, the majority of Americans— over 75 percent—live in urban areas. More than half of Americans live in cities with populations of at least one million. In 1990, the 100 largest cities in the United States all have populations of greater than 170,000.
1880s: The United States has about 800 high schools in 1880 and 2,500 by 1890.
1990s: In the 1990s, the United States has more than 30,000 public and private high schools.
1890s: In 1890, Wyoming is the first government in the world and the only U.S. state to give women full suffrage. That year, two prominent women’s suffrage organizations—the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association—joined to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
1990s: All women in the United States have the right to vote. Women in some countries still do not have this right. In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman to run for the office of vice president on a major ticket.
1900: In the United States, only 21 percent of all women worked outside of the home.
1990s: In the mid-1990s, around 55 percent of all women in the United States...
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Topics for Further Study
Investigate the events that took place after 1890 that led women in the United States to win the right to vote. Who were key figures in the women’s suffrage movement? Did the majority of American women agree with the causes of the suffragists?
Investigate what kinds of jobs were available for women in the late 1800s. Did women have equal educational opportunities that would allow them to get good jobs? Find out how women went about breaking down barriers that would not allow them to work and become educated in professions such as medicine and law.
What kinds of technological innovations were taking place in the 1800s that made it less profitable for individuals to own and operate small farms? What happened to small farmers and small towns as this method of making a living became harder and less profitable?
Freeman repudiated the actions of her protagonist in ‘‘The Revolt of ‘Mother’,’’ saying that no New England farm wife would have done what Sarah Penn does in the story. How believable do you find Sarah’s actions? Can you imagine something similar that a wife and mother might do today that would shock her husband and neighbors as much as Sarah’s behavior?
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What Do I Read Next?
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston. Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie, an independent-minded young black woman, and her life with the freespirited Tea Cake. Hurston paints a vivid portrait of the small African American towns of the deep South.
The Scarlet Letter (1850) by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hester Prynne lives in a repressive, Puritan town that has condemned her as an adulteress. Hawthorne dissects the hypocrisy behind the Puritan mindset and attempts to put forth an explanation for the New England way of thinking prevalent in the nineteenth century.
Pembroke (1894), by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. In Pembroke, Freeman tells a story based on an incident that happened in her mother’s family. The fathers of two people about to marry get into an argument. The young man is ordered from his fiancee’s house, and her father orders the engagement broken. The young suitor is a portrait in New England obstinance as well as a character so steeped in the fatalism of his Calvinist faith that he can make no move to win back the woman he loves.
The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), by Sarah Orne Jewett. This short story collection resonates with the author’s understanding of the ways of life in a small New England community.
The Custom of the Country (1913), by Edith Wharton. In this novel, Wharton portrays the efforts undertaken by an...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Cutter, Martha. ‘‘Frontier of Language: Engendering Discourse in ‘‘The Revolt of ‘Mother’,’’ in American Literature Vol. 63, No. 2, 1991, pp. 279-91.
Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins. ‘‘Who’s Who—and Why: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, an Autobiography,’’ in The Saturday Evening Post, Vol. 190, No. 23, December 8, 1917, pp. 25, 75.
Marchalonis, Shirley, ed. An introduction to Critical Essays on Mary Wilkins Freeman, G.K. Hall & Co., 1991.
Meese, Elizabeth. ‘‘Signs of Undecidability: Reconsidering the Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman,’’ in Critical Essays on Mary Wilkins Freeman, edited by Shirley Marchalonis, G.K. Hall...
(The entire section is 210 words.)