Summarize and discuss the theme of the individual isolated from the community in "A New England Nun" by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

A commitment to marry after waiting fourteen years sets the scene for “A New England Nun” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman.  The protagonist in the story faces just such an enigmatic circumstance. Louisa’ finance Joe went to Australia to make his fortune and did not come back for all those years. 

The narration of the story is third person through the character of Louisa Ellis. The unusual situation presents quite a quandary for the main character.  She does not feel quite the same about Joe as she did before he left.  He was her only lover.  In fact, she has spent her time making a quiet routine in her home that she once shared with her mother and brother. 

Joe’s entrance back into Louisa’s life has not been entirely smooth.  He wants her to move into his family home that he has renovated.  His mother is ill and he has made a special place for her as well.  She becomes so attached to her feminine lifestyle that the idea of moving these items to a new home where they will be mixed with masculine elements makes Louisa nervous.  

Louisa’s routine and perfectionism borders on the obsessive. Joe’s irritation of the bird and the threat to release her dog do not set well with Louisa.  In addition, the dirt he brings in and the disturbance of her things annoy her as well. 

Where does Louisa fit in with the community?  Louisa has isolated herself from the rest of the world.  One of the ways that the community does not fit with Louisa is Caesar, her brother’s dog.  As  a puppy, he had bitten someone in the community.  Rather than put the dog down, the brother had promised to place Caesar on a chain.  The poor dog has lived his entire life at the end of a chain.  He is not vicious.  However, the story has grown around the community until the dog has a reputation. 

Old Caesar was fat and sleepy; but there was a neighbor who bore on his hand the imprint of several of Caesar’s sharp white youthful teeth, and for that he had lived at the end of a chain for fourteen years.

Mothers of the town charged their children never to go near the dog. They all ran by Louisa’s hurriedly.  Caesar is described as a "hermit," secluded in his home. Caesar symbolizes Louisa in many aspects;  the reader can assume that like Caesar, Louisa is also a hermit.

Louisa enjoys her tea time each day.  She even uses her best china.  The neighbors would never use their china but used their everyday dishes for their tea.  The townswomen thought that Louisa was no better bred than they were, so she should be no better than they.

The girl that Joe falls in love with is his mother’s nurse.  The girl is a favorite with the townspeople.  Nothing is indicated in the story that overall Louisa was not accepted in the village.  It just seems as though through her meticulous routine that she is not really a part of the community.

When Louisa releases Joe from his commitment to marry her, she sits at the window recounting her life and what she will do. Since she has chosen to remain single, she faces the disapproval of the community for going against the custom that women were expected to marry.

Louisa's home is where she finds serenity and the thought of moving into another home seems too drastic of a change.  She appears to realize this, and she is thankful for the time that she will spend unencumbered by the waiting or even the time she would have spent married.  “She has become an uncloistered nun.”