Mary E. Wilkins Freeman Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Invariably set in the rural areas of Massachusetts or Vermont, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s most engaging stories focus on troubled characters who encounter situations that jeopardize their quest for happiness and personal fulfillment. In prose as angular and unornamented as the characters she portrays and with masterful detachment from them, Freeman typically develops a story around the main character’s response to a personal crisis. Depending on the degree of resoluteness that they possess and the seriousness of the circumstances that they face, her characters react in several ways: Some openly rebel, exerting their will with great courage and determination; others passively accept their lot, preferring to continue what may be a meaningless existence; still others act self-destructively, revealing a masochistic tendency toward self-punishment. Although she wrote about men, her most fascinating characters are women, especially older ones, and in her best work, A Humble Romance, and Other Stories and A New England Nun, and Other Stories, from which the following stories are taken, Freeman’s heroines are depicted with extraordinary sensitivity and insight. The major theme running through all her fiction is the struggle of every human being to preserve his or her dignity and self-respect when confronted with difficult decisions.

“The Revolt of ‘Mother’”

As its title indicates, “The Revolt of ‘Mother’” has as its protagonist a character who boldly asserts herself. Freeman’s most widely anthologized story, it humorously dramatizes the clash of wills between Sarah Penn, a dutiful, God-fearing wife, and her stubborn husband, Adoniram. One spring on the very spot where he had promised to build their new house when they got married forty years earlier, Adoniram begins erecting a new barn for their small New England farm. Having patiently and quietly endured the cramped and outdated quarters of their old house for all these years and wanting her daughter, Nanny, to be married in a new house in the fall, Sarah confronts her husband, accusing him of “lodgin’” his “dumb beasts” better than his “own flesh an’ blood.” Adoniram refuses to honor his long-standing promise. In fact, he obstinately refuses even to discuss the matter, continually replying with Yankee terseness, “I ain’t got nothin’ to say.” Tearfully reconciling herself to the situation, Sarah chooses not to force the issue, content at present to continue her role as an obedient wife.

When the barn is completed in late July, Adoniram plans to transfer his livestock from the old barn on a Wednesday. On the day before, however, learning of an opportunity to buy “a good horse” in neighboring Vermont, he decides to defer the move until his return on Saturday. Convinced that his absence is an act of “providence,” Sarah and Nanny pack the family’s belongings and carry them into the spacious new barn. Within a few hours, with a little imagination and ingenuity, Sarah begins to transform the barn into the house of her dreams.

News of her rebellious activities soon spreads, and by Friday she is the main subject of village gossip. The minister, hoping to persuade her to undo the deed before Adoniram returns, tries to reason with her, but his efforts are in vain. When he returns the following day, Adoniram enters the house shed first, only to discover that one of his cows has taken up residence there. In a state of disbelief he then enters the new barn and is flabbergasted when he discovers what has happened during his absence. Assuring him that she “ain’t crazy,” Sarah releases her pent-up emotions, justifies her actions, and, to his amazement, orders him to complete the conversion. After being served his favorite supper, which he eats silently, Adoniram retreats to the front step and cries. Later comforted by Sarah, he obediently promises to finish converting the barn and humbly confesses to her, “I hadn’t no idee you was so set on’t as all this comes to.”

Like other characters who are constitutionally unable to endure the role that they have been forced to play by family or society—for example, Candace Whitcomb in “A Village Singer”—Sarah Penn ultimately resorts to open rebellion as a means of expressing dissatisfaction. Their self-respect threatened, Freeman’s psychologically healthy characters refuse to accept the intolerable situation that causes their unhappiness. Most of her protagonists, however, are not as successful in dealing with crises, for their twisted and lonely lives are so devoid of purpose and meaning that they do not even realize that they are partially or wholly responsible for their plight. The tragic vision set forth in these stories is far more typical of her fiction than the comic mood seen in “The Revolt of ‘Mother.’” In this regard “A New England Nun” and “A Poetess,” two of her most critically acclaimed stories, are more representative in tone, incident, and artistry.

“A New England Nun”

In the title story of A New England Nun, and Other Stories, an illuminating study of self-imposed spinsterhood, Freeman analyzes the crippling emotional paralysis that prevents the heroine, Louisa Ellis, from marrying her fiancé of fifteen years, Joe Dagget. For the first fourteen years of their engagement, Joe had worked in Australia “to make his fortune.” Faithful to each other but seldom exchanging letters, Joe and Louisa assume that nothing has happened during their separation that would stop the wedding from taking place as scheduled upon his return. Much, however, has happened to Louisa, and her first reaction to Joe’s return is “consternation.” His biweekly visits with her are marked by stiff formality, banal conversation, and emotional uneasiness. He is puzzled by her lack of passion; her cool behavior toward him makes him uncomfortable. During one of their awkward meetings for example, Joe unintentionally tracks in some dust, nervously fidgets with her carefully arranged books, and accidentally knocks over her sewing basket, all of which irritates her.

With remarkable insight, Freeman traces the development of Louisa’s emotional paralysis and neurotic meticulousness. Following the deaths of her mother and brother while Joe was in Australia, which “left her all alone in the world,” Louisa had steadily drifted into the private world of her house and garden. Rather than seeking out the company and friendship of other people, Louisa has retreated into her self-imposed convent and over the years has found comfort and pleasure in growing lettuce “to perfection,” keeping her bureau drawers...

(The entire section is 2731 words.)