Mary E. Wilkins Freeman Freeman, Mary E. Wilkins - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman 1852–-1930

(Full name Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman) American short story writer, novelist, playwright, and poet.

As a realist chronicler of post-Civil War New England life, Freeman is acknowledged as an important contributor to regionalist literature. She is frequently labeled a local colorist because she depicted the social and physical aspects of the New England countryside, including the flavor of local speech patterns. Yet Freeman's most exemplary writing, which focuses on the psychology of her characters, transcends the limitations of local color writing. Although Freeman wrote novels, plays, and verse, she is most known for her stories, particularly “The Revolt of Mother” and “A New England Nun.”

Biographical Information

Born Mary Eleanor Wilkins on October 31, 1852, in Randolph, Massachusetts, Freeman descended from the seventeenth-century settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The daughter of Warren Wilkins, a carpenter, and his wife Eleanor Lothrop, Mary was the only child of four children to survive to adulthood. Her parents raised her in the rigid Congregationalist religious tradition of her forebears, and Mary proved to be a shy and socially challenged child, one who had few friends but a strong imagination. After the Civil War, the family moved from Randolph to Brattleboro, Vermont, where Warren Wilkins ran a dry-goods business. Upon graduating from Brattleboro High School in 1870, Freeman attended Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, but she left after a year due to poor health. During the mid- and late-1870s, the Wilkins family suffered a series of economic and personal setbacks. The dry-goods business failed, forcing Warren Wilkins to resume carpentry and Eleanor to take up housekeeping; in 1876 Anna, Freeman's sole sister, died; and three years later, Eleanor Wilkins died of a heart attack. In order to support herself, Freeman tried a number of endeavors before turning to writing. In 1882 her father, in poor health, moved to Florida, where he died a year later. Freeman returned to Randolph and took up residence with her childhood friend Mary John Wales, with whom she lived until her marriage to Charles Manning Freeman nearly two decades later. With an inheritance of commercial property and the support of the Wales family, Freeman was able to devote herself to writing. In 1881 she published her first works, ballads for a children's magazine. Freeman was an astute businesswoman, making the most of opportunities to publish and promote her works, which included both novels and plays. Eventually Freeman was able to support herself by writing. At age forty-nine, she married Dr. Charles Freeman and moved to his home in Metuchen, New Jersey. A short time later, the quality and quantity of her publications suffered. The Freemans' marriage was fraught with trouble, as Mary exhibited wild mood swings and Charles, an alcoholic, was eventually committed to a state hospital for the insane. Freeman gained a legal separation from her husband in 1922. By the time of her death in 1930, Freeman was planning a sequel to her most successful novel, Pembroke (1894).

Major Works of Short Fiction

Over the course of her career, Freeman wrote more than two hundred short stories, which were first published in the leading women's magazines of the time and then republished in collections, including A Humble Romance and Other Stories (1887) and A New England Nun and Other Stories (1891). Written with a female readership in mind, the stories usually portray women—the largest demographic in the post-Civil War years. During this time, New England suffered from economic decline as farming in the West proved more lucrative than eastern agriculture, and cottage industries collapsed in the wake of urban factories. Both the West and urban factories drew men from the East, leaving behind the women whose choices were largely limited to marriage or spinsterhood, which Freeman chose to depict in her fictions. After establishing a readership, Freeman explored other genres of short story, such as detective fiction and children's literature. She also wrote fourteen novels, which she considered to be the next step in her evolution as an author.

Critical Reception

Freeman made her literary debut with the publication of “A Humble Romance” in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1884. Freeman's fiction appealed to Mary Booth, the magazine's editor, who published her work for many years. When she published a collection of short stories in 1887, A Humble Romance and Other Stories, her work elicited praise from such writers as William Dean Howells and Hamlin Garland, who also practiced their own forms of literary realism. Although she was a prolific author, some reviewers considered Freeman's writing to be of uneven quality. However, critics generally concur that Freeman's most successful stories are contained in A Humble Romance and the subsequent collection A New England Nun and Other Stories. Many early critics focused on her realistic portrayal of New England life, judging her work to be successful as local color writing. In 1891 her story “The Revolt of Mother” was judged to be one of the twelve best American short stories. The popularity of her work continued: in 1926 she won the William Dean Howells Gold Medal for Fiction and was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Yet during the last years of the nineteenth century, Freeman saw the readership for her work diminish, and by 1950 most of her works were out of print. However, the reprinting of her works as well as the publication of previously uncollected magazine stories in 1992 provided critics with more material to assess her body of work. Scholars found an abundance of themes and motifs to explore, from the narrative structure of her works, to characterization, imagery, and her use of humor.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

The Cow with Golden Horns and Other Stories 1884

The Adventures of Ann: Stories of Colonial Times 1886

A Humble Romance and Other Stories 1887; republished in two volumes as A Humble Romance and Other Stories and A Far-Away Melody and Other Stories, 1890

A New England Nun and Other Stories 1891

The Pot of Gold and Other Stories 1892

Young Lucretia and Other Stories 1892

Silence and Other Stories 1898

The Love of Parson Lord and Other Stories 1900

Understudies 1901

Six Trees 1903

The Wind in the Rose-Bush and Other Stories of the Supernatural 1903

The Givers 1904

The Fair Lavinia and Others 1907

The Winning Lady and Others 1909

The Copy-Cat and Other Stories 1914

Edgewater People 1918

The Best Stories of Mary E. Wilkins 1927

Collected Ghost Stories by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman [introduction by Edward Wagenknecht] 1974

Selected Stories of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman [edited by Marjorie Pryse] 1983

The Uncollected Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman 1992

Decorative Plaques: Designs by George F. Barnes, Poems by Mary E. Wilkins (children's literature) 1883

Giles Corey, Yeoman: A Play (drama) 1893

Jane Field (novel) 1893

Pembroke (novel) 1894

Comfort Pease and Her Gold Ring (children's literature) 1895

Madelon (novel) 1896

Jerome, A Poor Man (novel) 1897

Once Upon a Time and Other Child Verses (poems) 1897

The People of Our Neighborhood (novel) 1898

The Jamesons (novel) 1899

The Hearts Highway: A Romance of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century (novel) 1900

The Portion of Labor (novel) 1901

The Debtor (novel) 1905

“Doc” Gordon (novel) 1906

By the Light of the Soul (novel) 1908

The Shoulders of Atlas (novel) 1908

The Green Door (children's literature) 1910

The Butterfly House (novel) 1912

The Yates Pride: A Romance (novel) 1912

An Alabaster Box [with Florence Morse Kingsley] (novel) 1917

The Infant Sphinx (letters) 1985

Blanche Colton Williams (essay date 1920)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mary Wilkins Freeman,” in Our Short Story Writers, Moffat, Yard & Company, 1920, pp. 160–81.

[In the following excerpt, Williams discusses Freeman's characters, particularly the female ones, from a variety of her short stories.]

Many years have gone by since a writer in Harper's Weekly stated, “It seems a supererogation to say aught in praise of her work now, but we are apt to take our literary benefactors so much for granted that we fail to realize their greatness, and fall short of that lively sense of appreciation which we accord the fresh and unaccustomed writer new to his laurels. Since A Humble Romance was written, other authors...

(The entire section is 4914 words.)

David H. Hirsch (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Subdued Meaning in ‘A New England Nun,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 2, No. 2, Winter, 1965, pp. 124–36.

[In the below essay, Hirsch examines the compulsive behavior of Louisa, the female protagonist of “A New England Nun.” This behavior creates an undercurrent of tension throughout the story, due to which, according to Hirsch, the story transcends local color writing.]

One of the most beautifully achieved scenes in the American “local color” fiction of the nineteenth century occurs in Mary Wilkins Freeman's “A New England Nun.” The plot of the story is characteristically straightforward and uncomplicated. Louisa Ellis, who has...

(The entire section is 5921 words.)

Sarah W. Sherman (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Great Goddess in New England: Mary Wilkins Freeman's ‘Christmas Jenny,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 2, Spring, 1980, pp. 157–64.

[In the following essay, Sherman explicates the goddess imagery in the story “Christmas Jenny” from A New England Nun.]

Mary Wilkins Freeman's story “Christmas Jenny” could easily pass unnoticed in a reading of her 1891 collection, A New England Nun. However, a closer look brings to light an archaic, even mythic, aspect to this “realistic” story. It is an aspect most clearly seen in the characterization of Christmas Jenny herself.1

Christmas Jenny is Jenny...

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Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Artistry of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's ‘The Revolt,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 3, Summer, 1980, pp. 255–61.

[In the following essay, McElrath explores the four-phase narrative structure in “The Revolt of Mother” that culminates in an ending that is “vintage Howellsian realism” and literary artifice.]

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's “The Revolt of Mother” is a short story which is now receiving a good deal of attention because of its relevance to the history of American feminism. The mother in revolt is one of those tough-minded, self-aware, and determined females that began to appear at the close of the nineteenth century...

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Josephine Donovan (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mary E. Wilkins Freeman and the Tree of Knowledge,” in New England Local Color Literature: A Women's Tradition, Frederick Ungar, 1983, pp. 119–51.

[In the following excerpt, Donovan surveys the various mother-daughter relationships and strong female characters in Freeman's short stories.]

Something is dying in the fictional world of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. A way of life—the woman-centered, matriarchal world of the Victorians—is in its last throes. The preindustrial values of that world, female-identified and ecologically holistic, are going down to defeat before the imperialism of masculine technology and patriarchal institutions. In Sarah Orne...

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Susan Oaks (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Haunting Will: The Ghost Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman,” in Colby Library Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 4, December, 1985, pp. 208–20.

[In the following essay, Oaks analyzes Freeman's ghost stories, maintaining that they portray the negative consequences possible when individual will overrides social conventions.]

Mary Wilkins Freeman's ghost stories do not have a good critical reputation. Critics use the ghost stories to illustrate the decline in the quality of Freeman's fiction after her 1902 marriage. Westbrook summarizes this stance in the following statement:

As early as 1903 the deterioration in … Freeman's...

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Elizabeth A. Meese (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Signs of Undecidability: Reconsidering the Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman,” in Crossing the Double-Cross: The Practice of Feminist Criticism, University of North Carolina Press, 1986, pp. 21–38.

[In the essay below, Meese discusses how Freeman uses conflicting cultural/literary, public/private, and personal/social codes to portray the complexity of the feminine gender. Meese also criticizes early biographers and commentators for misreading Freeman's works as well as misunderstanding their author.]

Recent developments in critical strategies for approaching texts and new understandings of how the patriarchal regime of truth plays within criticism equip us...

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Susan Koppelman (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “About ‘Two Friends’ and Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman,” in American Literary Realism, Vol. 21, No. 1, Fall, 1988, pp. 43–57.

[In the following excerpt, Koppelman draws parallels between Freeman's life and her uncollected story “Two Friends.”]

“A young writer should follow the safe course of writing only about those subjects she knows thoroughly, and concerning which she trusts her own convictions.”

—Mary Wilkins Freeman, “Good Wits, Pen and Paper.”1

Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman wrote two stories which today we identify as lesbian stories: “Two Friends,”...

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Martha J. Cutter (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Frontiers of Language: Engendering Discourse in ‘The Revolt of Mother,’” in American Literature, Vol. 63, No. 2, June, 1991, pp. 279–91.

[In the following essay, Cutter examines the different psychological orientations of the male and female characters in “The Revolt of Mother” as expressed through the characters' use of language.]

Sarah Penn, the heroine of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's well-known short story “The Revolt of ‘Mother,’” wants a comfortable home for her family.1 But her husband, although well off, insists on building more barns and buying more cattle, thereby confining his family to their meager, run-down hovel of a...

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Beth Wynne Fisken (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The ‘Faces of Children That Had Never Been’: Ghost Stories by Mary Wilkins Freeman,” in Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by American Women, edited by Lynette Carpenter and Wendy K. Kolmar, 1991, pp. 41–63.

[In the excerpt below, Fisken considers Freeman's ghost stories, particularly those featuring a lost girl, which she suggests may represent Freeman's ambivalence about her own choice to suppress her nurturing impulses—marriage and family—in favor of an artistic career.]

On August 12, 1889, after Sarah Orne Jewett wrote to Mary Wilkins1 praising “A Gentle Ghost,” her earliest printed ghost...

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Martha J. Cutter (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Beyond Stereotypes: Mary Wilkins Freeman's Radical Critique of Nineteenth-Century Cults of Femininity,” in Women's Studies, Vol. 21, No. 9, 1992, pp. 383–95.

[In the following essay, Cutter probes Freeman's attitudes toward post-Civil War stereotypes of femininity, focussing on “The Selfishness of Amelia Lamkin.”]

The nineteenth century was undoubtedly a time period when images of femininity became particularly fixed. During the first half of the century, changing economic conditions created a cult-like worship of “True Womanhood” and entrapped women in the domestic sphere, where they were to dispense love and morality.1 And yet, even...

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Kate Gardner (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Subversion of Genre in the Short Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman,” in New England Quarterly, Vol. 65, No. 3, September, 1992, pp. 447–68.

[In the following essay, Gardner discusses how the relationships among characters in Freeman's short fiction run counter to prevailing treatments in sentimental literature of the era.]

When we first enter it, the fictional world of Mary Wilkins Freeman seems both familiar and strange. Weddings close the stories of lovers; heroines pine away of broken hearts; parents stand in the way of love, but love prevails. Many characters live “happily ever after,” while occasionally a character dies for a cause, leaving...

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Norma Johnsen (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Pieces: Artist and Audience in Three Mary Wilkins Freeman Stories,” in Colby Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 1, March, 1993, pp. 43–56.

[In the essay below, Johnsen explores Freeman's use of cloth and clothing as principal images representing the artist's relationship to society in “An Honest Soul,” “On the Walpole Road,” and “Sister Liddy.”]

Even at the end of the nineteenth century, most apparel was homesewn, and all girls were taught needle skills. Consequently, writing women often clothed their literary visions in the woven materials that covered furniture, adorned beds, and dressed bodies, rather than borrowing the whales, forests, and ledgers...

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Shirley Marchalonis (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Another Mary Wilkins Freeman: Understudies and Six Trees,” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2, June, 1995, pp. 89–101.

[In the following essay, Marchalonis focuses on the stories in Understudies and Six Trees, maintaining that Freeman employed an “Other” from the natural world—a tree or an animal—against which she measured the human characters.]

Readers and admirers of Mary Wilkins Freeman know her chiefly as the writer of what is often described as classic Freeman: short, sharp examinations of village life and the quirks and conflicts of the human beings who live in her microcosms. These tales are...

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Janice Daniel (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Redefining Place: Femmes Covert in the Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 69–77.

[In the below essay, Daniel interprets Freeman's use of enclosure imagery.]

In writing about women and their “place” in nineteenth-century New England society, Mary Wilkins Freeman frequently used images that emphasize the places, spaces, and environments occupied by her female protagonists. Settings typically include houses, porches, yards, churches, parlors, and kitchens—spheres in which the “True Woman” of the times could fulfill society's expectations of her and where the emerging “New Woman”...

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S. Bradley Shaw (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “New England Gothic by the Light of Common Day: Lizzie Borden and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's ‘The Long Arm,’” in New England Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 2, June, 1997, pp. 211–36.

[In the following essay, Shaw describes how Freeman utilized the conventions of mystery and detective fiction as well as elements of the infamous Lizzie Borden murder case in “The Long Arm.”]

When Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's 1895 prize-winning detective story, “The Long Arm,” first appeared in newspapers across the country, she had begun to make decisions about her professional writing that complicated both her career and her later critical reception. After firmly...

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Gregg Canfield (essay date 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘I Never Say Anything at Once So Pathetic and Funny’: Humor in the Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman,” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 3, September, 1999, pp. 215–31.

[In the essay below, Canfield interprets what he sees as the humorous aspects of “A Conflict Resolved,” “The Poetess,” and “A New England Nun.”]

In the tradition of American comic literature, Mary Wilkins Freeman's comic stories of the 1880s and 1890s do not shy away from the paradoxical connections between death and creativity, and they are obsessively concerned with individual freedom and the consequences to freedom of social and biological...

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Doris J. Turkes (essay date 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Must Age Equal Failure?: Sociology Looks at Mary Wilkins Freeman's Old Women,” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 3, September, 1999, pp. 197–214.

[In the following essay, Turkes uses Erik Erickson's psychological development model to evaluate various elderly female characters in Freeman's stories.]

The revival of interest in the work of Mary Wilkins Freeman is generating some new and interesting criticism, but much exploration of her work remains shadowed by earlier critical dicta. Considering her a major American voice, her contemporary readers and both British and United States critics appreciated her humor—a favorite phrase used to...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Barnstone, Aliki. “Houses within Houses: Emily Dickinson and Mary Wilkins Freeman's ‘A New England Nun.’” Centennial Review 28, No. 2 (Spring 1984): 129–45.

Compares the protagonist of Freeman's “New England Nun” to the real-life poet Emily Dickinson.

Behling, Laura L. “Detecting Deviation in Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's ‘The Long Arm.’” American Literary Realism 31, No. 1 (Fall 1998): 75–91.

Asserts that Freeman based her detective story “The Long Arm” on several contemporary crimes.

Blum, Virginia L. “Mary Wilkins Freeman and the Taste of Necessity.”...

(The entire section is 360 words.)