A New England Nun Essays and Criticism
by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

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Overview of A New England Nun

(Short Stories for Students)

A number of critics have noted that the opening paragraph of Mary Wilkins Freeman's ‘‘A New England Nun'' very closely echoes the first stanza of English poet Thomas Gray's famous ‘‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’’: The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, / The lowing herd wind slowly o' er the lea, / The plowman homeward plods his weary way, / And leaves the world to darkness and to me. In Gray's poem, written in the eighteenth century, the speaker wonders if the rural churchyard might contain the remains of people who had great talents that became stunted or went unrealized and unrecognized because of poverty, ignorance and lack of opportunity. He muses that ‘‘some mute inglorious Milton'' might be buried there—someone who possessed the talent of seventeenth-century poet John Milton, but who remains "inglorious'' (or without glory) because lack of education made them mute. Freeman closes her story in the same way she opens it. Louisa Ellis is sewing peacefully at her window in the late afternoon light. Thus the opening and closing passages, with their allusions to Gray's elegy, stand as a sort of frame for the story itself, giving us a key to one possible interpretation.

As Marjorie Pryse has demonstrated in her essay ‘‘An Uncloistered 'New England Nun,'’’ Louisa Ellis is a woman with artistic impulses. She has ‘‘almost the enthusiasm of an artist over the mere order and cleanliness of her solitary home’’ and has polished her windows ‘‘until they shone like jewels.’’ Even her lettuce is ‘‘raised to perfection" and she occupies herself in summer "distilling the sweet and aromatic essences from roses and peppermint and spearmint'' simply for the pleasure of it. Louisa might have been an artist had her society provided her with the tools and opportunity. Lacking these, she has funneled her creative impulse into the only outlet available to her. She has made her life her life's work. Lacking paints, she has made her life like a series of still-life paintings of ‘‘delicate harmony.’’ Before the artist can begin to create, however, she needs a blank canvas or a clean sheet of paper.

As Perry Westbrook has noted, Louisa's life is symbolized by her dog, Caesar, chained to his little hut, and her canary in its cage. She has become a hermit, surrounded by a ‘‘hedge of lace.’’ Her canary goes into a panic whenever Joe Dagget visits, representing Louisa's own fears of what marriage might bring; and Louisa trembles whenever she thinks of Joe's promise to set Caesar free. Like her dog and her bird she does not participate in the life of the community. Instead, she watches from her window. We might interpret Louisa's life, her dog's chain, and her canary's cage as emblems of imprisonment, as does Westbrook; but they are also defenses. Caesar's ominous-looking chain keeps the outside world away more than it restrains the dog since the dog has no desire to go anywhere. And the canary's cage gives it a safe place to live. Likewise Louisa has found freedom in her solitary life. Just as she finds a "little clear space'' among the tangles of wild growth that make her feel"shut in’’ when she goes out for her walk that fateful evening, Louisa has cleared a space for herself, through her solitary, hermit-like existence, inside which she is free to do as she wishes. The space-clearing gesture is a prerequisite to her creativity.

Although conditions were changing slowly, women in the nineteenth century did not have many vocational options available to them. Many of them received only a grade school education and then learned the rest of what was deemed necessary for them to know from practical experience in the home. Louisa, like her mother before her, learned to sew, cook, and garden in preparation for what was supposed to be her vocation as wife and mother. She was not taught to be a painter or musician. Hence, she channels her creative impulses into these other activities...

(The entire section is 5,294 words.)