Style and Technique
Local-color writing provides a sketch of a particular time and place, usually with sympathetic portrayals of local types and suggestions of the interrelationship between a locale and those who inhabit it. “A New England Nun” does these things skillfully. Its descriptive passages capture the New England area Mary E. Wilkins Freeman knew so well. Freeman was born in Massachusetts in 1852 and remained in New England until 1902, when she married and moved away, but continued to write about her New England background and the remnants of Puritanism that still laced the society in which she grew up.
The details of Louisa’s life suggest what the community she belongs to is like, and show the limitations of her options. Every small detail has its implication: that Louisa’s neighbors talk about her daily use of her good china, for instance, suggests that there is little to talk about in the village and that there is not much room for individual eccentricity. It also indicates that someone who values privacy is going to have to work hard for it. The dialogue in the story also captures character, although it is not dialect, as it is in some local-color stories. It is clear that Louisa’s more educated tones do not match Joe’s plainer speech, giving another hint at the incompatibility of the two for marriage. The narrator’s somewhat negative assessment of Louisa’s choice of serenity and a peaceful narrowness does not reduce the reader’s sympathy for a woman who has only two choices and a great deal to lose either way.
Religion and Economics
Mary Wilkins Freeman wrote most of her best-known short stories in the 1880s and 1890s. They provide a unique snapshot of a particular time and place in American history. The small towns of post-Civil War New England were often desolate places. The war itself, combined with urbanization, industrialization, and westward expansion, had taken most of the young able-bodied men out of the region. The remaining population was largely female and elderly. Women like Louisa Ellis, who waited many years for husbands, brothers, fathers and boyfriends to return from the West or other places they had gone to seek jobs, were not uncommon. The area was suffering from economic depression and many were forced to leave to support themselves and their families. There were many widows from the war, too, often living hand-to-mouth and trying to keep up appearances. Also common were the New England spinsters or old maids—women who, because of the shortage of men or for other reasons, never married. They were numerous enough that they contributed to the making of a stereotype we all recognize today.
Freeman knew these New England villages and their inhabitants intimately, and she used them as material for her many short stories. She said she was interested in exploring the New England character and the strong, often stubborn, New England will.
New England was settled by the Puritans during the early years of colonization in America. Vestiges of Puritanism remained in New England culture in Freeman's day and still remain today. Freeman often said that she was interested in exploring how people of the region had been shaped by the legacy of Puritanism. This is another question she examines in many of her short stories. In ‘‘A New England Nun’’ we can see traces of Puritanism in the rigid moral code by which Louisa, Joe and Lily are bound. Even if it makes them unhappy, Louisa and Joe both feel obligated to go through with their marriage because of a sense of duty. Lily echoes this same sense when she says she would never marry Joe if he went back on his promise to Louisa.
Women in the Nineteenth Century
Another aspect of nineteenth-century culture— not just in New England, but throughout the United States—that we find reflected in Mary Wilkins Freeman's short stories is that culture's attitude toward women. While contemporary readers may find Louisa's extreme passivity surprising, it was not unusual for a...
(The entire section is 2,478 words.)