A New England Nun Themes
by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“A New England Nun” is a rich example of local-color writing. It presents the people and occupations of a New England farming town in such a way as to capture the feel of the time and place involved. Louisa Ellis becomes real to the reader as a simple person who must choose between two clear and mutually exclusive options. The narrator, by giving snatches of Joe’s perceptions but concentrating on Louisa’s, takes the reader into Louisa’s mind as she makes her choice.

The details are carefully chosen to reveal character and to emphasize elements of Louisa’s dilemma. At home, for example, she wears three aprons—a green gingham apron for working, a calico apron for sewing, and a white linen apron for company. She removes the top two for Joe’s visit. The three aprons suggest the defenses Louisa has put up against intimacy. Her attitude toward her two animals, old Caesar and her little yellow canary, represent how she regards feelings and drives. Old Caesar has been chained for fourteen years and is reputed to be dangerous because he once bit somebody, although now he is a sad, fat old dog fed only on light vegetarian fare to avoid inciting him to violence.

It is suggestive that Caesar has been chained for the length of time Joe was away. Now Louisa is afraid that Joe will set Caesar free to ravage the neighborhood. The little yellow canary goes into a panic whenever Joe enters the house, but when the threat of marriage is over, it will be able to “turn itself into a peaceful yellow ball night after night, and have no need to wake and flutter with wild terror against its bars.” Louisa never will be subject to the ungovernable passions of love. She will remain in the exclusively feminine world she can control and will not need to fear the destructive elements of passion.

The narrator suggests that Louisa is giving up more than she is receiving, but that Louisa will never believe this, and compares Louisa’s choice to the biblical Esau’s selling of his birthright to his brother Jacob for some pottage because he was hungry. “If Louisa Ellis had sold her birthright she did not know it, the taste of the pottage was so delicious.” The narrator implies that Louisa’s choice is conditioned both by her natural inclinations, which have been given free rein by Joe’s extended absence, and by the circumstances of her life.

The images of indoor versus outdoor life particularly illuminate the nature of Louisa’s choice. Throughout the story she is associated mostly with well-cared-for rooms, well-ordered drawers, and seats safely behind windows, where she may sew a fine linen seam, looking out. Joe is associated with the out-of-doors, with its profuse and unmanageable life. The closing scene finds Louisa once more at the window, watching as “Lily Dyer, tall and erect and blooming, went past.” Louisa will not bloom; she has chosen not to be a part of the world of natural fruition. She prefers to observe from a window rather than participate in the fullness of life; the sounds of the world outside, “halloos, metallic clatterings, sweet calls, and long hummings,” neither disturb her nor incite her envy.

Themes

(Short Stories for Students)

Choices and Consequences
One important theme in Mary Wilkins Freeman' s "A New England Nun'' is that of the consequences of choice. Louisa is faced with a choice between a solitary and somewhat sterile life of her own making and the life of a married woman. She has waited fourteen years for Joe Dagget to return from Australia. During this time she has, without realizing it, ‘‘turned into a path, smooth maybe under a calm, serene sky, but so straight and unswerving that it could only meet a check at her grave, and so narrow that there was no room for any one at her side.’’ If she marries Joe, she will sacrifice a great deal of her personal freedom, her quiet way of life, and many of her favorite pastimes. On the other hand, if she chooses to remain single, she faces the disapproval of the community for rebelling...

(The entire section is 1,570 words.)