The Nun's Mother

by Mary Lavin

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 890

“The Nun’s Mother” begins with a sense of finality, of something already completed. Maud and Luke Latimer are seated in a taxi moving away from the convent where their daughter, and only child, now resides. The narrator of the story is Maud Latimer; her interior monologue traces how and why this event occurred and what the consequences will be for the major characters in the story.

The first response to this new situation by Maud is an unexpected one. In contrast to the visible grief of her husband, Luke, she feels some “relief” that it is over. Maud suspects that Luke is brooding about some imagined medieval horrors of the nunnery. In contrast, she is comfortable with such an institution and the “curious streak of chastity” in women. Once the unfamiliarity and strangeness of this event have been overcome, Maud begins to probe the consequences more deeply. First of all, it will close certain options for her. It will mean “no more fun out shopping” for her after her daughter has gone, no need to make plans, no need to collect such things as silver for a future bride, no need “to remain young.”

She also wonders what problems her new title, a nun’s mother, will bring her. Will she have to change her manner of dress, will she have to “smoke only in a cupboard,” will she have to play an unfamiliar and uncomfortable role? In contrast to this disturbing prospect, she imagines that Luke will become accustomed to his role, even like it. He will “quite like going up to Mount St. Joseph and walking around with his cool, stately daughter . . . with a high, firm virgin bust.”

After brooding on the effects of their new position, she begins to think once more about why her daughter chose to become a nun. She recalls Luke’s sudden response, “Angela?” and his insistent question, “Are you sure she knows her own mind?” In fact, Maud is not at all sure that her daughter knows her own mind. Maud tells Luke, however, that “her mind is quite made up.” The reason for this misrepresentation is that she has been unable to communicate with her daughter about what she is giving up by entering the convent. Maud cannot bring herself to address the subject of “the bodies of men and women.” She contrasts the frankness with which men speak of such matters to the difficulties women have. Furthermore, Angela seems to resist any conversation about her life or choices. Thus, the question that Luke and Maud want, above all, to ask and be reassured about is never asked. Therefore, Angela’s reasons for entering the convent and her knowledge, or lack of knowledge, about the world remain mysteries.

Maud returns to the subject of sex and love later and defines more fully the difficulty in speaking to Angela. She reveals her own closeness to Luke and broods about what Angela will miss. She seems to know love thoroughly, yet she suddenly realizes that the words to describe it are inadequate.What would she have said love was? Not generous. Not kind. Not gentle. Not dignified. Not humble. Not to be described, in short, by any adjective that would appeal to a young girl straight from school. There were no words to describe it.

Maud then begins to speculate on some of the other results of becoming a nun’s mother. The first thought is an unusual feeling of freedom, freedom from the questioning and demanding generations that would result from Angela’s marriage: “Angela had freed her from the future.” She wonders if she had been secretly happy about Angela’s choice during the early and difficult period of preparing to enter the convent.

Maud returns to the problem of Angela near the end of the story. She is skeptical of Angela’s piety and troubled by the regrets that Angela may harbor. She contrasts her own initiation into the world of men and love with Angela’s lack of any initiation, not even a kiss. However, some of her doubts are assuaged when she thinks of what Angela looks like: “What flower did she always remind you of? Not a summer one, but some spring chalice flower.” This suggests that Angela is in an environment that is proper for her; she is an eternal spring flower and need not pass into summer and shed her blossoms. This is reinforced by Maud’s dream of a pervert trying to pluck the folded up petals of a water lily; she wakes before the dream is completed and, once more, Angela seems to be rooted in her proper and inviolable place.

The story ends as the taxi reaches home. Luke is going to call the police about a man he has seen lurking about; he has an outlet in action. Maud, however, still ponders her place and role. She thinks about how difficult it is to be a mother and not know at the end “whether you had failed or triumphed.” She may remain in doubt, but the world seems to have made its own judgment. Her maid treats her with an unusual delicacy and kindness. Suddenly, she sees herself being treated with deference and respect by everyone she meets. “For she had proven herself. She was the mother of a nun.”

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