Themes and Meanings
The most important theme of the story is the manner in which people are defined, and thereby restricted, by the roles society gives them. Such roles affect the way people speak to one, treat one, act before one; any individual qualities one may have are lost. To be a “nun’s mother” is to be trapped in a role that is inappropriate or confining. Maud Latimer is a warm, loving, acerbic woman, but at the end of the story all these qualities are dwarfed by her unearned title, a nun’s mother.
A secondary theme is the inability of the people in the story to communicate with one another. The words or the right tone are lacking to define certain experiences. This is especially true for women in Ireland; as Maud suggests, women cannot talk about sex or love because the society will not allow the words to be spoken. She thinks about how “those who had tried were exiled and their books were burned on the quayside.” This can refer only to James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), especially the long monologue of Molly Bloom. Mary Lavin is speaking of a problem that, although not restricted to Ireland, seems to be exacerbated there. What Lavin does without the possibility of using certain words or tones is to maintain the mystery of why Angela chooses the convent. She also contrasts the nearly wordless but real communication between Maud and Luke with the barriers that are between Maud and Angela.