Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) becomes very melancholy when she thinks about the social position of women in her New England; it even occurs to her that the greatest kindness that she could perform for her daughter Pearl might be to send her immediately to heaven to avoid woman’s plight. Old Widow Magoun in this story makes precisely that choice, offering her granddaughter Lily a pure and happy afterlife to save her from being awarded to Jim Willis as payment of a gambling debt.

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman seldom delivered a feminist message as directly as she did in this story. In Freeman’s turn-of-the-century New England, patriarchy still defined relationships even though the men themselves had degenerated. Certainly the story reflects the realities of Freeman’s own life, as her father’s business failed and her mother became the support of the family. However, Freeman’s life was not unique; rural New England is accurately represented in this story in many ways. A father’s rights could not be challenged by a mere grandmother, and a daughter could be legally married off when she was even younger than thirteen-year-old Lily.

Old Woman Magoun has the strength of her Puritan work ethic and of her religious faith to sustain her, but neither gives her power if a man, even a “fairly dangerous degenerate of a good family” such as Nelson Barry, decides to challenge her. Freeman shows the...

(The entire section is 557 words.)