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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 851

Themes or messages the story sends are as follows:

Women are morally stronger than men, but men have more power: The story is at pains to show that women are ethically stronger than men. This is made especially clear through the example of Old Woman Magoun. She works hard and organizes the men. She plans the building of the bridge over the ford, which the men construct poorly, and then only after they are cajoled with the promise of food:

Old Woman Magoun and some other women planned a treat—two sucking pigs, and pies, and sweet cake—for a reward after the bridge should be finished. They even viewed leniently the increased consumption of ardent spirits.

Old Woman Magoun wonders why men have to be bribed with food to do their work: a woman wouldn't need that incentive. She calls the men hogs. She states:

“It seems queer to me,” Old Woman Magoun said to Sally Jinks, “that men can't do nothin' without havin' to drink and chew to keep their sperits up. Lord! I've worked all my life and never done nuther.”

Sally's response—“Men is different"—sums up the major theme of the story—and it is not meant as a compliment to men.

Even Sally, not the best of women, shows her moral superiority to the men: she works hard making her coarse lace.

Yet despite their moral superiority, women—even a woman as strong-willed as Old Woman Magoun—are subject to patriarchal power. Old Magoun has no rights to Lily, the granddaughter she has raised, when her father wants her back, even though, as Old Woman Magoun knows, he is going to give her to Jim Willis to settle a gambling debt. Her legal powerlessness is reinforced when she goes to ask the local lawyer, Mr. Mason, to adopt Lily and he refuses. The story condemns the power men have over women's lives.

What constitutes a moral action depends on circumstances: Freeman does everything in her power to justify Old Woman Magoun's passive murder of her granddaughter. We are led to believe the child, despite her extreme innocence, goodness, and purity, is bad blood and would have come to a bad end regardless. Mr. Mason explains as an excuse for not adopting Lily:

. . . we cannot take a child with Barry blood in her veins. The stock has run out; it is vitiated physically and morally.

Freeman also makes it clear—though given the time it was written she couldn't state this explicitly—that Jim Willis's intentions toward Lily are not honorable. The implication is that Lily will suffer sexual abuse at his hands. Even Barry is uneasy about turning the child (almost a woman) over to Willis, though, being a weak male, he will do so. Barry says "Look here, Jim; you've got to stick to your promise.” We don't know what the "promise" is, but we can only be nervous for Lily.

We should—and perhaps we do—recoil at Old Woman Magoun allowing Lily to eat the deadly nightshade, but Freeman does her best to build the case that the grandmother is trying to take the only moral path she feels is open to her to protect Lily's innocence and purity. Desperation breeds questionable moral choices, but, according to Freeman, it is very important to understand the context.

Innocence is vulnerable: Lily's vulnerability to the men who want her is made explicit through the description of her run-in with Willis and Barry. She is depicted through the fairytale motif of innocence as a Red Riding Hood passing through the woods when she meets the ill-intentioned "wolf" in the form of Willis. Her vulnerability is emphasized, and we can only feel unsettled by the following exchange:

Presently when the man's hand grasped her little childish one hanging by her side, she felt a complete trust in him. Then she smiled up at him. She felt glad that this nice man had come along, for just here the road was lonely.

After a while the man spoke. “What is your name, little one?” he asked, caressingly.

Later, we feel Lily's vulnerability again as her father gives her a bag of candy (another fairy tale motif that brings to mind Hansel and Gretel) with what we know are no good intentions. All of this builds the case for the grandmother's actions to protect her granddaughter—or, conversely, could make her more culpable for keeping the child so unnaturally innocent.

The irony, of course, is that such innocence is also vulnerable to the passive aggression of the grandmother, who exploits the Lily's childishness to allow the girl to poison herself. The moral issue the story raises, even if inadvertently, is this: which form of exploitation is worse: the grandmother's in keeping the child too sheltered and then orchestrating her death to protect this innocence or the men colluding to make the child a probable sexual victim? Is it better to die to preserve one's innocence or to experience of the trauma of a fall from innocence to experience? The story is worth reading because these issue are debatable.

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